Jan. 16, 2004
By Brian Litvack
Jameer Nelson, Saint Joseph's dynamic senior point guard, could be playing in the NBA right now. But playing hooky from his senior year of college to cash in on his ridiculous skills is no way to end a storybook career. Instead Jameer is back on Hawk Hill, breaking records, opponents' ankles and the ego of scouts who refused to realize his awesome talent.
Nelson has led the No. 6 Hawks to a perfect 14-0 record this season. The power-packed floor general is averaging over 20 points and five assists per game. Nelson, arguably the premier player in college basketball, has led St. Joe's to a No. 1 RPI ranking. If Saint Joseph's can get past Xavier this Saturday, that record might just keep on getting prettier. If the Hawks continue their stellar play, they will be in contention to receive a No. 1 or 2 seed for the NCAA tournament.
Saint Joseph's has quality wins over Gonzaga (in Madison Square Garden) and at Cal. They have owned the Palestra, downing Penn, Drexel and Boston College. With Temple, UMass and Xavier all struggling, the Atlantic 10 may be in danger of being dominated by the Hawks. Last Monday, St. Joe's just about ran Fordham out of the building by taking a 48-12 halftime lead.
Nelson is a pass-first point guard who has the special ability to also light up the scoreboard. His talent and physique resembles a young, cannabis-free Damon Stoudamire. Nelson is complemented by shooting guard Delonte West (17.1 ppg), who can drain open shots as well as slash to the basket. The Hawks are a perimeter-oriented team who rely on Nelson to make the offense flow. The emergence of center Dwayne Jones is their sole inside presence.
All of the Hawks' success this season was contingent on a decision made by Nelson last summer. Nelson declared for the draft to test the waters. He played extremely well in the Chicago pre-draft camp, more than holding his own against the top competition. But with a bevy of point guards already in the draft, Nelson was projected to be selected between 25-35. With no first-round guarantee, Nelson gave coach Martelli and the Saint Joe's faithful one shining summer moment when he decided to return to Hawk Hill.
Nelson became a star as a freshman during the 2001 season when he teamed with Melvin O'Conner in the tourney to put a scare into No. 1 seed Stanford before losing in overtime in the second round of the dance. Last year, Nelson was sensational in a first-round overtime loss to Auburn. With West injured, he single-handedly kept the Hawks in the game. He scored all of the Hawks' overtime points, on his way to 31 for the game.
Nelson has a plethora of personal accomplishments during his tenure at Saint Joseph's. He currently ranks first in career assists and steals for the Hawks and moved into second all-time in scoring against Fordham.
But now Nelson's focus is on the success of the team. This week's No. 6 ranking is the highest for the Hawks since 1966. The 14-0 start put the Hawks just two games off the school's all time mark. "I can score, but I can make more things happen with my passing," Nelson said. "As a guard, you have to find ways to help your team. If my shot's not falling, I'm going to pass the ball."
St. Joe's is not the best team in the country, but it just might have the best player in the land. It will be interesting to see how far the Hawks can go. They will have a very impressive record (possibly even unblemished), a high RPI, and a Player of the Year candidate come March.
"He's a special kid," Martelli said. "I just hope we can give him the kind of ending he deserves." The way things are shaping up, that ending might just be a Final Four or, gasp, a national championship.
Jameer Nelson has led the Hawks to a 14-0 start this season.