‘I just keep working’: How Sa’eed Nelson’s quiet confidence and work ethic have carried the guard to national prominence
Nelson has faced challenges in his path to dominating the Patriot League
Although basketball is strictly a team sport, most teams have one player who makes everything work. For AU, that player is point guard Sa’eed Nelson.
Nelson, a junior, is widely regarded as one of the best all-around players in the Patriot League, as evidenced by his winning of the Preseason Patriot League Player of the Year Award.
Growing up as a diehard Philadelphia Eagles fan in southern New Jersey, Nelson’s primary passion as a boy was football.
“I was…a big football player up until high school,” Nelson said.
Despite his love of football, at the start of high school, Nelson realized that he may have more potential as a basketball player due to his physique, and he has been grinding to become a better player ever since.
At St. Augustine Preparatory School, just outside Atlantic City, Nelson played for the winningest coach in South Jersey, Paul Rodio. Nelson had an illustrious high school career, leading his squad to a New Jersey Class A State Title his senior year, while averaging over 20 points per contest.
Despite his success at the high school level, Nelson was an under the radar prospect at the college level, earning a one-star rating from ESPN and being primarily recruited by Patriot League schools.
“I didn’t really pay attention to any of that,” Nelson said. “I played against some of the top players in the country in AAU [Amateur Athletic Union], and I knew I could play with all these guys. I come out and strap up the same way they do and compete. That’s all it’s about.”
Despite his faith in his talent, Nelson knew his skinny 165-pound frame was something he needed to work on.
Since his sophomore year of high school, Nelson has been working with weights, and is now a rugged 6-foot-2, 190-pound point guard – something he thinks has changed his game.
“It definitely helps on the court, being able to take the hits and all the contact,” he said. “I fall a lot, so just to be able to get back up you’ve gotta have that weight on you.”
Nelson utilizes his extra size to penetrate and get to the free throw line, something he currently does with more frequency than anyone in the Patriot League.
Before the Eagles game against crosstown rival George Washington earlier this season, GW head coach Maurice Joseph was impressed with Nelson’s penetration abilities, saying that “he can break people down and go get in the zone.”
With his improved physique, Nelson came to the University in the fall of 2016 ready to contribute. In his first collegiate game against Maryland, Nelson scored 12 points in a 62-56 loss to the Terrapins at the Xfinity Center.
“After that game, I was like, ‘I belong out here,’” Nelson said. “I felt like I could definitely contribute, even more than I did that game.”
He has followed up on that promise, and more. Nelson went on to average 14.9 points per game during his freshman season, which included back-to-back 24 point outbursts against Wagner and St. Francis (Pennsylvania).
Coming into the 2017-2018 season, the expectations were sky high for Nelson. But due to the team’s youth and injuries, the Eagles finished the year at 6-24, something that did not satisfy the determined Nelson.
“Losing every game by four or five, it was rough,” he said. “Especially when you’re in the game, winning it until the last few minutes before letting it slip away. It’s rough.”
Hungry for better results, Nelson has been tirelessly working to improve his shooting and court awareness.
So far this season, American has posted a 13-13 record (7-8 PL), and Nelson is drawing national attention for his performance. Nelson and projected NBA Draft lottery pick Ja Morant are the only Division I players averaging at least 19 points, five assists, five rebounds and two steals per game.
What is perhaps most noteworthy is that all of Nelson’s statistics are significantly improved from his freshman season, something he credits to his hard work.
“I’m working on every part of my game,” Nelson said. “The strongest part of my game is finishing layups, but it’s never too good, so I just keep working.”