From underdog to breakout star
How Connor Nelson’s physical transformation and work ethic earned him a spot at AU
In many cases, it doesn’t take long to identify a potential Division I basketball player in a high school gymnasium. Spectators at games see superb athletes – tall, strong and quick with startling leaping ability.
Connor Nelson, a sophomore forward at American University, did not fit this description in his high school days and had to prove himself at every level.
Now a 6-foot-6 forward, Nelson started his high school career as a 5-foot-7 backup point guard at Denver South High School in Colorado.
“Most forwards have been tall their whole life, not me,” Nelson said. “Being a point guard [has helped me] be able to see the floor … [and] attack the basket.”
Eventually, Nelson hit his growth spurt and grew into his forward body by the end of high school. Despite averaging 14.1 points per game during his senior year of high school at his new collegiate height, Nelson was certainly not on the radar of Division I schools like AU.
“I still weighed 165 pounds,” Nelson said. “I had a few schools interested, but nothing really.”
With limited options, Nelson decided to pack up his stuff and head to Las Vegas, where he spent a postgraduate year playing for Impact Academy.
At the basketball-only academy, Nelson spent another valuable year learning how to play in his body, and bulked up, helping his recruitment.
“It was basketball and lifting for a whole year. When I left [Impact], I was 180, maybe 185 [pounds],” Nelson said. “You need muscle, especially at the Division I level. I credit Impact for preparing me physically.”
Many colleges became interested in Nelson late in the recruiting process, which meant that school’s admissions deadlines had often already passed. With this, Nelson’s only offer following his year at Impact was from Central Wyoming Community College in August of 2018.
“When Central Wyoming called, I had to commit,” Nelson said. “I wanted to continue playing basketball.”
For a city kid from Denver, one might imagine that being stuck in rural Wyoming is tough. But Nelson embraced the opportunity. For the next year, Nelson worked tirelessly on basketball, his body and academics.
By the end of his time at Central Wyoming, Nelson had a 4.0 GPA, averaged 13.4 points per game and was known within the program as a model kid who did everything the right way.
Brad Schmit, Nelson’s head coach at Central Wyoming commented on Nelson’s commitment to AU on Twitter, saying of his former player, “[I will] probably never coach another junior college kid like Connor. 4.0 Student. Ultimate teammate. Gym rat.”
Nelson credits some of his work ethic and discipline to himself, but says a lot of it traces back to his father.
“[My dad] is an accountant. He has 18-hour work days for four or five months of the year,” Nelson said. “He just gets it done. Seeing how hard he works motivates me.”
Even with his success at Central Wyoming, Nelson thought he might have to return to the school for one more season. That was until last summer, when high level academic schools reached out after Schmit sent tape of Nelson to many Ivy League and Patriot League institutions.
“[AU Assistant Coach] Scott Greenman reached out about a preferred walk-on spot,”Nelson said. “Bradley Nalley was committed to [AU], but left during the summer session, and he was my size and I think he played like me, so it was the perfect storm.”
Nelson, thrilled by the opportunity to fulfill his childhood dreams, did not know what to expect during his first season in Tenleytown.
“I was talking with my dad in early August, and we were saying it would be cool if I could play five or 10 minutes per game,” Nelson said.
Nelson has done much more than play five or 10 minutes per game for the Eagles. For most of the season, he has served as the team’s sixth man, averaging 7.5 points per game and 1.3 steals per game while shooting 44.4 percent from the field. He’s also been the team's top marksman, knocking down 39.4 percent of his shots from 3-point range including a crucial buzzer-beater in January that sunk rival Bucknell.
Although his standard statistics show his significance to the team, AU head coach Mike Brennan has been most impressed with Nelson’s ability to do the little things right.
“[Nelson] has a good feel [for the game], runs around, plays hard,” Brennan said. “[He’s always] making the extra plays.”
For most, being a short backup point guard in high school, being too skinny, being lightly recruited and playing Junior College basketball in rural Wyoming would be enough to call it quits. But for Connor Nelson, these obstacles motivated him and helped develop his basketball skill set into what it is today.
“Playing Division I basketball was a dream of mine … How much I’m playing right now wasn’t even in the realm [of possibility],” Nelson said.