Reeves Nelson needs help.
And now, Ben Howland does, too.
Howland suspended Nelson after the 6-foot-8 power forward continued a pattern of mercurial behavior that points to underlying issues that may be beyond Nelson’s control.
He lashes out at teammates on the court. He shuts down mentally when things aren’t going his way and refuses to hustle in those stretches. He sits out of team huddles during timeouts and last month got into a verbal altercation with Howland at a team film session.
And Howland has struggled with how to deal with it.
His first instinct as a coach and a mentor is to try and help the kid, so he hasn’t thrown Nelson out on the street just yet. He has tried talking to him, tried taking away playing time, and has now suspended him for the second time this season.
The question is: Will it be enough?
Nelson clearly went unaffected by the suspension earlier this season that lasted all of one game. He came back, had a good couple of practices, but then missed the team plane to Hawaii for the Maui Invitational.
Once he got on the floor, he played well for parts of two games, but his behavior began to regress. Saturday against Texas, Nelson reverted to his old self in the first half by failing to hustle on defense, was benched for the second half and was laughing and joking with teammates and fans during the waning moments of a 69-59 loss.
That led to the current suspension and a lot of head scratching in the Howland camp about how to proceed. On the one hand, Howland is adamant that his job is to try and help a troubled kid, but on the other hand, he’s trying to figure out just how many chances Nelson should get.
“These kids aren’t professional athletes, they’re college kids,” Howland said. “I work very hard to try to work with each kid but as it reflects and affects the team as a whole, there is a point where enough is enough. Are we there at this point yet? We’ll see with our next meeting.”
Nelson’s attitude problems have cropped up throughout the last two seasons. He often sulks when things aren’t going well and has a strong enough personality to bring down the energy level of the team. But it works the other way, too and when Nelson plays his best, it’s no surprise the UCLA often does too.
He lead the team in scoring and rebounding last season, when the Bruins came within a game of wining the Pac-10 Conference title and advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament. This season, with Nelson struggling, the Bruins are 2-5 and have lost to mid-majors Loyola Marymount and Middle Tennessee State.
The team’s struggles seem clearly related to the Nelson distraction.
“There’s obviously issues off the court and issues going on in practice and that’s something for coach Howland to deal with,” forward David Wear said. “That’s obviously taking away from concentrating on doing what we have to do when there is time and energy spent on dealing with those other issues.”
But Howland needs to spend that much time on those issues because they are complex. Nelson is a complex personality. For every emotional outburst, there is a genuine smile. For every deep stare through his deep eye sockets, there is a warming glance. For every snide remark, there is a thoughtful insight.
And for every lackadaisical minute on the floor, there is one of brilliant play. It’s a Jekyll-and-Hyde type of behavior pattern that makes you wonder what inner demons Nelson might have swimming inside his head.
“I don’t know about demons,” point guard Lazeric Jones said. “I see a passionate guy. He fights on the court. He wants to win, he wants to be great. That’s what I see.”
Others see a spoiled prima donna who can’t handle it when things don’t go his way, or a kid who behaves this way because he’s never been held accountable for it.
Howland expected more with Nelson entering his junior season and returning as a leader of a team that had high hopes entering this season. But things haven’t gone quite as planned to start the season. Josh Smith became the focal point of the offense. The Wear twins were getting a lot of minutes and taking away scoring opportunities from Nelson. The team has been losing.
“I expected more,” Howland said. “As players get older and mature, there’s more expected in terms of maturity. I don’t know if some of this comes with the pressure of the notoriety and the expectation of being a returning all-league player. It’s hard for me to say.”
But Howland is the one who now has to say. He has to decide whether Nelson is a lost cause. Howland must decide whether to give Nelson one more chance, or to cut ties with him before he puts even more of a strain on the season.
Howland has to decide the best way to help Nelson.
And to do that, he could use some help.