Player of Year
Jameer Nelson, Saint Joseph's
Let's just call it "The Decision," because it was the best decision any player has made since underclassmen were allowed to declare early for the NBA draft.
Jameer Nelson's decision to return for his senior season will go down as the most significant move in Saint Joseph's basketball history. Why? If Nelson doesn't return, the Hawks don't complete the regular season undefeated; aren't No. 2 in the country; and don't get a sniff of a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
On a personal note: Nelson misses out on not only turning himself into a potential lottery pick this spring, but also never experiences so much fun as a senior. Exit early and Nelson never makes the impact he has not only on the St. Joe's campus, its alumni, and the community at-large, but also on the city of Philadelphia and college basketball.
Nelson's value to this team -- not to mention the 2003-04 college basketball season -- is second to none. It just wouldn't have seemed right if he had left after three seasons without a proper sendoff.
- "Last Monday night, I was inducted into the Philadelphia Archdiocese CYO Hall of Fame, and during the dinner there was a live auction with a Jameer Nelson autographed jersey. There were 600 people there and the jersey went for $3,500. The guy who made the final winning bid was on the opposite side of the room from where the team was sitting. Jameer, without anyone prompting him, went over to the guy who won the bid and spent some quality time with him. The money wasn't going to Chester (Jameer's hometown), Jameer, St. Joe's or the basketball team. It was for the Philadelphia Archdiocese CYO, for its youth and adult program. But Jameer had the wherewithal to know that the guy had honored him by making that kind of bid. He went on his own, and that kind of thing happens over and over again with him."
-- Saint Joseph's head coach Phil Martelli.
Nelson's numbers -- 20.2 points a game, 5.4 assists, 3.0 steals, 4.7 rebounds -- are certainly worthy of any Player of the Year selection. But what makes him ESPN.com's choice in the slimmest of margins over Connecticut's Emeka Okafor is his overall value to the team, to the program, and to a city.
The 5-foot-11 Nelson touches people more than most college basketball players have in recent memory. It doesn't matter if it's a starter, a walk-on, a fellow student or an assistant coach. Nelson doesn't big-time anyone. He continues to prove his value to this team through his jump shots, assists and steals. But just as much, if not more, when he's not playing through the kindest of gestures.
- "Last year at this time, my father died and he called. He asked how I was doing. That alone was unbelievable for someone his age. But then he called me a week later after the funeral. He said he just wanted to see how I was doing after everyone was gone. It was unbelievable for someone his age to think like that and to do something like that. That's what he has been doing his whole career. He always is one step ahead of people his age. Words can't explain how you feel when someone does something that nice that is unexpected."
-- Saint Joseph's assistant coach Monte Ross.
Both Nelson and Okafor are deserving of any player of the year honors each will receive over the next month. And, as a duo, there hasn't been two candidates in recent memory so difficult to compare. The voting for the Wooden Award, the Naismith Trophy and the Oscar Robertson Award will go down to the final votes. No one would be shocked if Nelson were to win one, maybe two, Okafor a third, or the other way around.
Okafor remains the most dominant post player in the country. He affects the game like no other player, regardless of position. He is the best defensive player since the centers that roamed Georgetown under John Thompson named Ewing, Mourning and Mutombo. He's also the likely No. 1 pick when he declares early for this spring's NBA draft.
But Nelson takes his leadership to another level. He is vocal, direct and doesn't discriminate. Whether it's dealing with a starter, walk-on or student manager, Nelson is always there to at least try to provide guidance.
"It was the LaSalle game at the Palestra this year. I had just checked into the game at my routine time, at about the 14-minute mark. While I stood on the baseline to inbound, waiting for the media horn to sound, I was standing next to Nelson. He told me, 'You better be ready to shoot the ball.' I replied, 'I just got in. Can I run up and down the floor a couple times, get my legs?' He answered, 'No, we need you to shoot so shoot the thing.' So I inbounded the ball to Jameer, ran the length of the floor, and sure enough in the flow of the next possession I found myself open in the left corner receiving a pass from Nelson and knocking down a three. On our way back down the floor to find our defensive responsibilities, I caught Jameer's eye for a split second and we both kind of smirked. He got the assist in more ways than one on that play."
-- St. Joe's sophomore guard Chet Stachitas.
"It's important for me to hit a few shots, and if I don't, I get down on myself. But Jameer always senses when I need help. He'll say, 'Pat, we need you, you'll hit this next shot, just keep shooting.' He always gets me through a game. It might seem basic, but he always keeps everyone involved."
-- St. Joe's junior guard Pat Carroll.
Nelson's work ethic off the court rivals his game on it. He knows, at his size, that he can't take anything for granted. He must improve his jump shot, the range on his 3-pointers, his overall game, whether shooting off the dribble, delivering an assist or taking a hard foul on the way to the basket.
When Nelson decided to withdraw from the NBA draft last year, he was right back in the St. Joe's gym just days after his decision. But he didn't limit himself to working out during the summer. When he hit a slump in the season, he worked even harder to make his shot go down.
"He got in this lull through December when he was shooting 26 percent on 3s. So, Jameer approached me to work on his shot. We wanted to eliminate the motion from his shot. He had too much body and arm motion. He worked on it for three weeks and it went from that December slump (11 for 37 on 3s) to where he went off in January (31 of 54 on 3s). That happened because of his willingness to seek out help and be a good listener. He's a sponge. The average player isn't as good a listener."
-- St. Joe's assistant coach Matt Brady.
"There was a stretch of games in the middle of the season when I wasn't playing well. I stopped being aggressive and Jameer told me, 'The team needs you to be aggressive if we're going to try and go far.' He told me to stay confident. I hear it from the coaches all of the time but it struck a bell when he said it. I've been looking for my shot since and I scored 14 points after he told me that. He's always in the gym and he does everything a captain should do. You never see Jameer doing something questionable. He never uses bad judgment."
-- St. Joe's senior guard Tyrone Barley
Is Emeka Okafor your Player of the Year? Who is your coach of the year? Make your picks now, SportsNation!
Look, the player of the year just doesn't have to help the walk-ons or the student manager. But the best player in the country wants to make everyone around him better.
Nelson is the glue that has held these Hawks together through 27 straight wins. And, yes, he gets the majority of the attention, if not all of it. But Delonte West doesn't mind. Neither does Carroll. No one does in the tiny St. Joe's locker room.
- "Jameer is what keeps this team running because he realizes that this isn't a one-man show. The biggest asset that he brings to this team is the confidence he gives to his teammates. Whether it be turnovers or missed shots, he always has positive things to say to keep his teammates encouraged and active. If someone's turned the ball over on a misread play or careless mistake, he's the first one to catch up to you running down the court and say, 'C'mon, man, we can't have those turnovers. Take care of the ball and be confident'. It's never 'I' with him, but always 'we' first. Most importantly, with confidence, is how he reacts to missed shots. Of course everyone expects to shoot high percentages, but if you're missing shots you usually make, he'll catch you during a break in play and say to you, 'That shot (or those) don't matter, keep your head up and shoot the ball, forget about the last one, be ready to make the next one.' The reason we've been so successful is that we've had a coach out on the court with us all season in Jameer. There isn't anything new to him out on the court, and knows how to play the game right."
-- St. Joe's sophomore forward Dave Mallon.
Nelson was on the cover of Sports Illustrated. What does he do? He tries to sign every copy put in front of him before, during and after both practices and games. The school finally had to put the kibosh on the onslaught of requests, but ask him to sign and he won't say "no." Nelson would sign every autograph if he could, and there are times, much to the dismay of the coaching staff, he tries.
St. Joe's players say Nelson's life is pretty much that of a rock star on campus -- maybe bigger, if that's possible. And when it comes to the city's limits, Philly Five fans may root for four other universities that wish they could call him their own, but will show as much love for Nelson as both Donovan McNabb or Allan Iverson, at least this month.
"The first game I played in this season was against Pacific, and Jameer came down and sat next to me at the end of the bench. He said, 'How you feeling?' And I said, 'Pretty nervous.' He looked at me and told me not to be nervous, go out and play hard and do what you can do. There were times this season when I felt out of place, being the walk-on and being the young guy and not as talented. But he always made me feel good. He treats people with respect and never acts like he doesn't have enough time for you. He knows how to handle all of this attention. He doesn't act like he's better than anyone. And he's really enjoying everything."
-- St. Joe's freshman walk-on Andrew Koefer.
Maybe having time for everyone is a result of Nelson being under-recruited himself out of high school. He may have played himself into a multi-million-dollar NBA contract, but he remembers when signing with St. Joe's seemed like the best day of his life. Now, four years later, his jersey will hang from the rafters on Hawk Hill, and No. 14 will be remembered as one of the greatest, if not the best, players to put on a Saint Joseph's uniform -- regardless of what occurs in the upcoming NCAA Tournament.
- "I was sitting at the lunch table with a small group of friends, and Jameer came over to me to say hello. He went over to talk to everyone around the table. He shook everyone's hand. He's modest and he's humble. His smile really makes the day for some people. Some of my friends still talk about that day at the lunch table."
-- St. Joe's sophomore walk-on Rob Sullivan.
"I have seen Jameer come in and out of the office and on campus as a student, instead of a player for the past two years. I got a different viewpoint of Jameer's attitude and personality than the players. I have noticed how much he cares about this university and the people involved in it. Every time he walks in the office, he is smiling and making other people smile along with him. When I was walking on campus with him one time, every person that said 'hello' or 'what's going on,' Jameer would respond with an enthusiastic 'What's up, man' or 'Hey, what's going on,' no matter if he knew them or not.
-- Chris Clemente, a student worker in the basketball office.
Listen to the voices around Nelson. They know Jameer best. They are with him everyday. They know his impact on this team, his influence on this program and the university.
Nelson returned for a senior season, not just to improve his NBA stock, but to finish his career at Saint Joseph's the right way -- on top. He couldn't have scripted what has happened the past 10 months any better. He is the overriding personality amid the two biggest stories of the 2003-04 season, not to mention the rest of the season's story lines.
But Nelson wouldn't be ESPN.com's choice without a few numbers. Yes, his points, rebounds, assists and steals are all impressive. But the number 27, next to the number 0, closed his case for Player of the Year.
ESPN.com All-American Team
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.