A second NKU returnee could step into a starring role this season
At first glance, many Horizon League fans were miffed when Lindy’s predicted Nelson to be a Second Team All-League player this year. Nelson averaged just 4.6 points in under 18 minutes per game in 2020. When a player like Youngstown State’s Naz Bohannon — who regularly posts double-doubles — struggled to find his way onto an All-League team, it’s hard to see how someone who has scored double figures five times in 59 career games could work his way into that conversation.
Much like with Northern Kentucky’s other breakout candidate Trevon Faulkner, a big part of the answer lies with departing talent. In Nelson’s case it’s not just the departures of Northern Kentucky’s All-League trio that should position him for a big year, but also fellow front court player Silas Adheke’s decision to transfer. With Adheke and Dantez Walton gone, Nelson is the only returning post player who has seen NCAA action. NKU’s two freshman post players are both stretch forwards that aren’t likely to put up as much of a fight against a high-level rebounder like Nelson, and a shooting percentage of 68.4 in 2020 suggests he can significantly increase his shot attempts while still remaining an efficient scorer.
The first obstacle Nelson needs to overcome is overall team success. Elyjah Goss was the Horizon League’s leading rebounder and an All-Defensive Team pick in 2020, but his All-League candidacy suffered because IUPUI finished in a distant last place at 3-15 in the league. Northern Kentucky was picked seventh out of 12 teams in the HoriZone Roundtable Preseason Poll. If the middle of the league remains a jumbled mess like it did last year and Northern Kentucky is still in play for a top three seed with two weeks to play, seventh should be more than good enough to keep him from being punished by voters.
If Northern Kentucky can be a competitive team in 2021, the path for Nelson to get into the All-League conversation is straightforward. An increase in minutes seems inevitable, but he’ll need to stay out of foul trouble: If Nelson is able to increase his minutes to about 30 without fouling at a higher rate due to fatigue, he’d be about in line with players like Elyjah Goss and Loudon Love in terms of fouls per game.
Next, Nelson needs to keep attacking the glass. Rebounding rates tend to be fairly consistent and if anything losing Adheke and Walton should artificially inflate his stats, so don’t be surprised if Nelson is a Top 3 rebounder in the Horizon League and averages over 10 rebounds per game.
If the Norse play fairly well and Nelson can stay out of foul trouble, scoring will be the biggest determining factor as to whether he can post a season that will be acknowledged as All-League worthy. His scoring output should rise with an increase in minutes and less competition for shots. If he can focus on increasing his attempts per minute, that rise in scoring could be significant. Given that he’s hitting almost 70 percent of the shots he takes, his shooting percentages can slip pretty far while remaining efficient enough that Darrin Horn would still want him shooting. Raising his free throw shooting percentage back from the 44.4 percent he shot as a sophomore closer to the 62.5 percent he shot as a freshman would also provide a scoring boost that wouldn’t need him to change his play style.
If Nelson averages an efficient 13 points and over 10 rebounds per game for a competitive Norse team, he’ll certainly find himself in the conversation for All-League honors in 2021. While that might seem like a lot to ask from a player that has recorded one double-double in two seasons, the opportunity should be there for him.