Split into two squads, the Oregon State men’s basketball team scrimmaged during a recent practice.
There was little doubt who was in charge of one side.
Junior guard Roberto Nelson ran his team with authority.
Spotting an open lane to the hoop, Nelson didn’t hesitate. He sliced through the gap, double-pumped to throw off a defender and hit a layup.
Finding himself free on a fastbreak, Nelson threw down a one-handed jam.
He tipped a rebound to a teammate to keep a possession alive. He drew a defender on a drive and dished the ball for an easy basket.
The display was eye-opening but not surprising.
Nelson is a gifted athlete and not only on the basketball court.
Put a golf club in his hand, he’ll fill out the card with the low score.
He routinely defeats his teammates at bowling and table tennis.
When Jared Cunningham left for the NBA at the end of last season, Nelson became a prime candidate to fill his shoes.
It’s a big step for any player, particularly for someone who is starting for the first time and is in the process of finding his role.
Nelson often shows brilliance in flashes, then fades into the background.
It’s tough for OSU fans to understand.
They want to see the player who singlehandedly slung the Beavers on his back and scored 34 points at Arizona State two seasons ago when OSU had six players available due to curfew violations.
They want to see the four-star recruit, the one sought after by schools such as Ohio State, UCLA and Kentucky. The one who was profiled in Sports Illustrated for receiving 2,161 cards and letters in the mail from colleges during the recruiting process.
The one who many thought could bring change to the OSU program with sudden impact.
As far as coach Craig Robinson is concerned, the fans have wanted too much too soon.
“People’s expectations in this day and age are always too high, especially for a kid who had a lot of success as an AAU and high school player,” Robinson said.
Robinson points to the fact that Nelson had to sit out his first season at OSU while he waited for the NCAA clearinghouse to give the OK.
Nelson had taken some online classes through a site that was a California-based accredited program. Oregon didn’t recognize the classes, so he was a half-credit short.
“Sitting out a whole year of basketball and not playing and trying to jump right back into it was tough,” Nelson said.
“It’s definitely different just going out there and watching practice, because I watched practice my first year and didn’t really get to practice that much. So getting in-game reps, that was the biggest thing for me.”
After sitting the first seven games of his redshirt freshman season, Nelson finally got the thumbs up from the NCAA. He averaged 7.5 points with 35 assists and 14 steals. Last season, Nelson averaged 9.3 points with 80 assists and 31 steals.
Getting his court legs back took some time.
Nelson got a much bigger gift last season. He got his father back.
In the summer of 2008, Bruce Nelson was sentenced to seven years in prison for committing sexual acts on patients at a brain injury rehabilitation center while he was a caretaker.
Although he maintained innocence, Nelson entered a plea deal, which would allow the possibility of an early release.
On Christmas Eve 2011, Nelson was free. On Feb. 16, he watched as his son scored 19 points at Stanford.
“It was good. Having my No. 1 fan back in the stands again, it’s always good,” Nelson said. “Having his support and him being a coach and the Xs and Os of basketball. It gives me more confidence. It gives me something more to play for.”
The separation had been a rough time for Nelson, personally and as a basketball player.
Nelson always had Bruce around to talk basketball, to give him pointers — Bruce was an assistant coach at Santa Barbara High — or just shoot some hoops.
They were able to stay in contact during the sentence. They exchanged letters and spoke by phone, but it wasn’t the same.
Transitioning to college basketball was all the more difficult.
“If you’re not in tune mentally, then physically it’s going to take a toll,” he said.
“I think it definitely took a lot out of me because he was somebody I always looked to in the stands and kind of got me ready for the games and prepared me because he played college and I really didn’t know what it was like, so being a high school guy just trying to get ready and get prepared for the games, it was definitely tough.”
Nelson has stepped into a starting spot this season.
He has a chance to grab a bigger role in the process if he takes over for Cunningham as the Beavers’ go-to guy.
That means Nelson would be the player the Beavers look to for a big shot or big play in a tight game, a leader and often leading scorer.
“My dad always felt like I could be a go-to guy,” Nelson said. “Last year we had Jared and he did a tremendous job at being the go-to guy. Now they’re looking for one this year.”
So far, the role is up for grabs.
Nelson is second on the team with 13.9 points per game and third with 15 assists. He leads OSU with 21 fouls.
Make no mistake, Nelson is capable of taking over games. Teammate Joe Burton saw it firsthand when he played club basketball with Nelson on the Compton Magic during their high school years.
“He’ll be the dude that makes three shots in a row and everybody will be like, ‘Guard him, guard him, guard him,’ ” Burton said. “But then he’ll be like, ‘OK, I’m about to shoot it again.’ He’ll tell you what he’s going to do and do it. He’s one of those type of players.”
There’s little doubt Nelson has all the tools.
Sometimes he shows the more subtle aspects of his game.
Instead of taking that jumper, Nelson might drive and dish. He’s just as happy to get an assist as scoring a basket.
Robinson said Nelson’s playmaking ability is overlooked because he’s remembered as a prolific scorer in high school and club basketball.
“He actually might be too nice to a fault,” Robinson said. “He’s a very unselfish person and he has a good heart.”
Piling up points is nice, but Nelson wants to win.
He spent much of the offseason working on his defense and consistency on offense.
“If I want to be the go-to guy, I’ve got to be better at everything, so there’s not one thing I’m working on more than the other,” he said. “I’m working on defense a lot, just trying to become more of a defensive stopper and a defensive presence.
“I’m just trying to make sure I’m an all-around better player for the team.”