Posted Mar 16 2012 11:19AM
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- St. Bonaventure coach Mark Schmidt remembers the day more than four years ago when he took a phone call from Jeff Massey, one of his assistant coaches. Massey, whose recruiting territory is the Toronto area, was a little pumped up after watching a young high school big man play.
The conversation went something like this:
Massey: "Coach, you've got to get up here, there's a big guy up here who is terrific."
Schmidt: "Who does he remind you of?"
Massey: "Greg Oden."
Suffice it to say that comparison piqued Schmidt's interest. A week later, he went to Toronto to see Andrew Nicholson play and was ... well, underwhelmed at first sight.
"He walks out of the locker room," Schmidt said, "and he's this gangly guy, 190 pounds, and walks duck-footed. And I'm like, 'This is your Greg Oden?'"
Schmidt's opinion quickly changed when Nicholson took the floor.
"I got goose bumps," Schmidt said. "It was like, 'Oh my goodness.' "
Fortunately for St. Bonaventure -- though not so much for Nicholson -- the player had fallen down some stairs the summer before, missed the AAU circuit and thus became a true sleeper. St. Bonaventure was able to jump on him thanks to the eagle eye of Massey. But the school had some other advantages for a player who wanted to major in chemistry and physics.
"We built a new science building," Schmidt said. "That's one of the main reasons he came to Bonaventure, because of the science building. It's an amazing story. He never took an official visit. He came, and we didn't have to beat out any high major teams.
"Everything that we had, that we sell at Bonaventure -- the small school, the personal attention, the basketball part of it -- he wanted. It was just a perfect match, and I told him he could be really special."
That wasn't just a recruiting pitch. Because Nicholson has become special, so much so that's he going to be taken in the NBA Draft and, this time a year from now, he'll be playing in the league.
Nicholson's development has turned out to be one of the better stories in college basketball this season. As a freshman in 2008, he was the Atlantic-10 newcomer of the year and led all Division I freshmen in blocked shots (81) and shooting percentage (.602). As a sophomore, he earned second-team All-A-10 honors. A year ago he was a first-team selection.
And this season, Nicholson was voted the A-10's player of the year after leading the Bonnies to the A-10 tournament title and a spot in the NCAA tournament.
In St. Bonaventure's last eight regular-season games, Nicholson averaged 25.3 points and 11.5 rebounds. He was the first player to earn four consecutive A-10 player-of-the-week awards, the first St. Bonaventure player to scored 20 points and grab 20 rebounds in the same game since Bob Lanier (1967), and the MVP of the A-10 tournament after racking up 26 points, 14 boards and eight blocks in the title game.
For two years, NBA scouts have made the extra effort to get to out-of-the-way Olean, N.Y., where St. Bonaventure is located, to watch the Bonnies' practices. What the scouts have seen is Nicholson's development from an awkward kid with unpolished offensive skills -- "I was more a defender, rebounder, shot blocker when I first got here," Nicholson said -- to a future pro.
St. Bonaventure assistant coach Dave Moore, who tutors the Bonnies' big men, liked Nicholson the minute he laid eyes on him.
"The first time I saw him, in open gym, I looked at coach [Schmidt] and said this kid's a starter," Moore said. "He just has that natural ability to score the ball. Some guys have that natural feel to put the ball in the basket, and Drew -- who has good feet, humongous hands and a 73-inch wingspan -- had that right away."
Schmidt says Nicholson also is a "sponge" for knowledge.
"Lots of guys are smart in the classroom," Schmidt said, "but sometimes that doesn't correlate to being smart on the basketball court. For him, it does."
In the last four years, Nicholson has gained nearly 50 pounds of muscle, strength that's helped him absorb contact in the post. He's worked tirelessly on his perimeter game, to the point where, in his last 10 games before the NCAA tournament, he shot .600 from 3-point range.
"He can score inside, outside," Moore said. "But it's even more than that. He can score from different angles. He understands timing and positioning. We tried to develop him in the low post his first year and then move him out to the mid post his second year and step him out to the 3-point line his third year. He's kind of put everything together now, where he's really impossible to guard one-on-one."
Not many opponents play Nicholoson one-on-one. He's faced an endless procession of double- and triple- teams, but over time, he's learned to be patient against them.
"The game has slowed down for him, to where he expects [the double team] on the catch, he sees it, he knows where they're going to come from," Moore said. "He knows how to handle each situation and where his teammates are going to be. He's developed his passing. He's no Magic Johnson or Bill Walton, but he's developed his passing."
Nicholson is projected to be taken with a low first- or early-second round pick in the June 28 Draft. Temple coach Fran Dunphy, whose team was sent to Nashville, the same NCAA tournament site as St. Bonaventure, has seen plenty of Nicholson in the A-10. He has no doubt about Nicholson's ability to play in the NBA.
"He's a kid that has terrific defensive timing in terms of blocking shots and changing shots, he's become a very good rebounder, he's got a terrific touch on the perimeter, he's got terrific footwork," Dunphy said. "I know there are a lot of pro guys that have talked about him, and what he can be. And that's pretty impressive."
Nicholson has heard that talk. But the next level has been in the back of his mind, not at the forefront.
"I think about [the NBA]," Nicholson said. "But I'm also a competitor. So I'm always thinking about the next game, too."
Chris Dortch is the editor of the Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook.
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