Denton: Nicholson's Boyhood Dream About to Come True

By John Denton
November 17, 2012

TORONTO -- Jacque Vaughn has made no secret that as much as winning games is a big part of his job this season as the Orlando Magic’s head coach, developing the team’s rookies is equally as important.

So, with that in mind, Vaughn takes the liberty from time to time to inject his rookies into somewhat uncomfortable situations just to see how they will respond.

One such scenario came earlier in the week when Vaughn not only inserted rookie power forward Andrew Nicholson into a tight game against the New York Knicks; the coach also called the first play for Nicholson in the post against Rasheed Wallace, who has long been considered one of the game’s best interior defenders.

Wallace has been known to make rookies quiver both with his long-armed defensive skills and his often X-rated trash talk. This seemingly had all of the makings of a quivering fawn against a snarling grizzly bear. So even the aging Wallace had to be somewhat taken aback by what transpired earlier in the week at the Amway Center.

Showing the skill and poise that made him a first-round pick for the Magic, Nicholson showed no fear against Wallace and immediately locked into attack mode. He faked to the middle of the floor, drove baseline and avoided Wallace’s block attempt by ducking under the rim for a nifty reverse layup.

To the mild-mannered and soft-spoken Nicholson, the play was no big deal. ``I was just doing my job,’’ he said in a matter-of-fact sort of manner. That’s just Nicholson’s demeanor, often flat-lining instead of being emotional in the heat of the moment.

But to Vaughn, Nicholson’s head-to-head play against Wallace told him something about the grit and intestinal fortitude of his rookie.

``Sometimes as a coach you do things to learn about individuals,’’ Vaughn said of his insertion of Nicholson versus Wallace. ``Andrew stayed in the now, he wanted the basketball – which was great to see – and there was some positive results that came from it.’’

There have been mostly all positive results so far from Nicholson, who will get to live out a boyhood dream Sunday when he plays a NBA game in his native Canada against the Toronto Raptors. The Magic (3-5) are coming off an emotional win Friday in Detroit, while the Raptors (2-7) lost in Boston on Saturday afternoon. Tipoff is at 1 p.m. on Sunday.

Nicholson, a Toronto native, grew up going to Raptors game during the Vince Carter era in Ontario, hoping he too could someday reach the NBA. His excitement for the moment is somewhat hard to gauge because he is a man of few words and usually remains even-keeled with his emotions and guarded with his words. But coming home will be somewhat special for him, he said.

``I couldn’t give you an exact number (of NBA games attended while growing up in Toronto), but definitely a lot. … It will be fun. But it’s also another game that we have to play,’’ Nicholson said. ``It will be the first time I’ve heard (O Canada) during a NBA game. I’m proud to be a Canadian.’’

And the Magic are proud to have Nicholson on their roster. The 6-foot-9, 250-pound power forward has worked hard to better his strength and conditioning so as to not get shoved off the low block when posting up. And it seems to be working as he’s had three double-digit scoring games during the regular season – including the 11 he had against Wallace and the Knicks earlier in the week – and four double-figure scoring nights during the preseason.

The highlight was an 18-point night against San Antonio in the preseason when he made seven of eight shots and all four of his free throws. But he insists that he still has a ways to go and lots to learn to establish himself in the NBA. That’s a good mindset for a player who is still somewhat new to the game of basketball, having only started before his junior year of high school after dropping baseball.

Why basketball over baseball? ``Basketball fits my body type more than baseball,’’ dead-panned Nicholson, who is averaging 5.9 points and 2.3 rebounds in 11.6 minutes a game.

So, even though he shined collegiately at St. Bonaventure and he’s shown numerous flashes of promise in his first NBA season, Nicholson knows he is still very raw and far from being a finished product.

``It’s fun, but I’m still a rookie and learning a lot. I’m just trying to grow as a player and enjoy every day of it,’’ said Nicholson, who added that he secured just a few extra tickets for friends and family. ``It’s a different game in the NBA with much better players. I’m still growing as a player so there’s a lot more improvement to go for me. … I think it’s a good fit here (with the Magic). I trust the coaches and their judgment. And we have a great bunch of players around us and they help us in practice and games.’’

Originally a chemistry major in college before switching to physics, Nicholson is immensely smart – even though he’s shown very little of that to his teammates, who usually have to goad him into banter because of his reserved nature. But they like his work ethic and low-key demeanor, and Magic captain Jameer Nelson said that Nicholson showed him plenty of grit since he first started working with him back in the summer.

``I’ve seen (toughness) from him even when we were playing pick-up ball back in the summer. Guys were going right at him and he would go right back at them,’’ Nelson said. ``You want somebody who will fight, but also be kind like he is off the court because he has that demeanor. He’s able to be that great guy, but still have that dog in him on the court and be aggressive.’’

Learning the game at an advanced age and hailing from a small school taught Nicholson to work to make it to the NBA. Throughout college, he sacrificed to balance basketball and books and he said he’s willing to do the same to become a big hit with the Magic.

``I decided to stay at school (at St. Bonaventure) every summer to get ahead and it made the schoolwork during the year a lot easier to maintain with the travel schedule,’’ remembered Nicholson, who was nicknamed ``The Professor’’ in high school because of his studious ways. ``I haven’t had a vacation in a long time.

``Every time I step on the court, I want to earn their trust, for sure. That’s what I’m trying to do.’’

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John Denton writes for John has covered the Magic since 1997. E-mail John at or follow him on Twitter at @JohnDenton555.

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