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UF freshman Nelson masters transition game

Once he plays under control, guard goes from prep star to college star.

By JOANNE KORTH

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 30, 2000


GAINESVILLE -- There were times this season when the faster Florida's Brett Nelson played, the slower he made progress. His flashy style was equal parts awe and awful.

One assist, one turnover.

One steal, one turnover.

One basket, one turnover.

A heralded freshman point guard, Nelson was so out of control at the beginning of the season coach Billy Donovan benched him in the third game. But a difficult transition came to fruition last week when Nelson came off the bench to make the NCAA's East Region all-tournament team.

"Everybody kept their confidence in me and told me to keep working hard and I'd break through," Nelson said. "I have high expectations of myself and it hurt when I wasn't playing well. Sometimes I felt like, "When is it going to happen?' But the coaches kept telling me to work hard and ... sure enough."

In four NCAA Tournament games, Nelson has 44 points, 14 assists, 9 rebounds and 7 steals, with just 8 turnovers. He has made 9 of 15 three-pointers.

Nelson's national coming out party came in Florida's 87-78 victory against No. 1 seed Duke in the Sweet 16 when he made his first three shots, including back-to-back threes, to spark a 13-1 run. He finished with 15 points, 4 assists, 1 steal and 1 turnover playing a season-high 28 minutes.

"It was unbelievable for a freshman to go in there and do that," sophomore forward Mike Miller said. "But he's a great basketball player and he has a lot of talent, so it doesn't really surprise me. He understands what it takes now, that he's got to control the ball."

A McDonald's All-American from St. Albans, W.Va., Nelson was known for his quickness, court vision and 30.5 point scoring average. But when he got to Florida, his mile-a-minute style was more panic than panache.

In November, Donovan benched Nelson and sophomore starter Teddy Dupay for failing to run the offense in the second half against Purdue in the Maui Invitational. Nelson got the message but didn't get much better. After 12 games he had 36 assists and 44 turnovers.

"He was carrying this baggage," Donovan said. "Everyone said he was the best thing out of West Virginia since Jerry West. Everyone expected this kid to come in and be the starting point guard, and it didn't happen. He went through a very difficult time."

Few of Nelson's high school assets transferred to the college game. His cross-court passes were intercepted by shifting defenses; his open-court speed was matched; his tendency to fire from long range early in the shot clock infuriated Donovan.

"In high school, if things weren't going well for him he'd say, "Well, I'm going to run faster the next time down the floor and no one will catch me,' " Donovan said. "He's playing against good enough athletes now that that's not the case. He's figured out faster isn't always better."

Gradually, Nelson learned to take advantage of his speed by changing speeds. He learned to use screens. He learned when to drive to the basket and when not. He learned which passes he could get away with and which he could not.

"When I first got here, I was going 180 miles an hour," Nelson said. "But I've learned how to change speeds and that you can slow down and let things develop."

For that, he thanks Donovan.

The main reason Nelson chose Florida was to play in Donovan's up-tempo style. He and everyone else thought it would be an instant fit -- the up-tempo point guard and the up-tempo coach. When it wasn't, Nelson blamed the least likely person.

Himself.

"To his credit, he put total faith and trust in me," Donovan said. "He submitted himself and said, "Help me get through this; help me figure things out.' I think most kids who are told they're Jerry West think the coaches are messed up. Because of Brett's humility, he allowed us to coach him to be where he is today."

The fast lane.

Though Nelson has occasional lapses, the good far outweighs the bad. He made one of the most spectacular plays of the region final -- stealing the ball and avoiding an Oklahoma State player on the fastbreak by taking the ball behind his back on the way up for a layup.

The crowd roared.

Donovan sighed.

"Brett's been a fearless competitor, sometimes to a fault with some of the stuff he tries to do," Donovan said. "I told Brett, with freedom there's responsibility. If you're going to do it, you better make the play, because if you don't, you're going to be sitting next to me."

But not for long.

"Those plays are just instinctive for me," Nelson said. "He said I had to be responsible and not have so many turnovers, and I think I've done that. I know if I play the way I'm capable, he has to play me."

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