Bold capital letters displaying Tupac‘s “All Eyes On Me” stretch across the top of Jameer Nelson‘s back, slightly grazing his shoulders and the bottom of his neck. It’s been there since he was a junior at Saint Joseph’s. You can’t see the ink under his Orlando pinstriped jersey, but he has always felt the criticism of others whenever he comes down the court, breaking his defender off and getting to the rim.
Not a true point guard. Too small. Shoots too much. Pass the ball.
He may as well have tattooed those on him too, since the labels haven’t faded over the past nine years, and don’t seem to be showing signs of starting now.
But maybe they have reason to. On Jan. 7, Nelson broke the Magic’s all-time assist record against the Trail Blazers, tallying 12 dimes on the night to pass Scott Skiles on his 2,777th assist.
“I guess it’s pretty good for a shoot-first point guard, huh?” he laughs.
Nelson doesn’t mind cracking jokes at the way others have characterized his game, but has quietly resisted the one-dimensional scouting report on him, one pass after the other.
“It’s important as a point guard to know a situation,” he says. “Know when to shoot the ball five or six times, or not at all. If my team needs me to be more aggressive, I think I’m a capable scorer versus anybody — but I get more joy out of getting assists than I do points.”
And yet his playmaking abilities have flown under the radar. In college, Nelson not only became the all-time leader in points (2,094) at Saint Joseph’s, but the all-time leader in assists (713) and steals (256) as well.
This season, Nelson is averaging a career-high 7.3 assists per game, ninth in the league, to go along with 15.1 points a night. He ranks No. 10 in assists per 48 minutes (9.9), and boast an assist/turnover ratio of 2.76. He also holds a 38.5 percent career average from three-point range.
Perhaps his point guard IQ has been overshadowed by the bigger names he played with, like Dwight Howard, whom he assisted in the big man’s famous Superman dunk in the 2008 All-Star Dunk Contest.
“I didn’t have the ball in my hands as much as I do now,” Nelson says. “I wasn’t the guy who made every play. I was just one of the guys.”
Sometimes it’s best for a young point guard to be thrown onto an older team where he has to learn quicker. Help develop the game of his teammates before his own. Limit rookie mental mistakes. Act like a veteran leader.
And before Nelson knew it, he became one. This is his first year without Howard, without teammates like Rashard Lewis, whose buckets not only helped him break the Magic’s record, but helped him reach the 2009 NBA Finals against the Lakers.
Orlando currently holds third place in the Southeast Division, struggling to close out games with a 14-30 record. Though near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, the Magic are in a rebuilding stage.
“We just want to grow,” Nelson says. “I’ve never been in a situation like this. I have to lead the team on and off the court. My job is to play as hard as I can and help guys get better. I have to share my experiences so they’ll be prepared.”
He’s too busy putting others in the right spots to appreciate his own achievements.
“I was in the moment when I broke the record so I couldn’t enjoy it,” Nelson says. “And I can’t enjoy it as much as I probably should because I’m still playing, still trying to accomplish things.
“I couldn’t reflect on things I did in college until I got to the NBA, and I probably won’t be able to reflect on things I did in the NBA until I retire, whenever that point is.”
In the span of his career, the NBA has continued to evolve position-wise. The traditional point guard has found a new track. Being a “shoot-first” two-guard-in-a-point-guard’s-body popularized by Allen Iverson is no longer as unique as it was over the past decade. Point guards are now expected to be more complete. Do everything for a team. Not just pass. Not just shoot, but rebound, run the fastest, and most importantly, make the right read.
Nelson continues to come down the court, survey his options, attack the paint, and either score or dish to a teammate. And people continue to characterize his game the way they see fit.
“People have their own opinions. They have the right to judge however they want,” he says. “But when people told me that I wasn’t this, wasn’t that, it really kind of motivated me, pushed me.
“I’m always getting criticized for who I am and what I do. I still feel that way, that all eyes are on me.”
Will Jameer Nelson get back to the level he played at in 2008-2009?
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