Sa’eed Nelson needed two points to make history.
But roughly two hours and 30 more points later, he finally got to celebrate.
As American University tipped off its Feb. 26 home game against Lafayette, Nelson stood two points away from the program’s all-time scoring record, which was just north of the 2,000-point mark. The senior point guard didn’t let the drama hang in the air for long in Bender Arena. On the Eagles’ third possession, he drifted behind a Mark Gasperini screen and hit a mid-range, top-of-the-key jumper to plant his name atop the scoring record.
38 minutes and 25 seconds minutes of game play later, after a 30-point night from Nelson and a 20-point Eagles win, the party was on. Armed with bright blue water bottles, the Eagles swarmed Nelson in the locker room and doused him with water as the room bounced wildly. It was a special moment for the freshly-minted scoring king.
“Them doing that for me, that meant everything to me,” Nelson said. “It’s great having teammates who truly care about what you do on and off the court. I was just filled with happiness and joy.”
Nelson has surely filled the American faithful with those same emotions.
The New Jersey native is putting the final touches on one of the country’s most accolade-packed careers. The assault on the Eagles’ record books is only part of the story, as Nelson was named the Patriot League Player of the Year earlier this week, and is the only active Division I player with at least 2,000 points, 500 assists and 250 steals. That production began immediately, as Nelson burst into coach Mike Brennan’s rotation as a starter his freshman year, and hasn’t left since.
It hasn’t, however, always been a fairytale in the win column.
“It wasn’t easy, it’s not like we won a ton of games and it’s been easy [for Nelson],” Brennan said after the record-setting night against Lafayette. “He’s had to keep the team moving in a positive direction and he’s done that. He’s been a pleasure to coach and work with and he wants to win. When you have a leader that all they want to do is win, everyone else follows suit.”
Keeping that positive momentum was likely a taller task for Nelson during his first two years in DC. The Eagles finished both years with single digit wins, including a 6-24 (3-15) campaign in Nelson’s sophomore year, when he, unsurprisingly, led the Eagles in the lion’s share of statistical categories. Nelson has done the same thing this year, and it’s helped put the Eagles squarely in the Patriot League mix as the record-setting senior tries to finish his career with the shiniest of accolades.
Learning to speak for yourself
If you see him, Nelson wants you to talk to him.
“I’ll talk to you, no matter what. Whether I know you or not,” he said. “My teammates tell me all the time that if I didn’t play basketball, I’d be the funniest dude they know.”
Record-shattering basketball career aside, that’s part of the legacy the senior wants to have left at American. But that outgoing outlook hasn’t always come naturally. Nelson said he was initially shy as both a student and as a basketball player at St. Augustine Preparatory School, located in the Richland section of Buena Vista Township, N.J.
On the court, he was doing plenty. Paul Rodio, his high school coach, would eventually call his career amongst the best he’d ever seen — high praise from a coach with four decades of experience and a closet full of state titles in the New Jersey prep ranks. But it was something seemingly simple that expanded Nelson’s game before he’d set foot at American.
Nelson played AAU basketball with the son of former Florida State guard LaMarr Greer his freshman and sophomore years of high school. From then on they’d work out together, and Greer gave the budding point guard a piece of advice that made him bristle.
At least initially.
“LaMarr Greer was telling me, ‘You’re a point guard you have to be talking at all times.’” Nelson said. “That wasn’t a shock to me, but it was still shocking because I was like, ‘I do a lot on the court, what is he talking about being vocal?’”
But this was a former Parade All-American, a player who’d spent the better part of 15 years playing professionally all over the world. That advice sunk in for Nelson.
“That goes such a long way,” Nelson said. “You look at guys like Chris Paul, he’s talking all the time. All the time. I think that really stood out to me and that’s when I started talking, talking on the court. And being vocal just came with me getting older. Even outside basketball, you’re going to have to speak for yourself and make decisions.”
Nelson was tasked with making big decisions immediately at American.
As a freshman, the point guard essentially never came off the floor. He averaged 37.0 minutes per game and was, from a playing time perspective, relied on more heavily than any player in the country besides then-St. Bonaventure junior guard Matt Mobley. You’d have to sift through 65 more players that season until you found another freshman (UCLA guard and eventual No. 2 pick Lonzo Ball) that played a higher percentage of his team’s minutes.
That baptism by fire got Nelson ready for the role he’d play throughout his career, which has seen him make 116 starts and average 36.9 minutes per game.
“I felt like that helped me expand my game that summer going into my sophomore year,” he said. “I had to mentally prepare for playing 40 minutes a game. I knew I needed to be able to pick my shots, and not be tired when taking them. If I’m going to be playing the whole game, I had to learn how to pace myself for 40 minutes. I was working out differently, conditioning in a different way.”
Nelson has made the most of those minutes. As the Eagles enter the league tournament, the senior ranks second in Patriot League history in career steals (271), fourth in career points (2,094) and 10th in career assists (518). Nelson also owns the record for the most points scored in the league tournament’s first round, thanks to his 41 points against Lafayette in 2018. That, however, came in a loss, and American has yet to win Patriot League tournament game in Nelson’s first three cracks at it.
That’s something he’s eager to change in a resurgent season for the Eagles.
The final accolade
With all the gaudy, triple and quadruple numbers attached to Nelson’s career, the last number left to conquer is a small one: six.
It’s been six seasons since the Eagles have been to the NCAA Tournament. That year, American dispatched Boston University on the road in the Patriot League tournament final, and ultimately fell in the first round to a Wisconsin team that would go to the Final Four. It was Brennan’s first year at the helm of American, and he’d been no stranger to the sport’s brightest lights with the Eagles.
Brennan had spent two seasons on Jeff Jones’s staff at American from 2007-2009, both of which ended with the Eagles cutting down the nets in the league tournament. He would leave for the same position at Georgetown, and would come back to Spring Valley and sit in the big chair when Jones left for Old Dominion in 2013.
It’s been a methodical build back to that level.
The Eagles went a competitive 17-19 in the league play from 2014-16, before dipping to 8-28 over the next two years, Nelson’s first two with the program. But after a 9-9 season a year ago, the team seems primed to be a factor yet again this March.
The Eagles’ 12-6 league finish has been fueled in part by a defense that’s surged since conference play began. Nelson’s ability to swipe the ball from opponents has underpinned the most disruptive defense in the Patriot League, and the Eagles have also gotten a breakout season from junior Stacy Beckton Jr., who landed on the league All-Defensive Team (as well as Third Team).
Minnesota transfer Jamir Harris has also added a jolt on the perimeter (10.7 PPG, 40.0% 3P).
“What we’re asking [Harris] to do is add so much to his game. He’s obviously an amazing shooter, but we’re trying to get him to do all these other things but it’s hard,” Brennan said after the Feb. 26 win over Lafeyette, in which Harris scored 11 points and grabbed four rebounds. “But I give him a ton of credit. He’s doing it. He’s listening, he’s trying and all of a sudden — it’s like ‘nice pass, Jamir, great rebound, Jamir,’ so the more he can continue to do the more it’ll help us, obviously.”
It’s all woven together by Nelson, who is seemingly always in control as he probes opposing defenses. That was on display in the final seconds of the Eagles’ cross-town game with George Washington on Nov. 12.
With the score knotted at 65 in a loud gym, Nelson backed up Colonials’ wing Mezie Offurum at the top of the key before calmly looping to the left elbow and elevating over the bigger Offurum to drill a game-winning, mid-range jumper as time expired. It was a far cry from the frenzied, contested three many players throw up in that situation, but Nelson’s shot gave American its first win of the season — plus its first over the Colonials since 2003.
It was the type of poise Nelson always tries to play with.
“I just try not to let anyone speed up my game,” he said. “When it comes down to crunch time or serious possessions, like in high school when dudes were playing me full court and fouling, I just try to not let them speed me up. I know what spot I want to get to. I feel like taking your time is the right thing to do and I’m glad I’ve been able to do that.”
Nelson and American have to hope there are bigger moments over the next month.
The second-seeded Eagles host the winner of No. 10 Holy Cross and No. 7 Bucknell in the Patriot quarterfinals, then stare down a slew of contenders for the league tournament crown. A balanced, talented Colgate team rode a 14-4 league record to the regular season title, and returns the core of a team that pushed No. 2 seed Tennessee in last year’s NCAA Tournament. Max Mahoney and Boston University grabbed the three seed, and despite an up-and-down end to the regular season, the Terriers knocked off the Eagles just two weeks ago. And there could always be a surprise from the six teams jumbled with league records between 7-11 and 10-8.
It won’t be easy, but Nelson is squarely eying what he hopes will be another water fight-inducing moment — cutting down the nets and punching a ticket to the NCAA Tournament.
“It would wipe everything that happened in these past four years,” Nelson said of a trip to the NCAA Tournament. “That’s the ultimate end goal. And I think as a team we are really ready for it, everybody’s elevating their game to another level. It’s that time. Win or go home and everyone knows what’s at stake.”