As Luke Nelson prepares for the final stretch of his college career at UC Irvine his sights are firmly set on another NCAA Tournament appearance.
After making his mark as a Sophomore by leading the Anteaters to their first appearance at the Big Dance in the school’s history – a moment he undoubtedly says was the highest point of his college career so far – Nelson was unable to repeat the feat, losing in the big West Tournament semi-finals last season.
“Losing to Long Beach in the Big West semi-finals last year was definitely the lowest point (of my college career),” he said. “But after feeling both the highs and lows of college basketball, I want to feel that high one more time in my last year.
“My personal goals are team goals and that’s to win the Big West tournament and make the NCAA tournament again. That’s all I want.”
His Senior year hasn’t started as well as he’d hoped. Despite being named to the Big West pre-season All conference team Nelson has struggled with a hamstring injury which saw him miss the opening 15 games of the season.
He returned for six games, averaging 13 points, 2.7 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game and most importantly, helping UC Irvine win all six of them (and ultimately put together an 8 game win streak).
However, the tweaked hamstring has caused him to sit out again, missing their last three games. He returned on Saturday night finishing with 17 points and 3 assists but falling to his first loss of the season (and the team’s third straight).
The team currently sit in second in the Big West at 6-3 in conference play, and 13-12 overall.
Having originally come through his hometown Worthing Thunder, Nelson caused a storm at the 2011 Junior Final Fours, impressing with both the Under-18 and Under-16 sides. A Hoopsfix mixtape swiftly followed that has now amassed over 30,000 views and helped spark US college interest.
Part of the 1995 born ‘golden’ generation, impressive performances at the European Championships that summer with the U16s that were the first England side to gain promotion to Division A aided his cause.
He says he still talks regularly with the likes of former England and GB teammates such as Kavell Bigby-Williams (Oregon), Kingsley Okoroh (Cal), Tyrell Isaacs (Western Wyoming), Dwayne Orija (Missouri-State West Plains) and Joe Jr Mvuezolo (Montana State).
After finishing school in Worthing, Nelson made the choice to head to college in Reading for two seasons to get the opportunity to suit up in Division 1 men’s NBL at 16 with the Rockets and it didn’t slow him as he was named the Player of the Year in 2013 and fast grew his reputation as a big game player.
“I’m 100% sure that the experience of D1 men’s helped me be more ready for collegiate basketball,” Nelson reflected.
“Now, the way the game is played is completely different, but playing at that level every day helped my game develop which meant that I was and am able to perform in college.”
His performances with Reading and at the Europeans each summer (where he also helped the Under-18s gain promotion to Division A) continued to raise his profile as he received offers from the likes of Davidson, Utah, Idaho State, Hawaii and Elon, plus some European sides.
However, he committed to UC Irvine early in his final season in Reading,
The jump to the States wasn’t a difficult cultural transition for Nelson, but he admits he is always shocked when he receives questions such as what language is spoken in England (!).
The 6’3″ point guard says he misses home; his mum and dad still reside in Worthing, whilst his sister, Kyla, currently at Oaklands College, has committed to ACC school Pittsburgh next season, having received her first Great Britain Senior Women’s call up last year.
Nelson has only returned once a year since departing, but things are made easier by regular contact with his family, in particular his father, former English international Steve Nelson, who first introduced him to game.
“My dad is the reason for my career. He introduced me to the game and has been in my corner the whole time, and it’s something that I’m extremely lucky to have. I still call him after every single game because he’s crazy and likes to get up at 3am to watch the games.
“As soon as I leave the arena, I try to FaceTime him and my mum. Sometimes they sleep right after the game and I’ll call whenever they get up, but most the time we will talk for 15 minutes about the game.”
A first Great Britain Senior Men’s call up came in 2014 but Nelson has still been unable to make it to camp.
“Representing the GB senior team is something I’ve always wanted to do and hope to do so in the near future, but over the last couple of summers, the timing of the camps and games meant that it was hard for me to play,” he dismayed.
“This last summer I would have missed my team’s whole preseason and that wasn’t something I was willing to do because I have a lot riding on this season at UCI. The year before that I wouldn’t have been able to spend much time with my family after giving my all in the Under-20s tournament.
“But I still have aspirations to play for the Senior team and look forward to getting an opportunity to do so.”
With Great Britain having qualified for Eurobasket 2017 and Nelson’s college career coming to a close, many are wondering whether this summer could be the year.
However, there is the small hurdle of trying to get the first professional contract under his belt. And though he says the next step has crossed his mind, his focus is solely on UC Irvine and going out on a high.
“Yeah I’ve definitely thought about it,” he concluded. “And I know that I want to play at the highest level I possibly can, but it’s not at the forefront of my mind right now. I’m 100% focused on what’s left of my senior season at UCI.”
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