Saturday, January 22, 2011

Niagara's Nelson is Nat'l King of Thieves

If Robin Hood was the "Prince of Thieves," then what does that make Niagara's senior guard Anthony Nelson?

Robin Hood, legend tells us, only stole from the rich in order to redistribute wealth to the poor.

Nelson, on the other hand, doesn't discriminate. He "steals" from everyone, at least on basketball court.

Prior to the Purple Eagles' game at Iona on Friday the Niagara senior was leading the nation in steals per game, an average of 3.44 thefts per contest.

His nickname, then, should be the "King of Thieves."

He had 55 take-aways in his first 16 games this year, more than any of his first three full seasons.

It's not hard to understand why. Nelson had two pick-pocket teammates for the past three seasons in Bilal Benn and Tyrone Lewis, who annually ranked among the best in the conference. They were at the key points of Niagara's effective pressure defense.

But, with both gone to graduation, it left Nelson to move into more of a defensive role in addition to his always solid point-guard duties.

And, the results are as obvious as checking the top spot on the national leaderboard for steals and to see his name there, where it has been for much of the season.

"I really don't check (the stats) that often, but the funny thing is that my mom told me that I was there (No. 1 in steals) recently and I didn't think she knew what she was talking about," said Nelson, in a recent telephone interview. "But, she was right."

Nelson said it's just about his maturation of a player, of having to step up and take larger roles on the team, particularly one so young that he's the only senior on the roster.

"It's just a matter of paying more attention to defense," he said. "I'm being a lot more aggressive on the defensive end than I had been in the past. Bilal and Tyrone ... they were more aggressive than I was in the past. Now, I'm taking a page out of their book."

That's not all that has changed about Nelson, who also averages 16.2 points per game after never averaging double figures before (last year's 9.9 ppg. was his previous best).

"My game has definitely changed," he said. "Last year I was more of a distributor getting everyone else involved. That was my role as a point guard. But when I'm home playing in the summer I'm a scorer, so this has been an easy adjustment. Now I need to be more aggressive on the offensive end in terms of scoring this year, too."

There's one more aspect to Nelson's on-court play that has changed, too. He's much more of a leader now than ever before.

In the preseason Niagara coach Joe Mihalich stressed not only how important it would be for Nelson to have a big season, but for his younger teammates to heed the messages, both in words and deeds, that Nelson would deliver.

"I think the young guys are listening to me, but it's their first year," he added. "They don't know what to expect, how to react. I try to let them know what to expect."

What to expect from Nelson is more of the same throughout the season, and a continued effort to overcome some previous slights. Nelson has never before made any of the MAAC's three post-season all-star teams, and was only a third-team selection in this year's preseason poll of coaches.

"I know we have some good point guards in this league, and I take it as a challenge to myself to outplay them in games," said Nelson. "But the first objective is to win the game. If I do outplay the opposing team's point guard, it helps us do that."

Spoken like a true leader, which he has become. Both on the court and statistically as the nation's steal leader.

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