Grant Nelson continues to leave lasting impact in Devils Lake, unmeasurable potential in Fargo
Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2020. Fort Worth, TX. One tick under 18 mins left in the second half in the Bison's game against TCU. Freshman forward Grant Nelson dribbles the ball up towards the top of the arc before he spontaneously cuts into the paint.
He pulls up to TCU forward Kevin Samuel off to the right side of the next, but before Samuel can start to defend Nelson, the forward spins over lift shoulder elevate and delivers a right-hand jam to tie the game at 51.
1,240 miles north, and a little bit east, of Fort Worth, Texas, the Devils Lake boys basketball team is hanging out in assistant coach Alex Lundon's basement, alongside head coach Derek Gathman, following their game to West Fargo Sheyenne...and they are all losing their collective minds. The guy who was once their teammate, and player, just jammed on a Big 12 team.
"We might watch his highlights more than he does," Gathman said. "When he had that spin slam dunk we were all screaming at the TV 'oh my god that was awesome', and rewinding it and watching it again and again."
It's intoxicating. It's exciting. It's Grant Nelson. Devils Lake fans young and old watched the 6-foot-10-inch forward dominate the hardwood all over North Dakota, eventually winning the title of Mr. Basketball his senior year. Now at NDSU, his impact continues to resonate across the little town along the lake.
Numbers for the Devils Lake youth program have been on the rise since Grant led Devild Lake to a Class A tournament appearance last season and those who had watched him, want to have their own similar success. Even Gathman's 6-year-old son always needs to be wearing No. 4 when he's on the court. But it's not just kids in the area, it's also his coaches who are now in a new role from teaching him the game to cheering him on from the stands.
"It's just awesome to finally be a fan, and not nitpick everything, and enjoy watching him play," Gathman said. "Now I can send him a text saying it's fun to watch you rather than saying you need to work on this, It's been really fun that way and he's just, in general, a fun player to watch."
Similar to how those back home has given him support throughout his time in Devils Lake, Nelson continues to give his all to his team and focus his goals not only through himself but on the team effort as a whole. Last season, the Firebirds were able to pick up a pair of wins in the EDC tournament to punch their ticket to the state tournament the following weekend, powered by Nelson's commitment to the overall goal to win. Heading out of Devils Lake, he learned from his coaches and teammates.
"My high school coaches were great and they taught me a lot," Nelson said. "Coach Gathman, who was a former college basketball player, taught me a lot about the game of basketball. My teammates were great. They created a lot of opportunities for me to score and did whatever they could to win, and so did I."
That mentality of we before I continue to resonate with Nelson as his personal goals are all focused on the team effort. When asked if he had any personal goals, twice, he answered with just wanting his team to win and the freshman group to get comfortable on the court. He wanted to win at Devils Lake and he still wants to win at NDSU, hunting for back-to-back Summit League titles.
The team focused mindset isn't one that surprises Bison head coach David Richman. NDSU's overall goal is to win, and individual egos can take over that system, but Nelson, as he has on the court, has meshed well onto the team.
"The primary goal and focus of our group is winning, and that's not always the case," Richman said. "There's guys that have egos and agendas involved who are looking for a certain number of points or minutes. We have a brand of basketball that is really unselfish and fun to watch, and fortunately, for the better part, it has translated into success as well."
Through team success, Grant has quickly become a part of the regular rotation with the Bison. He has started in five games this season, picking up four straight of those starts in series against Denver and Missouri-Kansas City. Six times this season his broken into double figures in scoring, hitting a career-high 14 against TCU, one of the games that he started in.
Even in a game where he caught fire, Nelson is still attributing his success to those around him. Not just during games, but on the floor in practice, he commends his teammates for pushing him to become a better basketball player and better his own game.
"Every day in practice my teammates push me and I push them and that prepares me for game situations," Nelson said. "My teammates play great basketball and in that game against TCU they gave me opportunities to score and I tried to do the same for them."
Nelson's work ethic has boosted him out of the gates as a freshman, but both his coaches aren't surprised that he is doing what he's doing on the court so early on. In the eyes of those who have coached him and who are coaching him, his height and mobility show that he has the potential to go far.
"With Grant, nothing really surprises me," Richman said. "People who have watched him play are only seeing the surface level. He's an unbelievable kid, a hard worker, and has some god-given abilities. There aren't many people on this planet who can do the things he can do at 6'10. On top of that, when you have the work ethic and the ability to listen as he does and follow leadership we have makes for a special talent."
Even in high school, those around him knew that there was something different about him and that he was going to go far. Gathman, who played at Mayville State and has been around players who have moved on to professional leagues, said that Nelson is the best player that he has ever been around.
"Just working with him, he's the best basketball player I've ever been around as a player or a coach," Gathman said. "I've played with all Americans and guys who went overseas and he's already better than all those guys. I think he has a pretty bright future, and it's been I pleasant surprise to see what he can do."
Seeing that the sky was the limit for Nelson in high school, the Devils Lake coaching staff worked with him, not just for the sake of overall team success in games, but putting him in situations he may see at the college level.
"We knew with his ability that things he did at the high school level weren't going to work at the college level," Gathman said. "On defense, we plugged up the paint with him to block shots and get rebounds, but we also talked about how could he get better on the perimeter and switching defenses. You can see he gets right to it and there's no learning curve with it. Also, with his athletic ability and all those things he can do at 6'10 blows my mind."
In high school, the coaching staff did what they could to better Nelson's game from the inside, but when it came to facing tougher opposition, he had to go a little further. North Dakota opponents didn't bring Nelson too many looks at Divison I talent, EDC opponents like West Fargo Sheyenne and Fargo Davies helped, but his AAU program allowed him to get a wider look at what college ball may be. Coming to the college floor with the same passion to grow, the transition hasn't been too difficult for Nelson.
"I feel like it's a lot different from playing in a small town in North Dakota," Nelson said. "There's not much height and athleticism, so it's really been a big jump, but I feel me and the other freshmen have adapted well."
Nearing the end of the regular season, Nelson has come into a dependable role for the Bison, not just picking up minutes early on in the game, but playing in tighter situations as well. Against North Dakota, he was out on the court during overtime as a dependable.
"I think he's getting into a really specific role," Richman said. "Whether you start and whether you play this, whatever here, it's about the minutes that you play and making the most out of it. Grant has come in early, and you've seen some instances this season where he's finished the game. As the head coach and our staff and our program, it's those five guys that are on the floor at that particular time is to give us the best possible situation for success."
As the Bison trudge on, the Firebirds are still very much some of Grant's biggest fans. The team was planning on catching NDSU's series against UND in Grand Forks, but due to COVID-19 precautions, they weren't able to go. But even if Grant isn't in person near or in Devils Lake, he has created a strong passion for basketball in Devils Lake and a stronger sense of pride from past Firebirds on the court.
"As a Devils Lake native and a Devils Lake alumni, you're proud to see a kid come out of Devils Lake and do so well," Gathman said. "It shows that talent can come from anywhere and when you're playing the best every night, it shows that it makes you better. It brings the best out of our kids and we're hoping that the same thing applies to this group."
Those messages of praise resonate with Nelson. Whether he's in Fargo, Fort Worth, Kansas City, or Vermillon, those who have been his cheerleaders his whole life are apart of his motivation to grow.
"There's a lot of people in Devils Lake that are happy for my success, and it just means a lot to me," Nelson said. "It just shows that how good of a community it is. It gives me the motivation to keep competing, keep playing basketball."