Aggression by request

Curling inside from the corner where the baseline meets the three-point arc, Portland State junior forward Phil Nelson caught the chest-level pass, pounded the ball on the hardwood a couple times and fired it toward the hoop.

Curling inside from the corner where the baseline meets the three-point arc, Portland State junior forward Phil Nelson caught the chest-level pass, pounded the ball on the hardwood a couple times and fired it toward the hoop.

With a resounding thud, the ball skipped off the glass backboard and ricocheted off the side of the rim. Immediately, many in the crowd jumped to their feet and the players and coaches on the Vikings’ bench clapped approvingly.

He might not have connected on the shot, but Nelson had drawn a foul in a crucial moment during the second half of a heated battle with Boise State last Saturday night.

And as he circled around to take his free throws, head coach Ken Bone extended his hand and offered Nelson a congratulatory high-five.

Little did any of the fans in the sold-out Stott Center know, but Bone’s demonstration of encouragement was more meaningful than simply a “good job.” It was more of a “thank you.”

Less than 24 hours before Nelson drew that momentum-salvaging foul—or racked up the 21 points and seven steals he also added—Bone asked his 6-foot-7 sophomore to step up his game.

The message had a clear undertone: Be more aggressive.

With his penetration to the hoop prior to the foul, Nelson proved he had heard Bone’s message loud and clear.

“I’ve been playing harder the past couple games to try to show them that I can do it,” Nelson said. “I have not really been a rebounder or defensive player, but if that’s what they need than I’m going to step up to the challenge.”

Nelson is playing his first season in the South Park Blocks after transferring from Washington, which competes in the Pacific-10 Conference.

Highly touted as a talented athlete with a penchant for dunking and a dead eye from behind the three-point line, Nelson has never been forced to do the grunt work on the basketball court.

Now with Bone’s encouragement, the Keizer, Ore., native is playing in the paint more frequently, contending for rebounds and flashing in the passing lanes to turn lazy passes into steals. And the results have been phenomenal thus far.

In two games since “the talk,” Nelson has been more active, compiling seven steals against Boise State and then following up that performance with eight rebounds, six of which were offensive, in a victory over Montana State.

Bone said he is pleased with Nelson’s progression, and is especially thrilled with how a player that he says is as athletically gifted as they come is willing to alter his playing style to benefit the team, and himself in the long run.

“I’m as proud of Phil as anyone on the team,” Bone said. “He came in here as a prolific shooter and dunker—and that’s where I think he’s gained his identity. Yet the areas we’ve asked him to improve in have been defense and rebounding. And he’s improved more than anyone else in those two areas.”

While Nelson is beginning to settle into his new role, he is still becoming comfortable with the adjustment to a new team and conference following his move to Portland State.

Prior to his debut as a Viking, Nelson had to deal with a barrage of expectations, with most centering on the fact that since he was down shifting from the Pac-10 to Big Sky Conference he would have no problem dominating.

“People were like, ‘We expected you to do all this and all that, and be one of the greatest players,'” Nelson said, impersonating the high hopes of him.

Despite others’ lofty expectations of his play, Nelson said it has affected him only slightly, and added that the biggest adjustment has been the fact that he missed an entire season of organized basketball when he sat out last season in compliance with NCAA rules for Division I transfers.

Even though he feels like a year off has caused his game to miss a beat, Nelson is still acting like himself.

One of his defining characteristics is his stoicism. With the ESPN cameras rolling and an enormous student section cheering him on, Nelson warmed up before the Vikings’ matchup with Boise State without so much as smiling.

On the basketball floor, Nelson displays an elite level of comfort. He moves swiftly and always remains even keeled. He rarely argues a call and barely ever even furrows his brow in disapproval.

“I don’t need to show a lot of emotion to show I’m playing hard and being aggressive,” said Nelson, who claims he has been this way since a child. “It’s not expressed physically, but [the fire] is there.”

Nelson said a key to not expressing his emotions in a flamboyant manner is that it allows him to maintain his composure and remain in control of his actions at all times.

But the soon-to-be 21-year-old forward promises that if Portland State achieves its ultimate goal this season and makes it to the NCAA Tournament—a feat that will rely at least somewhat on whether Nelson continues his aggressive style—he might make an exception to his non-expressive ways. 

“If we get that NCAA berth, there might be a little emotion,” Nelson said. “I don’t know how I’ll show it, but it will be there.”