Sa'eed Nelson, dynamic freshman talent

If American's season ends early in the Patriot League tournament — a quarterfinal loss at Bucknell seems most likely — the 2016-17 season will be chalked up as a disappointment. A team that couldn't even win double figure games. Injuries. Regression for Delante Jones. An unsteady rotation.

Except that it hasn't been a complete wash. It's been far from that. Freshman Sa'eed Nelson is a big reason why. 

Nelson has made a struggling, slow-tempo team fun to watch because you never know what he'll do next. From the opening minutes of American's opener at Maryland Nov. 11 when he and fellow freshman Mark Gasperini — who joined Nelson on the all-Patriot League Rookie team — scored American's first two field goals and he swiped the ball from potential All-American Melo Trimble to feeding Charlie Jones for the game-winning 3 at Loyola to close out the regular season, Nelson has been an exciting blur on the court.

A twisting layup here. An up-and-under there. A hang-in-the-air then find an open teammate for a 3 here. A pickpocket and race to the other end and finish over a bigger guy there. "Oooohs" and "Ahhhhhs" were common in the stands at Bender all season, even late in games that American had basically lost. Getting to watch Nelson play was worth the price of admission. 

I think we all took a certain level of joy in watching Nelson, because we knew that here was a player — an absolute winner in high school — who could be playing in a higher-level conference but chose American. We felt blessed to have him. We groaned at his flaws — free-throw and 3-point shooting Sa'eed's biggest ones — but knew mishaps would be followed by dazzling displays. 

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Photo by Steve Christensen. 

Photo by Steve Christensen. 

"He's tough. He's gonna be a really good player there." — Jay Wright, Villanova head coach, Dec. 21

Throughout the season, opposing coaches, announcers for every Patriot League team, and everyone in between recognized Nelson's talent and potential. The numbers back him up.

Nelson averaged 15.1ppg, fifth in the league; 2.8 apg (second among Patriot League freshmen); and 2.4 spg, first in the league and eighth nationally. Nelson was abysmal from 3-point range (22%) and had free-throw issues all year (55%), but to shoot 51% on twos (142-274) as a 6-1 guard is very impressive. Holy Cross' Patrick Benzan (55.6%) and Bucknell's Kimbal Mackenzie (54.2%) were the only league players as short as Nelson to finish that well inside the arc, and Mackenize made 84 fields and Benzan 64 — far fewer than the amount of times Nelson finished in the paint. 

According to Hoop-Math.com, Nelson attempted 58.2% of his shots at the rim and converted 59.5% of them — this for a team that was dreadful from 3-point range most of the year, causing defenses to sag and focus on stopping penetration. Benzan (65.7% and 59.1%) is the only short guard in the league who compares. 

Nelson was near impossible to keep out of the lane, and if he had shot a decent free-throw percentage he might've come close to leading the league in points per game. But hey, that's what summer is meant for, right?

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It's one thing for a player to be dynamic offensively. It's a whole other level for them to be equally engaged and exciting to watch on the other end. That's exactly what Nelson provided on defense from the moment he stole Trimble's candy through American's finale at Loyola. 

To be clear, American was a poor defensive team this year. The Eagles had a difficult time keeping opponents out of the paint, and had no defensive post presence. A rare blocked shot — usually by all-Patriot League defensive player Charlie Jones — was like an unexpected Christmas present. Usually, teams that got the ball into the paint would score or draw fouls (opponents had a 42% FTA/FGA, 308th nationally). 

But when the ball was on the perimeter, Nelson hounded opponents. He rarely got beat, and he made up for the times that he did by creating so many layups on the other end off steals. Think back a year or even two to three years to the Pee Wee Gardner era (much love, Pee Wee!). Remember how we often complained on the podcast that American had no fast-break game, that a layup in transition was more rare than a filled student section at Bender Arena?

That was far from the case with Nelson. American turned turnovers into offense. Nelson's steal rate was 3.62% (6th best in the Patriot League) and the one thing American did well on that end was force turnovers to the tune of 20% of opponents' possessions (83rd nationally). 

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"He’s a really good player. He just knows what he’s doing. He’s got all the right tools. And again, just being from that (St. Augustine High School) program — I can’t say enough about that. And then he’s got a good mind for the game, good skill, coachable, tough kid — just everything you’d want in a player.” — Mike Brennan, Dec. 10

Throughout the season, we wondered, When will Nelson slow down? He was consistently in the top 5 in minutes per game nationally. He played 40 minutes in 13 games and 45 minutes in a overtime victory over Colgate. Yet he continued to bang, continued to hit the floor hard on drives to the hoop, and bounce back up every time. Someone (I forget who) made the point that he played football in high school — he can take the hits. 

Not once did Nelson sustain a noticeable injury. If he did, his acting ability to not show it was Oscar-worthy. The free throws were an issue (anyone have a first half vs. second half breakdown?), but other than that, Nelson was as effective in second halves of games as the first 20 minutes. 

Maybe equally impressive to minutes played is that Nelson was able to aggressively defend while staying out of foul trouble. He only fouled out of one game and got to four fouls in five others. That's really good for someone playing his minutes and so heavily involved in the game. 

The future is bright for American basketball with Sa'eed Nelson running the show. He established a great chemistry with Gasperini early on, and they'll only grow with a summer to work on their games in the framework of the Princeton offense, not to mention the team trip to Australia in August. 

It's been a forgettable season for American in many ways. But not when it's come to watching Sa'eed Nelson. And if American makes any noise in the tournament, you can bet Nelson will be in the thick of it. 

Five key plays: American 74, Navy 58

American defeated Navy 74-58 to improve to 7-21, 4-13 in the Patriot League heading into its regular-season finale at Loyola. Here are five key plays/sequences from the win. 

1. Matt Cimino gets start, starts hot
The GW transfer made the most of his first start of the season, making two quick 3s, feeding Charlie Jones for a perfect backdoor -- Cimino has proven to be the best backdoor-passing player on the team -- and finishing with 12 points, four rebounds, and three blocks in 25 minutes. Cimino was the catalyst for American's wire-to-wire win.

2. Navy goes 0-10 from 3 in first half
The Midshipmen, with the exception of offensive rebounding, were really bad offensively. In the first half, this was most clear in their 0-10 shooting from deep. American defended the perimeter relatively well, contesting most of the looks. Navy entered the contest ninth in the Patriot League in 3-point shooting percentage (33%) and was even worse.

3. Navy starts second half strong, but American responds
This was the key portion of the game. Navy came out of the halftime locker room ready to shoot, and American allowed three wide-open looks that cut the Mids' deficit to a point, 37-36. The Eagles could have folded at that point, but instead Delante Jones fed Mark Gasperini with a perfect pass for an and-one. Navy wouldn't get closer than five points the rest of the way.

4. James Washington provides a spark off the bench
Over the past several games, the sophomore has looked more comfortable on the court -- following a three-game no-playing mystery -- and his performance peaked against Navy. Washington weaved his way through the zone, making the right reads, including a layup and a 3 here that helped keep Navy at bay. Washington finished with 10 points in 26 minutes.

5. Sa'eed Nelson closes things out
The freshman point guard struggled to finish at the rim in the first half vs. Navy's bigs, but he made the right cuts and finished the Midshipmen with three big layups late. American never took its foot off the gas, allowing the Eagles to cruise to the victory and not face any last-minute drama. We'll see if it carries over to Loyola.

Five key plays: Holy Cross 69, American 54

American fell 69-54 to Holy Cross in its home finale, dropping the Eagles to 6-21, 3-13 in the league. Here are five key plays/sequences from the game. 

1. Holy Cross 9-0 run to start
American came out slow, a recurring problem throughout the season. After a Matt Husek 3 (more on him in a minute), the Crusaders got to the rim three straight times. 

2. American scores nine straight to even things
James Washington provided a needed spark off the bench, slicing through the zone and dishing to Mark Gasperini for a layup. Another Gasperini layin and two fastbreak buckets later off Holy Cross turnovers, and the game was tied 9-9. 

3. Matt Husek goes off for 20 points
The Holy Cross big man entered the game averaging six points, but AU had no answer for him. He kept Gasperini honest with cuts to the basket for layups, and then penetration by Crusaders guards that drew Gasperini into the paint left Husek wide open for 3s. A big man like that is a difficult matchup, and him having almost a career day didn't help. 

4. Delante Jones goes off in the second half
If only he did this in first halves. In another season theme for American, the Eagles got nothing (0 points, 0-2 shooting) from Delante Jones in the first 20 minutes but he came alive after the break. Delante scored 16 points including four 3s, mixing in drives to the hoop and even a pull-up mid-range jumper, an aspect of his game that has all but disappeared this year. Take second-half Delante from this game and sprinkle it throughout the season, and American would have a very different record. 

5. Holy Cross puts it away with 12-0 run
American has been in almost every game late this season, but finishing — for a variety of factors — has been difficult. Sunday was no different. In this case, American hurt itself by failing to score but also got unlucky with Anthony Thompson (31% on 3s) nailing two and a tipped ball ending up in Robert Champion's hands for a layup. When things aren't going well, these types of scenarios tend to play out. 
 

Holy Cross 69, American 54: Postgame press conference

American seniors Yilret Yiljep and Charlie Jones and head coach Mike Brennan spoke after American's 69-54 loss to Holy Cross on senior day. Full video above and select quotes below. 

YY ON TAKING THE OPENING TIP
"It was very emotional. It was very emotional for me. It's been a long time. I haven't stepped on the court since freshman year. It was just very inspirational and very emotional."

CHARLIE ON WHAT THE DAY WAS LIKE
"It was great to see YY finally get what he deserved for sticking through, persevering through the situation so that was definitely really emotional. And it was also nice just walking out with my parents who've been supporting me these past four years. Everything at the beginning was great. The game didn't go the way we planned, but still got two more to go and the season's far from over." 

YY ON THE EXPERIENCE FROM THE BENCH
"It's been fun. It's obviously very sad that I can't be out there playing. I was able to see the game from a different perspective being on the bench and my role on the team is just to try and help out anywhere possible — so at practice I'm always in Charlie's ear, telling him what to do. Because, you know, it's different when you're in the game. For me being on the bench and having all the experience the last four years, I know what players tendencies are."

CHARLIE ON IF HE IMAGINED THIS JOURNEY FROM WALK-ON TO PLAYING 40 MINUTES MOST NIGHTS IN THE LEAGUE
"Yeah, I did. That's why I came here — because I saw an opportunity that I knew wasn't going to be easy, wasn't going to be given to me, and I was definitely very fortunate to have a coach like Coach Brennan who he just rewards guys who listen, play hard and do what he asks. And yeah, I felt like this was a situation I could be successful in and work toward and I'm just glad I've been able to do it and have the support of people like my parents and teammates like Y.Y. to help me to where I am today." 

Mike Brennan
ON YY DOING THE OPENING TIP
"It's a nice thing that we were able to do for Y.Y. I know it meant a lot for him to just be introduced, be in uniform, be out on the court one more time. I wish I could've got 39 more minutes out of him. He was a terrific player. He was terrific for us as a freshman so it's unfortunate what happened, but he's been absolutely great for us. It's hard to be a player and be sort of relegated to the role he's relegated to but he took it on and was terrific in practice every single day so despite him not being able to play, he was an awesome leader throughout his career. We're going to miss him." 

ON CHARLIE JONES AND HIS FOUR-YEAR JOURNEY
"Just like the 'Be Like Mike,' commercial, the old Michael Jordan commercial (be like Charlie), he's been terrific, he just wouldn't let me not play him. Coming in as a walk-on he doesn't get any attention so you have to actually do stuff to stand out and that's all he does — he just does stuff on the court. So we're definitely going to miss him more than even I know. I know I'm gonna be missing him next year just because he does so much on the court. ... I had him sort of working with different groups each day just so they could get a little does of Charlie so they at least have it in their minds next year and we can refer back to it." 

ON MATT HUSEK (20 POINTS ON 8-9 FGs)
"Yeah, he banged shots, he got some open looks. There's a lot to prepare for Holy Cross. They're obviously a very good team. The 1-3-1, the matchup, those are the things that you prepare for. We knew he could shoot, we knew he was a good player, he just had a good day. I don't think that was the only reason, but that was a big reason that they won today." 

ON JALEN RHEA'S 0-7 FROM 3 SHOOTING
"Yeah, if he had seven more, I'd want him to fire them up there. That's why he's in the game."

REASONS FOR DELANTE'S SLOW STARTS AND BIG SECOND HALVES
"Well, obviously like you said, getting him into foul trouble. And then you're facing a 1-3-1, you're facing a matchup, so you can't really script plays for a guy. But I was happy to see him do some things offensively, make some shots. But again, I think it's just being young. There's no consistency from sort of everybody so it's hard for him to be consistent." 

WHAT HAVE YOU SEEN FROM THE 2-BIGS LINEUP
"Hopefully we can continue to do it, we're going to continue to try. Cimino gives you some extra passing on the perimeter, which we need, so if we can play those two together we're going to try to do that as much as possible." 
 

Charlie being Charlie: A tribute to Charlie Jones

For me, the story of Charlie Jones began during the semifinals of the 2014 Patriot League tournament against Holy Cross. The host Eagles looked dead in the water, with a lifeless offense and trailing the Crusaders by 10 points early in the second half.

That's when the no-name freshman walk-on happened. That's when Charlie Jones saved American's season en route to the league title and a trip to the NCAA Tournament. 

First, Charlie hit a 3. Then he scored a layup. Then he blocked a shot. Later, he saved a missed free throw right into the hands of Jesse Reed, who buried a game-clinching 3. Jones finished with five points, four rebounds and two steals — the type of stat line American fans have gotten very used to seeing, while realizing that he does so much more, the past four years. 

"I said it earlier this season, but Charlie has been our 'energizer bunny' all season long," Darius "Pee Wee" Gardner, a junior, said at the time. "He just comes in and is everywhere for us. We kind of built on that energy, especially on the defensive end."

This Sunday, Jones will play his final regular-season home game in an American uniform against that same team, Holy Cross. He undoubtedly will receive a well-deserved standing ovation from the AU faithful, but I still feel like he's underappreciated. Maybe people's recognition of Jones' contributions will come after his career is complete. 

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If the Holy Cross game was Jones' coming-out party, his sophomore year was validation of him as an integral piece of American's rotation — yet still as a walk-on. Name another walk-on in the country who started 31 of 33 games, playing 33 minutes per contest. Jones attempted just 5.4 field goals per game, but scored eight points per and did a little bit of everything else for a methodical American team that was the slowest tempo squad in college basketball.

Jones pulled down 3.8 rebounds per game, had a team-best 1.7 assist-to-turnover ratio, averaged a steal a game, and was American's third-best 3-point shooter by percentage. But anyone who watched Jones that year knew that even with advanced analytics becoming more available, his contributions went beyond the stat sheet. On a very undersized American team that played 6-5 Mark Vasic at center (and even Jones at the position sometimes), Jones battled players three or four inches taller often. He took almost every jump ball. He skied fearlessly for rebounds. 

And he got a hand on everything. 

"GIVE CHARLIE JONES A SCHOLARSHIP."

Photos by Steve Christensen. 

Photos by Steve Christensen. 

Sam began saying this on every podcast we aired. It seemed like a no-brainer. And yet as the season concluded with a heartbreaker in the Patriot League title game to Lafayette, there was uncertainty. No one we talked to — players, parents — knew what would happen. And if Jones somehow wasn't given what he deserved, he had every right to transfer and be an impact player somewhere else.

That was our worst fear. 

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Thankfully, the Eagles made the easy choice and gave Jones a scholarship before his junior season. He would stay at American and provide that steady presence that a very young Eagles team needed. 

2015-16 started off brutally for AU. The Eagles went 2-9 in non-conference play and then things got even drearier as Patriot League play began. American dropped six straight league games by double digits, its losing streak reaching 10. All hope seemed lost. Mike Brennan spoke during his postgame press conferences about looking for answers, about trying anything.

Through it all, even while dealing with an ailing foot, Jones maintained an important veteran presence alongside seniors Jesse Reed and Marko Vasic. You could always count on Brennan to say that he knew what he would get from Jones. The quotes got repetitive, but they were never false. Jones was a bull on defense, third in the league in steal percentage (3.26). Jones was a beast on the boards, his 18.8% defensive rebounding rate 15th best in the league and No. 1 of anyone 6-4 or shorter. Jones' 2.62% block rate was 13th. 

When American, out of the blue, got red hot late in the season — first winning five straight to get to 5-6 and then picking up another handful of consecutive victories to unexpectedly finish the league 9-9 and upset BU on the road in the Patriot League quarterfinals — Jones was in the thick of things. 

Throughout his career, the only criticism of Jones has been that he passes up too many shots. And it's fair. But you can't say that he hasn't taken, and made, the big ones. In 2016, Jones hit at least one 3 in five of the Eagles' last six games. In an overtime win over Lafayette, he knocked down a game-tying 3 in the last minute of regulation and sealed the victory with a free throw in overtime. He also had a pivotal block. This, in a nutshell, is Charlie Jones. 

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Jones' senior season hasn't gone as planned. His performance hasn't fallen off, but the team has never gotten untracked. Now, with just three games left in the regular season, a late run of success for the Eagles seems increasingly unlikely. Still, the 6-foot-4 forward has done everything that endeared him to Eagles fans the previous three years. 

American opponents won't miss him.

He still takes the opening tip, often against a player six inches taller. He still dives on the floor at least once a game (no one on American causes more jump balls). He still crashes the glass on both ends of the court (his 19.8% defensive rebounding rate is the best of his career, 11th in the league, and best of anyone 6-4 or shorter by a whopping 4.4%). And he still hesitates to shoot, but then takes and makes big ones (Jones' 3-point shooting percentage by year: 31%, 37%, 45%, 33%). Jones is shooting 67% on 2s, good for 30th nationally. 

It's impossible to come close to listing all the non-box score plays Jones has made this year, or any of his four years, but we hope the video Sam put together (embedded above) does his contributions just a little justice. 

And how about this for statistical evidence of how important Jones has been to the Eagles as his career nears its conclusion?

Charlie Jones has played a Patriot League-high 95.7% of available minutes in conference play. That's even more than teammate Sa'eed Nelson (95.2%), who for much of the season has been in the top five nationally in minutes per game.

Charlie Jones is important. Charlie Jones has always been important. 

No one who's followed American the past four years would deny this.