FARGO — The takeoff point for Grant Nelson on his way to a couple of slam dunks this season was something akin to a triple jumper getting ready to fly 40 feet. It’s not seen very often with the North Dakota State men’s basketball program.
The fact Nelson is a true freshman makes it even more curious to the potential of the 2020 North Dakota Mr. Basketball from Devils Lake. What in the world of TrayVonn Wright is going on here?
Wright was the Bison player from 2010-14 who was known for some thunderous slams at the old Bison Sports Arena. Although there is no real criteria in comparing the two players, the 6-foot-10 Nelson is at the least off to a good start in matching what Wright did for NDSU’s version of "Phi Slama Jama," which was a moniker given to the dunk-happy Houston Cougars of the early 1980s. NBA legend Clyde Drexler was one of the high flyers on that team.
“I would say special,” said Bison guard Tyree Eady. “With his frame, being so young and at the level he is now is special. He has a chance to be a really good player if he keeps working and keeps on learning from the upperclassmen and coaching staff.”
Eady has had an up-close comparison having seen Wright play in open gym games during the summer. He’s seen video highlights of some of Wright’s height-awing slams.
“I’ve seen him do crazier stuff in open gym,” Eady said of Wright. “Watch this kid (Nelson) and you’ll see something special. He’s a lengthy athlete who can move his feet like a guard. You don’t see that a lot. Him being able to do all of that and still jump like that, it’s something you don’t see every day.”
The development of Nelson from North Dakota Class A basketball to Division I competition continues to accelerate. Devils Lake head coach Derek Gathman recalls a couple of dunks in Nelson’s junior year that were OK.
“Nothing crazy,” Gathman said. “But in his senior year, he had a couple where he was really up there. We told him to be aggressive with it and put the ball in and dunking is the best way to do that. It’s tough to get blocked if you’re dunking on people.”
There were a few highlights like an alley-oop against Fargo South or a game-winning slam against Fargo North. There was a windmill dunk in the East Region tournament, which remains Nelson's high school favorite.
“That was like, whoa, this guy can dunk it,” Gathman said.
TCU can relate. Nelson took a pass on the left wing, did a 360-degree move on a Horned Frogs defender and jammed it. Western Illinois got a dose of it when Nelson took off from just inside the free throw line and hammered it down. It appeared from video replay his elbow was about at rim height.
The first one, Nelson said, stands out the most.
“That one got me going,” he said. “That’s my signature, drive left and spin to the right.”
Call him Granta Claus.— NDSU Basketball (@NDSUmbb) December 23, 2020
Because he’s in his bag, and boy, is he gifted. pic.twitter.com/5yu9WCJKu0
The Bison, of course, will need more than dunks to maintain their momentum from the road sweep at Western Illinois last weekend. NDSU hosts Omaha at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, games that will be preceded by the Bison and Mavericks women at 5 p.m. Unlike previous season doubleheaders, one ticket is good for both games with NDSU increasing capacity to 2,800 after the state of North Dakota eased COVID-19 restrictions by one level this week.
The Omaha men are 0-2 after giving up an average of 90.5 points to Oral Roberts. As usual with NDSU and Omaha, it will be a tale of two philosophies: the Mavericks like to score often and the Bison once again are near the top of the Summit in scoring defense.
Grant. Nelson.— NDSU Basketball (@NDSUmbb) January 3, 2021
Gravity need not apply. pic.twitter.com/6XO16xDeZt
The two-time Summit tournament defending champion Bison came into this season in a reloading mode, which considering the stiff competition has been a success with a 4-6 record. All of that was on the road.
A home opener on Jan. 8 is unprecedented. So is a 6-10 true freshman from North Dakota who can dunk like Nelson.
“I feel like the more I play, the more confident I get,” Nelson said. “Growing up in small-town North Dakota, it definitely wasn’t the competition nearly of Division I basketball.”