The Oakland University men’s basketball team is full of players who excel at different aspects of the game. Point guard Johnathon Jones is the team’s coach on the floor; Keith Benson is the team’s inside presence; and Derick Nelson, senior co-captain and two-time All-League Selection, is one of the team’s defensive stoppers, a leader and most of all, its energy guy.
Before every game, the Grizzlies form a team circle around Nelson as he fires up his teammates, motivating them for the contest ahead.
“If your seniors aren’t your leaders, then you’re in trouble,” said head coach Greg Kampe. “We’ve got two very good leaders (Nelson and Jones) and they are the words and the mouth of our team, and if it weren’t that way, it’s not good.”
“Jones is more of a vocal person, but I am the one who brings the energy,” Nelson said. “I am the guy who brings energy to the team by playing hard defense or by crashing the boards to get an offensive rebound to get the team fired up.”
Throughout his career, Nelson has done just that. On Jan. 9, he grabbed his 752nd career rebound and moved into 11th place all-time in Summit League history in total rebounds. He is the second Oakland player in the Division I era to ever surpass 1,000 points and 600 rebounds.
This season, Nelson is second on the team in points and rebounds, averaging 11.8 and 6.6 per game, respectively.
Perhaps one of the biggest surprises thus far this season for the Grizzlies is that Nelson is leading the team in 3-point shooting percentage.
Nelson’s commitment to improving his perimeter shooting came as a result of a serious foot injury he suffered last year.
He missed all but two games last season when he broke his foot two days before the opening game.
“Last season was hard; I wanted to play so bad in the beginning of last season when the team was struggling a little bit,” Nelson said. “It just gave me motivation over the summer to make sure that me and (Jones) go out with a ring, because we’ve never won the championship and that’s our main goal.”
Sitting out for a season also gave Nelson a different sort of motivation, one that has paid off this year.
“My coaches told me that I couldn’t come back as the same player I was two years ago and the jump shot is one thing I didn’t have before,” Nelson said. “After I hurt my foot, when I was first able to come back on the court, I did a lot of shooting because I couldn’t really do too much except shoot jump shots.”
This new development in Nelson’s game has been welcome news in a year in which the Grizzlies have, at times, not been able to convert a high percentage of their field goal attempts.
“He’s shooting the ball very well for us and actually, right now, he’s our best jump shooter,” Kampe said. “He is still somewhat of a slasher, but he’s now added the jump shot to his game.”
His improved shooting isn’t the only part of the game that has changed for Nelson. Two years ago, he played a much more prominent role in the offense and averaged 17 points per game.
This season he has seen his scoring figures drop as the offense features more players who can put the ball in the hoop.
“(Nelson) understands, as everybody else understands, that we need to play inside-out and our offense now has to run through Benson,” Kampe said. “When he played two years ago, it wasn’t that way.”
According to Nelson, not being the featured scorer is not of his concern and he has other ways of contributing to the team’s success.
“It’s a lot different than it was two years ago. We had a team then where I had to score. Now, we have so many other people that can score, and our focus is to get it to (Benson). I knew that coming into this year, and I really don’t care. I just want to win. As long as we are winning then I am fine. There might be a game when I have six points, and there might be a game like the one against IUPUI when I get 24. It all depends on the game and the matchup. I just try to play defense and guard the leading scorer from every team we play.”
Nelson said he tries to use his physical style of play to pick up the energy level of his teammates.
“I’m the strongest guy on the team and I take pride in that,” Nelson said. “Usually the most physical team is winning the game, and there are some times on the road when we are not going to get any foul calls going our way; we don’t want to get pushed around.”
Nelson’s physical abilities might also pay off in his post-Oakland career. While attending Lansing Everett High School, Nelson was a two-time all-league outside linebacker in football. While his first love is basketball, he said he’s not ruling football out of the equation in the future.
“I was better in football than I was in basketball, but I just liked to hit people. I didn’t have the love for football that I did for basketball,” Nelson said. “(Professional) football might be open, so we will see what happens.”
On the court, Nelson tries to lead his teammates by example.
“I just try to help the guys that play my position, because they are going through things that I went through,” Nelson said. However, his messages to teammates often extend off the court.
As a team captain, he said he believes it’s part of his responsibility to make sure that his younger teammates do not relax in school at this time of the year due to their busy school and athletic schedules.
“It’s easy to forget about class when we go around the road,” Nelson said. “I just tell them to make sure you remember your books and do your work early so your professor knows you are serious about the class.”
Nelson knows that this will be the last season that he will have the chance to take his team to the NCAA Tournament and said he has every intention of making sure they get there.
“If we don’t win the tournament, the season is definitely a failure in our eyes,” Nelson said. “No if, ands, or buts about it, it would be a fail.”
— Dan Fenner contributed to this report.