After a 20-point loss to St. Joseph’s, it would be easy to point out the things that went wrong for the Quakers.
But commenting on the abysmal three-point and free throw shooting, lack of discipline and the failure of experienced team leaders to step up is old hat by now.
And the Quakers have a 6-foot-11 reason to be optimistic: Darien Nelson-Henry, the only Penn player to score in double digits with 17 points and seven rebounds.
Coach Jerome Allen had some trouble in the postgame press conference reaching for positive aspects of the game. But he found it easy to laud Nelson-Henry’s performance.
“I thought [Nelson-Henry] did a pretty good job of playing through contact and not giving not only the first effort, but giving the second and the third,” Allen said. “Just being relentless and determined. I was pleased with his approach.”
Watching Nelson-Henry Saturday against the Hawks, it was easy to see why the center earned Ivy League Rookie of the Week honors after his efforts versus St. Joe’s and his first career double-double at NJIT on Thursday.
It is also surprisingly easy to draw comparisons between him and Minnesota Timberwolves center Kevin Love, who played college ball at UCLA.
Both stand at just under 7 feet tall, have some grizzly facial hair, are from the Pacific Northwest and have a little extra weight to throw around.
Now obviously, Love was far more ready for college basketball when he first arrived on UCLA’s campus. He took the Pac-10 by storm and was named All-American in his freshman year.
What allowed Love to be better than nearly every other college player in the country was that back in high school he was a student of the game, working day and night to refine his abilities. Since he started playing basketball, his father encouraged him to watch films to remove any weaknesses in his game.
Love wasn’t satisfied with just using his superior size to score points in the paint and grab rebounds over much smaller opponents. He developed his passing skills to launch fast breaks and also became a threat from three-point range.
While Love made the jump to the NBA after just one year at UCLA, Nelson-Henry will almost surely stay at Penn for all four years. That will give him ample time to develop his raw talent beyond the paint, just like Love did before he arrived in college.
And there are also more subtle signs that his confidence is growing beyond his years. In the second half, St. Joe’s forward Ronald Roberts blocked a shot by junior Henry Brooks while Nelson-Henry was taking a breather on the bench. Even though he’s just a freshman, right before the next play Nelson-Henry gave Brooks advice on how to get separation from a big man like Roberts.
“[Roberts] is really athletic,” Nelson-Henry said. “I haven’t faced a lot of people that athletic and that mobile. But I think playing against people like that really prepares me to play against anyone in the country.”
And there is still plenty of room for improvement. Nelson-Henry left four points on the table by only going 1-for-5 from the foul line. He also was responsible for half of the team’s 10 turnovers.
Nelson-Henry has by far been Penn’s best offensive player in both of those contests, which shows how far he has come since being a role player off the bench at the beginning of the season.
Having a quality big man like Nelson-Henry that the team can count on will be crucial for coach Allen, whose system revolves mainly around getting the ball inside.
“Our game plan starting every game is play inside-out,” Allen said. “I believe [Nelson-Henry] is a tough matchup for anyone that we face this year when he keeps it simple and asserts himself.”
Penn basketball may not have all the major pieces put together right now, but in the next few years, Darien Nelson-Henry should be one of them.
MARS JACOBSON is a junior political science major from Salem, Ore. He can be reached at dpsports@theDP.com.
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