It seems almost silly to attach the word “unassuming” to a 6-foot-11 behemoth.
But then again, that’s what Darien Nelson-Henry is.
In his first year of college basketball, the freshman center has quietly transformed his game, embracing a foreign role under head coach Jerome Allen’s philosophy.
When one looks at the Penn basketball roster of today, it’s easy to lose Nelson-Henry in the shuffle amidst names like Dougherty, Brooks and Cartwright.
But it wasn’t always like that. At Lake Washington High School in Kirkland, Wash., Nelson-Henry was the center of attention, becoming the state’s 3A Player of the Year in his senior year.
“The offense pretty much went through me, most of the time,” Nelson-Henry said. “It was kind of an unwritten rule that I’d have to get at least one touch on every possession, just to make something happen.”
Acting as the focal point of his team’s offense, Nelson-Henry was able to thrive, his actions speaking louder to Allen than any words possibly could.
The Quakers’ coach was able to wrest him away from the clutches of local recruiting powers like Washington State and Boise State, gaining himself a priceless commodity – a true Ivy League big man.
“[Former assistant coach] Mike Martin reached out to a couple of people out in the northwestern part of the country, and [Nelson-Henry’s] name kept coming up,” Allen said. “We decided to just take a flight out there to see how he was, and obviously once we laid eyes on him, we were all in front of him just to try and build a relationship.”
Safely in the fold for the Red and Blue, the big man quickly – and quietly – put himself to work preparing for a different kind of game, a level where size advantages disappear into the background and technical skill comes to the fore.
The newcomer has had an immediate opportunity to show off what he’s learned so far for the Quakers, receiving playing time in 14 of the team’s 15 games on the season and averaging 13.8 minutes per contest.
“I really just thought that I would be playing kind of a ‘get offensive rebounds, get defensive rebounds and take up space’,” Nelson-Henry said. “I didn’t expect to be scoring as much as I am as a freshman, but I also feel pretty comfortable with the role that I’ve been given to pretty much score at will when I get the ball.”
And score he has.
Nelson-Henry has averaged 5.7 points per game, good for fourth on the team. It’s a statistic that is even more impressive when one considers that there are eight more Quakers who receive more playing time than he does.
Of course, Nelson-Henry is a freshman, and he has struggled with the usual issues that give freshmen fits. He averages 2.2 fouls and 1.6 turnovers per game while finding his offensive game slowed down by the double teams that players of his stature inevitably receive.
Still, though, the freshman comes into practice every day not with the wide-eyed awe of a freshman, but with the understated intensity of a veteran as he tailors his craft.
“I think the young man has improved since day one,” Allen said. “He’s going to have a tremendous impact going forward.”
Maybe then, all eyes at Penn will focus on the man in the middle who speaks softly and carries a devastating jump hook.