Darien Nelson-Henry shut the locker room door behind him during halftime of Penn basketball’s annual visit to Cornell on Feb. 13.
With the coaches outside and the Quakers clinging to a one-point lead over the Big Red, the senior captain — and star center — spoke his mind to the team.
“He was telling us it’s his last time being at Cornell as a player and he really wanted to win that game,” junior forward Matt Howard said. “It was really emotional.”
Instead of just playing out the strings in his final games in a Penn uniform, Nelson-Henry got real with his young teammates.
“Sometimes people’s feelings are gonna be hurt and sometimes people are gonna agree with you and sometimes they won’t,” he said. “But if you know deep down that whatever you’re saying is best for the team and best for the future of this program, it needs to be said.”
And while he doesn’t think anyone’s feelings were hurt by his comments that night, their sentiments sent waves through the Red and Blue who rallied in order to win a 92-84 slugfest.
Growing into his shoes
Nelson-Henry has as dominating of a presence as life allows. At 6-foot-11 and 265 pounds, he is not only often the tallest person in a room but is also frequently the largest player on a basketball court at any given moment. Yet his demeanor is calm and his words are often filled with encouragement.
But this season, after co-captain Tony Hicks left the program, Nelson-Henry emerged as the vocal leader of Penn basketball.
Photo by Will Snow
“My role had to change in terms of maturity level,” the Kirkland, Wash., native said about the effects of Hicks’ departure.
“I was always the positive leader,” he explained. “Tony would be more the overseer. Now I’ve had to mold my leadership style into a combination of the two, having to hold people accountable but also doing that in a positive way that’s enforcing the right kind of culture on this team.”
The Red and Blue have taken to their leader’s new style, and head coach Steve Donahue thinks the role change has been a product of Nelson-Henry’s deep connection to the program.
“I think he’s comfortable speaking his mind to guys because I think he feels that he’s indebted to the program in the sense that he’s really worked hard,” the first-year coach explained. “This is his last run and he wants us to play really well. He’s leading by example and he expects other guys to follow him.”
While most college stars may be able to refer back to their days playing high school or AAU ball as the first time they become the centerpiece of a team, Nelson-Henry is in a unique spot this season.
“I wasn’t expected to lead so much at my high school,” he said despite his status as team captain his junior and senior years.
At Penn, he has had a much different experience.
“The same sense of holding people accountable wasn’t there because it was public high school basketball. If kids wanted to not care they were allowed to not care. But here you’re here because you’re expected to put forth a certain amount of effort,” he explained.
“For me I’ve never been in a position like I am here where I’m expected to hold people accountable. But I like being a leader of this team because it’s easy to do.”
Nelson-Henry also has a deeper message for the young kids on the team, one that he expresses with maturity well beyond his years.
“I’m just a good example of what not to do,” he said. “There have been a lot of positives that I’ve taken away from my playing time here, but there’s been a lot of negatives too. I wanna make sure that they don’t have to see those negatives. I wanna make sure that they learn from the mistakes that I made.”
When Hicks left the program, not only did a door open for Nelson-Henry to grow as a spokesman; the big man also found — and seized — an opportunity to be the center of the offense. As a result, he’s been filling out the stat sheet like never before.
During his first three seasons, Nelson-Henry could be a menace with the basketball in his hands but, entering his senior campaign, he had yet to have a true breakout season.
Statistically speaking his best season came during his sophomore year, when he scored 10.6 points, collected 5.3 rebounds and blocked 0.9 shots per game.
Photo by Ananya Chandra
Unfortunately, he missed four games due to injury that year and while he would appear in all 28 of Penn’s contests the following season, he was plagued by discomfort from an off-season hip surgery.
“Junior year obviously was a rough year for me coming off the surgery,” Nelson-Henry said. “My body last year has probably never felt worse while playing basketball.”
This season has represented a 180-degree turn for the Penn center. Finally healthy, he was able to spend the summer training, improving his post skills and getting in better shape.
“When I got here I thought he dedicated himself to the weight room, really slimmed down, got stronger at the same time, bought into the system that we play,” Donahue said.
That summer work was essential because his game relies on exploiting defenders by using his body.
“He’s not the most explosive cat on the earth so he’s doing it on sheer physicality,” assistant coach Nat Graham explained. “He has an IQ for the game and knows how to utilize his girth and use angles and he’s got tremendous hands.”
The system, coupled with his health, has seen him play more minutes and get more touches. A ball screen-heavy offense has kept him close to the rim and helped save his energy. Most importantly, he has been staying out of foul trouble.
“That’s what happens when you become a senior sometimes,” Donahue says of the transformation. “The game starts slowing down. You start getting more confident.”
The results of Donahue’s gameplan and Nelson-Henry’s health are evidenced by the numbers. Now the focal point of the Quakers’ offense, ‘the Big Hyphen’ is leading the team in scoring and rebounding with 12.8 points and 8.4 boards per game (fourth in the Ivy League) to his credit. Perhaps most impressive, however, are his 43 assists, which are tied for second most on the squad behind only freshman facilitator Jake Silpe.
Still, true to his personality, Nelson-Henry remains humble when describing his ongoing renaissance.
“Everyone goes through lulls and high points throughout the season. You can’t lead the team in scoring and rebounding every single game,” he said. “I wouldn’t say it’s me so much as my teammates and the coaching staff doing a really good job setting me up to succeed.”
But Howard is quick to give Nelson-Henry the credit for his improvement.
“He’s gotten more patient. He has better composure in the post,” Howard explained. “If he’s getting doubled he’s passing and finding the open man. If he’s getting covered by one person, he’s scoring.”
With only five more regular season games in his future, Nelson-Henry can only impact the team so much with his play. Now, he is beginning to think about what kind of legacy he will leave behind as well as what state the program he called home for four years will be in after he graduates.
Clock winding down
Donahue has reiterated that a big part of his message to this team has been focused on restoring excitement within and around Penn basketball and bringing it back to its old glory.
“[Penn] has such a historic tradition and great legacy to the program that when you lose the kids really feel it,” Donahue said. “I thought this group was really down on themselves and basketball. I just wanted them to have fun again.”
Nelson-Henry has embraced that sentiment with open arms.
Photo by Thomas Munson
“For me to say I fell out of love with it is not the case, but I definitely started looking at it more as like a job,” he said. “I think when Coach Donahue got here that definitely changed for the better. Not only did I get into a system that I enjoyed more, but I started having more fun with the team.”
As for what has been the exact cause of the new attitude amongst the team and coaches, Nelson-Henry isn’t exactly sure.
“I don’t know if it’s directly the way Coach Donahue is changing the program or the system or if it’s just that through the adversity of losing a coach we gained a tighter knit unit.”
But one thing he is sure of is the direction in which Penn basketball is heading.
“The best part about the way that this season has progressed is that I see so much potential for where this team is and where it can go with Coach Donahue.”
After the final buzzer
Nelson-Henry never got the chance to be in the hunt for an Ivy League title, and while this season has been better than the last couple, he again will miss out on a championship run. But he isn’t letting that get to him. As a result, Penn could eclipse seven league wins for the first time in his career.
Nelson-Henry hopes that he can look back at his time with the Quakers and see that he was a catalyst for a new dominant chapter in the history of the Red and Blue.
“While I may not have the ability to win an Ivy League championship while I’m here I certainly wanna set the tone back to where it used to be for Penn basketball and get some other people where I couldn’t go, and try and leave it better than where I found it.”
Sounding like a true veteran, Nelson-Henry is at peace with the career he has had. This weekend he will play his final games at the Palestra, and he will likely eclipse the 1,000-point mark on Friday night, sitting just eight points shy of the milestone.
Whether he goes on to play in Europe, the NBA Developmental League or a landing spot somewhere else, Nelson-Henry will have four proud years to look back upon at Penn.
If things go according to plan, he will be walking down 33rd Street to see his alma mater raise championship banners for years to come.
When that happens there will be many to thank, but Nelson-Henry will undoubtedly be one of the first.
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