Youngstown State forward Adrian Nelson: ‘I have more grit and toughness than a lot of guys’

When Adrian Nelson committed to play this past season at Youngstown State, the 6-foot-8 forward wanted to put up his best campaign in his fifth and final year in college.

He did just that.

Nelson joined the Penguins after previously playing four seasons at Northern Kentucky. He remained in the Horizon League with the move and committed to head coach Jerrod Calhoun, who previously recruited him out of high school at Pickerington Central in Ohio.

He was named to the All-Horizon League third team after averaging a career-high 13.5 points, 9.4 rebounds, 1.5 steals and 1.1 assists. He recorded the most rebounds (318) by a Penguin since the 1991-92 season and ranked 28th in the country in double-doubles (13).

With Nelson in the fold, the program reached new heights.

Youngstown State won the regular-season conference championship for the first time after tying the program record for most wins in a season (24). They set the school record for most conference wins (15) and advanced to the NIT for the first time.

Nelson leaves college with a decorated resume.

He finished his career with 1,091 points and 1,047 rebounds in 148 total appearances at Northern Kentucky and Youngstown State. He won the conference tournament championship twice at Northern Kentucky and appeared in the NCAA Tournament in 2019.

Now, Nelson is looking to take the next step in his basketball career.

He has been training for the NBA draft with other prospects at Impact Basketball in Las Vegas, Nevada. He is making strides each day in his development and believes his time with the training staff at Impact Basketball has helped transform his game.

Rookie Wire caught up with Nelson this week to discuss his college career, training with Kyrie Irving and Caris LeVert, preparing for the NBA draft and more.

Note: This interview was edited for clarity

How has everything been since your season ended?

AN: Everything has been going well. I have been really focusing this offseason on pretty much my all-around game, just shooting and ballhandling. I’ve been down at Impact Basketball and I feel like this was a great thing that my agent (Ben Pensack) helped me get into because it helps me realize areas that I’m good at and areas I need to focus on to make sure I get to the next level.

Where do you think you've improved the most during your workouts?

AN: I would say for sure my shooting and ballhandling. I feel like from my first couple years in college to now, I have really been able to polish up my guard skills so I feel like being more versatile is where I’ve made my biggest strides.

How has it been training with the other draft prospects at Impact Basketball?

AN: It really helps me scale where my game is at. Seeing players from all these great universities and stuff like that, it really just puts into perspective where I’m at game-wise and what I need to work on. Just being able to be versatile with the work I do. Some days I’ll be with the bigs and some days I’ll be with the guards so that is helping me realize my versatility at all levels because not everybody here is a mid-major player. There are a lot of NBA guys we’re playing with, there are a lot of high-major guys from big schools so being able to see that I’m able to compete at that scale, which I always knew I could, is really helping me take my game to another level.

Do you feel like that competition helps you improve your game?

AN: For sure! Because everybody is here for one reason and one reason only: To get a contract. I feel like every day, the competition level is high. Nobody wants to look like the worst player out there so everybody is competing and going at each other’s necks. That’s what I really like about this because you can really see who has that competitive edge to them and that also brings the best out of everybody else.

You weren't a 3-point shooter until this past season. What led to that change?

AN: When I came into college at Northern Kentucky, the coach originally was trying to have me play multiple positions at once. Transferring from high school to college is very different. There is a lot thrown at you at once, especially if I’m trying to learn three positions. The coach felt like that was unfair to me so he pretty much just wanted me to be a big coming into Northern Kentucky, which was a big change for me because I’ve never played the five position like that.

I kind of felt like I was in a box there but I got really good at finishing around the rim, being an inside presence and that helped my rebounding ability, which I feel is one of my main characteristics as a player. For my last year, I wanted to utilize (my shooting) and Coach Calhoun believed in me. He recruited me out of high school so he knew how I played. Him just believing in me and letting me know that I’m able to shoot those 3s, which was something I was always capable of and what I’d been working on for the five years leading up to the point at Youngstown State.

Was there anyone you watched as you were working on your shot?

AN: I’m pretty close with Caris LeVert of the Cleveland Cavaliers so I was working out with him. He pretty much helped me get my jump shot right but players that I’ve been watching, personally, growing up and trying to model my game after were guys like Carmelo Anthony and DeMar DeRozan for the mid-range game and stuff like that. Paul George and his consistent form and how he works and shoots the ball. Just really focusing on my mechanics, making sure I’m not fading away and staying consistent with how I shoot the ball.

Along with Caris, you've also trained with Kyrie Irving. What was that experience like?

AN: Working out with them just showed me my vision of where I want to be and how they approach each day and how they just do the simple things like take care of their body and things like that. Receiving that advice and being around those types of guys who know what it takes to get there and, knowing what I’m capable of, really helps me when they give me pointers and tell me that I’m doing something good. That really fuels me and helps me stay confident in my abilities.

How would you describe your journey to Youngstown State?

Albert Cesare/The Enquirer
Albert Cesare/The Enquirer

AN: I wouldn’t necessarily say a bumpy road but I’ll say there were a lot of challenges along the way. Going into my sophomore year, I tore my ACL. I was under John Brannen for one year during my freshman year and then we got a new coach, Darrin Horn from Texas. I was trying to put my game on display in front of him but things just didn’t go my way. I got injured so I kind of got stuck in that position but we won a lot of games and I enjoyed my time there. I would just say the biggest thing was learning along the way, learning from my mistakes and knowing what I had to do better and what I needed to improve on myself — mentally, physically and game-wise.

How gratifying was it to be named to the All-Horizon League third team?

AN: It was a lot of gratification just knowing all of the work you’ve put in over the years and you were finally able to show it the last chance you got of winning it. Ending my college career and being able to get 1,000 points and 1,000 rebounds, which is a hard feat to get for anybody but just doing that in an under-sized position and really just taking advantage of my last year I had, I feel like that was real big for me. Just knowing that all my hard work paid off on what I’ve been working on for a long time so I couldn’t be more pleased with how my last year ended.

You all won the regular-season conference title for the first time in program history and made it to the NIT. How fun was this past season?

AN: I feel like I had the most fun in one year than I had in four years. From everything that has happened — the first regular-season title in school history, the most conference games won — I just feel like having been surrounded by a group of guys like that for my last year and just being able to get all those achievements and accolades, not just me personally, but for a university, who used to be my rivals (at Northern Kentucky), I feel like was a real big achievement.

You ranked 28th in the country in double-doubles. What is your mindset when you're crashing the glass?

AN: I feel like I have more grit and more toughness than a lot of guys I play against and I know that a lot of guys don’t like doing the dirty work. When it comes to doing that, it not only gives me more opportunities for us to get offense or for me to score but it also sets my team up in better positions. I watched guys like Dennis Rodman to see how he got rebounds and how he perceived which way the shots come off the rim. I feel like that really helped me and what I tried to focus on throughout my five years in college.

How are you able to keep your conditioning up during this time?

AN: I’ll just say the extra work outside of Impact because Impact is only open a certain amount of hours during the day. So, just making sure I’m getting in those extra sprints after and some jump shots and just working on my own because before I came out here, I was making sure I would get to the swimming pool for conditioning, run a couple of miles on the treadmill before and after my workouts. Just making sure I’m doing the extra work because there’s only a limited amount of time we have at Impact but you also have to make time for yourself on your own to see how badly you really want to get to that next level.

How would you describe your game to someone that hasn't seen you play before?

AN: I would say I’m a versatile forward that can make shots whenever I’m open. I feel like I’m good at slashing and finishing around the rim, as well as a very relentless and tenacious rebounder. I feel like I can guard positions 1-5 and do pretty much anything that a team needs me to do.

What are you trying to show teams in your workouts?

AN: I’m going to show them just my versatility, my energy, my work ethic. I feel like I’m always the hardest-working person in the gym. I want to show teams I can shoot the ball. I know that one year at school may not be enough because there was only one year (shooting from 3-point range) so the numbers can’t really be as vivid as they would like. I’m good at dribbling and I feel like I’m great all around as a player.

Story originally appeared on Rookie Wire