There aren’t many players in college basketball who can score like the senior Oregon State shooting guard Roberto Nelson can. Heading into Wednesday night’s game against Towson, he was third in Division I in the country in scoring with a 24.7 average.
Twice this year, Nelson has notched more than 30 points, including in the Beavers’ biggest victory of the season, a road win against Maryland. “That was a great game,” Nelson told Fox News Latino a couple of hours before suiting up to play Towson. “Our team is full of unselfish players who want me to shoot and score.”
He certainly has been doing that, and highly efficiently. His shooting percentage is just under .500, which is phenomenal for a shooting guard taking the lion’s share of the shots for his team.
There also aren’t many players who have experienced the sort of emotional roller coaster that Nelson already has in his 22 years.
Roberto Nelson was born in posh Santa Barbara, Calif., the son of an African-American father, Bruce Nelson, and a Mexican-American mom, Roberta Cordero. His parents separated when Roberto was still young, and he lived, for the most part, with his dad, a high school basketball coach.
There was never really any question about what Roberto would play while growing up. From being a gym rat coach’s son, to watching his sister, Noel, to playing A.A.U. ball to starring for Santa Barbara High School, his dad was the one constant coach in his life.
“He always pushed me,” the son said. “He consistently knew what I would need to be able do at the next level.”
But then Bruce was charged with a crime of a sexual nature stemming from his volunteer work at a health clinic. Although he still professes his innocence, the summer before Roberto’s senior year, Bruce accepted a plea bargain for committing “lewd sexual acts.”
“There’s no way I would play with my life,” the father told The Oregonian in February 2012, after being released and reuniting with his son. “It’s 18 to 25 to life or take this deal, get out in 3½ years, and see your son again.’’
Roberta wanted her son to transfer out of Santa Barbara for his senior year, afraid that he would be taunted over his dad’s legal problems. But Roberto stuck it out, became an ESPN-ranked top 100 prospect, was recruited by more than 50 colleges and universities – most heavily by Ohio State - and then he met Craig Robinson.
The basketball coach of the other OSU, Oregon State, is probably best known for being Barack Obama’s brother-in-law. One perk are the annual road trips to the Washington, D.C., area, the itineraries of which have included White House visits. “I like to play golf,” Nelson said, “and one of the first times we went, the president asked me about my golf game. The President of the United States knows stuff about me.”
President Obama likes to play a little hoops himself. “I really wanted to have a shooting contest with him,” Nelson said, laughing. “I just wanted to be able to say that I beat him.”
But, Nelson stressed to Fox News Latino, Robinson “isn’t just a great coach, he’s a person with high character.”
Clearly, the connection the coach made with a senior who had just watched his dad disappear into prison has taken a surrogate-father tone to it. “Last week, we had a conversation about life,” he said, “and how much money I’ll need to provide for a family. A lot of coaches don’t do that, don’t get you ready for life. Coach has definitely prepared me for the future.”
Nelson’s immediate future involves Christmas in Hawaii. OSU plays Akron in Honolulu on Dec. 22 so his family decided to spend the holiday there.
That plan was nearly derailed a few hours after Nelson spoke to Fox News Latino.
Nelson played less than 9 minutes Wednesday night against Towson before getting tangled with 6’ 7” forward Marcus Damas. As the two fell to the floor, the referee thought that Nelson had possibly thrown a punch at the Towson player; he was ejected having scored 4 points. His scoring average dropped to 22.1 points per game – still the 13th highest scorer in Division I programs.
A spokesman for the school wrote to Fox News Latino in an e-mail, “Roberto said he didn't throw a punch. He got tangled with a player and the officials interpreted it as [one]. He won't be disciplined more and is eligible to play in the next game.”
After that, a difficult Pacific 12 conference schedule begins Jan. 2 against No. 20-ranked Colorado.
“It’s an extremely tough conference,” Nelson said, “but we have a talented team with veteran guys who have been through the wars.”
Oregon State is 6-2, losing the first game of the season to lightly-regarded Coppin State, and a tough road game against Big East power DePaul. Even though the Beavers haven’t qualified for either the NCAA or the NIT in Nelson’s three seasons at the school, if they keep their heads above the .500 mark in Pac-12 play, they stand a pretty good shot of making the NCAA Tournament in March.
Then maybe the NBA Draft. At 6’ 4”, Nelson is short for an off guard in the NBA, so he realizes he be a better pro prospect at point guard. He spent the summer working on his ball handling. “I’ve gotten better and creating my own shot,” he said, “and for others. My passing is pretty good – my handle I still have to work on.”
Bill Vourvoulias (@bvourvoulias) is an editor at Fox News Latino.