Young Gators learn how to gobble

In spotlight in high school, Nelson, Harvey capitalize on more reserved approach

NCAA Men's Tournament

April 03, 2000|By Brent Jones | Brent Jones,SUN STAFF

Both were prized recruits from minuscule towns who grew to become larger than life during their stellar high school careers.

Yet, freshmen Brett Nelson and Donnell Harvey are humble -- willingly accepting a lesser role for the good of the team -- though their contributions are probably the biggest reason why Florida went from a Sweet 16 team last year to one playing in the national championship game tonight against Michigan State.

Both bring different abilities to the table. Nelson, out of St. Albans, W. Va., is a scoring point guard, whose ability to shoot the three or penetrate to the basket and set up a teammate gives the Gators instant offense when he checks in the game.

Harvey, out of Shellman, Ga., is a monster, in the good sense, skying with his eyes parallel to the rim for rebounds and using his 91-inch wingspan to make shots difficult for opposing centers.

Florida coach Billy Donovan claims not to have any NBA lottery picks on his young team other than possibly forward Mike Miller. That is until he thinks about it for a few more seconds, then spits out the leaders of the Gators' second wave in Nelson and Harvey.

It is understandable that Nelson's name did not immediately come to mind. Nelson has not always been the player he is now, not the one who came off the bench to score seven points in three minutes against North Carolina on Saturday. In fact, Donovan had to bench the 6-foot-3 Nelson for the second half early in the season in the Maui Invitational against Purdue.

"That was just another learning experience for me," said Nelson, a McDonald's All-American last year who averaged 8.0 points this season. "I wasn't doing what Coach wanted me to do. He sat me on the bench, which was a good thing because it sent a message to me. He just told me I have to do exactly what he wants."

Donovan wanted him to stop acting like he was in high school. Translation: distribute the ball better, don't take bad shots and know others can make plays, too.

At the time, Nelson was feeling the pressure to live up to the hype of being the greatest player to come out of West Virginia since Jerry West. Greater in recent years than Jason Williams, who briefly ran the point at Florida two seasons ago before getting kicked off the team and landing in the first round of the 1998 draft with the Sacramento Kings.

At St. Albans, his high school had to move out of its 1,500-seat gym to the 14,000-seat Civic Center to accommodate all those who wanted to see Nelson play as a senior. The town itself has just over 11,000 people.

"I think for Brett, looking back on it, it was so hard for him with all the publicity and the expectations and probably having to justify `Why aren't you figuring it out? What's taking so long,' " Donovan said.

"People are comparing you to Jerry West. Well, Jerry West is the logo for the NBA right now. Brett Nelson is not the logo for the NBA. Jerry West is obviously going to go down in the history of this game as one of the greatest all-time players. Brett Nelson is a high school kid.

"He felt he was letting a lot of people down. The pressure of living up to that was difficult on Brett. But he has started to figure things out, and he's playing a lot better."

Things came easier for Harvey. He knew his role, which was to rebound, play defense and try to stay out of foul trouble. Harvey, at 6-8, averaged a team-high 7.0 rebounds and led the team in rebounds 18 times this season, six more times than his nearest teammate.

He, too, has become better late in the season, containing North Carolina center Brendan Haywood in the second half to one field goal -- while playing with four fouls.

Harvey, who was the 1999 USA Today Player of the Year and a McDonald's All-American, was raised by his grandmother in a town of 1,162. "People from a big city probably wouldn't like it," said Harvey, who is also averaging 10.1 points.

"He makes stuff happen when he gets in the game," Donovan said of Harvey. "With about eight minutes to go in the [North Carolina] game, we put him in there. I thought he dominated the backboard."

At the same time, Nelson was dominating the offense. Donovan can only hope that three years from now, he can still say his two players are doing the same for Florida.

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