TORONTO – From the moment Andrew Nicholson stepped on the St. Bonaventure campus four years ago, you knew he was something special, a rare basketball talent who could lift a desperate program and one day play the game at the highest level.
But at the time, his distinguishing quality was the fact the he was serious about class, that he actually chose Bona for its chemistry program. Fans in Olean loved the fact that Nicholson defined himself as a student.
Eight months after taking Bona fans on an unforgettable NCAA ride, Nicholson is now a well-paid professional. But the Mississauga, Ont., native is also a student again, an eager and determined newcomer to the demanding NBA game.
You could see it on his face Sunday afternoon when his new team, the Orlando Magic, played against the Raptors. Nicholson is still learning the pro game, still working on the nuances and fundamentals of the NBA. He's a smart player. It's coming to him fast. He wants it to come even faster.
“He's quick to learn,” said Glen 'Big Baby' Davis, the veteran Magic forward. “He has his ears open and he's ready to just soak up all the knowledge that he can. It's a great thing. It's an especially good sign for a rookie. He's a sponge.”
Funny, but Bonnies coach Mark Schmidt used that same word to describe Nicholson to me in his freshman season. A sponge. He was a quiet, shy kid who rarely had an expansive answer for the media. But he was constantly working to expand his game and polish his skills.
“Oh, yeah,” Nicholson said after Orlando lost to the Raptors, 97-86 at the Air Canada Centre, “I'm always willing to listen. I'm sort of lucky. He [Davis] is graciously helping me out.”
Davis came up the hard way in Boston, where he was pushed hard by a veteran Celtic team that helped him become a responsible pro. Big Baby was once reduced to tears when Kevin Garnett berated him.
“Every young player needs it,” Davis said. “They need that tough love. It's understanding a little bit. He's been doing a good job, man. We beat him up a little bit and he tries to fight back.”
Nicholson doesn't seem in awe of his surroundings. He knows he can score. He's averaging 6.1 points in just 12 minutes through nine games. Nicholson, a 6-foot-9 forward, missed his first four shots against the Raptors, but he kept plugging and finished with eight points on 2 for 7 from the floor in 16 minutes. He's shooting 47 percent from the floor and 83 from the line so far.
Orlando is a good situation for him. The Magic finally traded Dwight Howard and removed Stan Van Gundy as head coach. They have a young squad, with three rookies and three second-year players. They also have the youngest coach in the league in 37-year-old Jacque Vaughn.
They're a bad team. Sunday's loss was their sixth in seven games after a 2-0 start. Two of their veterans, Hedo Turkoglu and Al Harrington, are out with injuries. J.J. Redick was a late scratch with the flu. At one point, Nicholson was on the floor in the first half with this renowned foursome: Josh McRoberts, E'Twaun Moore, Maurice Harkless and Gustavo Ayon.
Orlando made a second-half run when Nicholson played briefly with the starters. He faked a shot from the top of the key, drove down the right side of the lane and flipped in a high-arcing runner while being fouled. His three-pointer cut the Toronto lead to a point, 64-63. The Magic briefly went ahead, but the top guys quickly handed the game back to Toronto.
Nicholson figures to get more playing time as the season goes along. He was Orlando's first-round draft pick last spring, the 19th overall pick. It's not as if the Magic are loaded with low-post scorers. Nicholson played four years in college and is more advanced offensively than most rookie big men.
“He has earned his minutes,” Vaughn said. “He deserves to play. From Day One, he's taking that approach and he's gaining the trust of the coaching staff.”
There's a studied, mechanical quality to Nicholson's game. You can see he's learning to master the pick and rolls, the swift defensive switches necessary at this level. He's not an elite NBA athlete, but he has great hands, quick feet and a sense of where to be on the court.
The education continues. At one point, Nicholson had an animated discussion with Ayon on the floor after a missed defensive assignment. Later, he lost Amir Johnson on a pick and roll and immediately sought out Vaughn on the visiting bench to ask his counsel. He chatted up the officials, too.
“Well, I'm not the perfect basketball player,” Nicholson said, “so I still have to work on everything. The good thing about the NBA is it's 82 games.”
Nicholson has dreamed of playing at this level since he was growing up in Ontario, going to see the Raptors in the early days of their existence. He had a lot of family and friends in the crowd Sunday, including some of his pals from St. Bonaventure.
“It felt really good,” he said. “When I was a kid, I used to come to the games, too, watching the same court. It's a blessing to know that I finally had the opportunity to go out there and play. Basketball in Canada is on the rise and still making progress.”
You could say the same about the country's rookie NBA export. Nicholson said he really misses college. His post-grad work is only beginning.