Reeves Nelson is a force to be reckoned with

Freshman with seven tattoos has already left his mark on opponents, as well as teammates.

February 04, 2010|By Chris Foster

UCLA guard Mustafa Abdul-Hamid had a moment of concern in the giddiness that followed his recent game-winning shot against Washington.

Teammate Reeves Nelson was bearing down on him.

"I saw Reeves came running at me, lifted me up and bearhugged me," Abdul-Hamid said. "That scared me."

There are reasons to be concerned when Nelson is in your face, whether you're an opponent in the key or a teammate who has made a key shot.

There are the seven tattoos, all etched into his skin since he arrived in Westwood, each with a special meaning. There is that scowl, part of that please-try-and-stop-me will that drives him. There is unshakable confidence that has allowed him to succeed as a freshman this season.

That package can be summed up simply: "He's a beast for us," senior guard Michael Roll said.

Nelson knows his reputation is established. Teammates have dubbed him "Rage," while Bruins fans cheer when he throws his 6-foot-8, 230-pound body around the court.

Nelson is averaging 15 points and eight rebounds off the bench in the last four games heading into Thursday's game against Stanford at Pauley Pavilion. The Cardinal is 10-11 overall, 4-5 in Pacific 10 Conference. UCLA is 10-11, 5-4.

Nelson has given the Bruins an inside presence they lacked earlier this season, especially after center Drew Gordon left the team in December.

"It doesn't matter if guy is his size, 6-10. When he gets the ball, he's going to do good things," point guard Malcolm Lee said.

What sets him apart is the energy he brings.

"I think a lot of people identify with how I play," Nelson said. "They know I'm undersized playing center. People root for the underdog. They want that guy to succeed."

Nelson as an underdog might be a tough sell, given he was offered a scholarship by Kentucky as a sophomore at Modesto Christian High and was fielding phone calls from Duke, North Carolina and Georgetown before committing to the Bruins.

Underdog or not, Nelson has more bite than bark.

He began collecting tattoos only since coming to UCLA because his father told him, "never while living under [my] roof." He has his mother's name on one wrist and his sister's on the other. On his left shoulder area is the yin-yang sign, a tribute to his uncle.

"It represents the harmony in life, the good and bad," Nelson said. "You can't have one without the other."

Tattoos, like talk, can be cheap. But Nelson seems to have more than just a look.

"Guys try to muscle me up, but then I push back," Nelson said. "First time down court, I give them a shoulder in the middle of the chest. Sometimes you can tell the next time down the court that it's going to be easier. People don't like getting hit in the sternum."

Such talk makes Coach Ben Howland nervous. "That would be a foul," Howland said.

But it is effective. "Against Oregon State, some guy had the ball and Nelson just ripped it from him and the dude fell on the floor," freshman forward Tyler Honeycutt said. "There was no foul on that. He's very intimidating."

Nelson had 14 points, making seven of eight shots, and 12 rebounds in the 62-52 victory over Oregon State. He is shooting 64% in the last four games.

"You keep attacking, like a wounded animal I guess, and you can have your way with them more," Nelson said.

Howland noticed Nelson the first time he attended a UCLA summer camp. He was 14 and won the camp's slam-dunk contest.

"I was unbelievable how strong he was and how athletic," Howland said. "Right away you knew there was special talent there.

"You don't see the ball hit out of his hands very often when he has both hands on it. He is as strong as anybody I ever coached."

The rough and tumble play does come with a price. Against Kansas, Nelson was poked in the right eye, suffering a scratched cornea. He didn't miss a game, but took an elbow in the same area the next time out against Mississippi State.

"I've also broken knuckles in my hand fighting with my brother and broke another knuckle dunking," Nelson said, shrugging.

Scary to some, but not to him.

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