Reeves Nelson of the Los Angeles Lakers Summer League team cheers while… (Leila Navidi )
LAS VEGAS — There's less of Reeves Nelson than before. He has shaved about 15 pounds off his 6-foot-8 hulk since December, shrunk his body fat percentage to 3% and chipped away at the arrogant pride that he says once derailed him.
He sits at the end of the Lakers' bench as a member of their Summer League team here, not playing a single second in two games through Saturday, clapping for his teammates, clinging to the edges of his childhood dream.
But that dream is less in his grip than last fall, when Nelson's career path seemed to lead directly from UCLA, where he starred, to being selected in the NBA draft's first round this June and reaping millions of guaranteed dollars.
That path eroded, starting with his dismissal from UCLA for his disruptive attitude, followed by a Sports Illustrated expose that painted him as a bully to his teammates and ending with every NBA team passing on him in the draft.
"I was comfortable and let my pride get in the way of making changes that would've allowed me to stay at UCLA," Nelson says. "That was the main lesson. With everything that happened, it was a very humbling experience."
For fringe Summer League players, the odds of earning a spot on a regular-season roster are low, but Nelson believes he can play in the NBA and he's not the person he has been portrayed as. Now, he's trying to prove both.
"Obviously, I can say everything I want until I'm blue in the face," Nelson says, "but no one is going to believe it until they see it. Actions speak louder than words, so that's what I'm trying to do."
Lakers assistant coach Chuck Person is coaching the team's Summer League squad and says Nelson is a hard worker who has given him no trouble. "He's been an exemplary, solid citizen since we've had him," Person says, adding Nelson would "get his chance soon."
His chance would have to come soon. The Lakers have three Summer League games left: Monday versus Miami, Tuesday versus San Antonio and Thursday versus the Clippers.
Person describes Nelson as a "roll-your-sleeves-up, blue-collar guy," adding he needs to improve his shooting because in the NBA, he would play the small forward position rather than power forward or center, as he played at UCLA.
J.R. Harris, Nelson's agent, says Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak "really liked him a lot" during a workout and thus he was invited to their Summer League team. Harris added few teams raised many questions about Nelson's character, and Nelson, who calls himself a lifelong Lakers fan, added their relative lack of inquiry in that area surprised him.
From what Nelson's mother, Sheila, has seen, her son's demeanor is different.
"He's super chill, very relaxed and seems very focused," she says.
Nelson filed a $10-million defamation lawsuit against Sports Illustrated in May. The lawsuit contained sworn declarations from 18 former teammates who said certain allegations against Nelson contained in the story were false.
Sports Illustrated has said it stands behind the story. Ironically, Nelson was on the cover of a regional edition of that very magazine last November when it touted UCLA, and by proxy Nelson, as one of the top teams in the U.S.
But a month after that issue came out, Nelson had been dismissed from UCLA. And shortly thereafter, he was playing overseas for BC Zalgiris, a professional team in Lithuania.
"I don't know how much more you can get from the top to the bottom than that," Nelson says.
In six games with Zalgiris, Nelson averaged 2.5 points and 3.3 rebounds in 10 minutes, according to the league website. The team released him after five weeks.
"I felt like I could better prepare for the NBA at home rather than sitting on the bench over there," Nelson says.
He says he's focused, motivated, in the best shape of his life, stronger and quicker than ever before. He admits he's made mistakes but says he has no regrets. His goal — the NBA — is the same as it was in the second grade. And even if that goal is more distant than a year ago, it's close enough that it just might be within his reach.