by Dan Gardella
The 2017-2018 season for the Fairfield University Stags looked like an unpredictable one on paper. After losing two of their top three scorers from the prior season, coach Sydney Johnson brought in a core of new faces to play behind their senior leader Tyler Nelson. Nelson, who was coming off of a 19.5 point per game performance in his junior season, good enough to land him on the All-MAAC First Team, would have eight new faces brought into the program in hopes of bring Fairfield back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1997. Fast forward to the end of the season, Nelson would rewrite the program’s history books and come points away helping the Stags reach the Big Dance. Although coming up short, Nelson would leave Fairfield as the school’s All-Time leading scorer by registering 2,172 career points. Since he checked out of the last game of his collegiate career, it has been a whirlwind of events for Nelson. I sat down with him to catch up:
Dan Gardella: Last time I talked to you, you were in the middle of the season, competing for a MAAC Tournament spot. Now, after all that’s done, you got hot towards the end of the season, make the MAAC Tournament, pull off a couple of upsets before falling short. What was the team’s mindset during that span because it was almost like a storybook run because you guys had won 7 of your last 9 games to finish the season?
Tyler Nelson: We definitely had our ups and downs throughout the year but towards the last quarter of the year, we really started playing good basketball and that really helped us give us the confidence we needed with the young guys that were stepping up and playing better. With me and Jerome (Segura) and Jonathan (Kasibabu) being the leaders of the team, it helped mentor the young guy’s first run through the MAAC Tournament. The MAAC Tournament is one of those things where it doesn’t matter who the favorite is, any team can win and we knew that going in.
DG: The last time that everybody saw you, you were checking out of the MAAC Championship game. When you walked off the court, probably the picture of March was taken with you and coach Sydney Johnson embracing each other. What was the exchange and what was running through your head at that time?
TN: It was a pretty special moment. Me and coach Johnson have really strong relationship. Since I got there as a freshman, he pushed me to get better every year. We faced a lot of challenges and got through a lot of challenges. That moment itself is something I will remember the rest of my life. We both knew we gave it all we had and it was the last step of the chapter. Obviously, it was really sad but at the same time we were just proud to make it this far and how far we came since my first year.
DG: After Fairfield decided not to play in a postseason tournament, individually, you go to San Antonio and play in the Senior All-Star game and in the inaugural 3-on-3 tournament with other guys from the conference. What was that experience like being on such a big stage?
TN: The College All-Star game was a great experience. Going down there with a lot of great, distinguished guys that I followed myself throughout their college careers was pretty cool. To go down there and play on the Final Four court and have a big crowd down there and being around the Final Four environment was truly amazing. It was fun and exciting to be down there. It was the closing chapter of my career so it was pretty cool and obviously something I will always remember.
DG: After the All-Star game, you continue to play with a group of great seniors as you got an invite to the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament. You end up making the All-Tournament team in front of a ton of NBA scouts, and you win the entire tournament. How was playing in the PIT different from playing at a mid-major school like Fairfield?
TN: It was definitely different. For me, going down there and being in front of scouts from pretty much every single NBA team I wanted to prove myself. I knew what people were going to say. Coming from a mid-major school, they always have a reason to doubt you. I just wanted to prove that I belonged. By going down there and having the showing that I had, it helped me a lot. Being able to get five NBA workouts and now a Summer League invite proves that it definitely opened a lot of doors that wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t get invited to Portsmouth, or play like I did.
DG: What NBA teams did you work out with?
TN: The Los Angeles Lakers, Boston Celtics, Charlotte Hornets, Washington Wizards, and Philadelphia 76ers.
DG: Was there any workout that you felt better in than others?
TN: They were all similar in terms of what they had you do but I think my best workout was with either the Lakers or Wizards.
DG: Growing up close to Boston, what was it like working out for your hometown team?
TN: It was a dream come true to be able to go to their practice facility, put that uniform on and have a chance to show what I can do in front of Danny Ainge, Brad Stevens and the other guys watching the workout. I think I did pretty well so it was special because it was my hometown team.
DG: Was there any advice your dad (A scout for the 76ers) gave you going into these workouts?
TN: Just do what you do well which is shoot and show off my basketball IQ. That was what I focused on when I was down there. I didn’t do anything too crazy to wow anyone. I just wanted to show that I’m good at what I do.
DG: After the workouts, you landed a spot on the Minnesota Timberwolves’ Summer League Roster. You wanted that opportunity and now to have it. What is your approach going to be like facing the recent draftees and other players looking to make an impact?
TN: My mindset is to go in there and continue doing what I’ve been doing which is playing basketball the way I know how to, not doing anything special, make shots, make the right play, and show that I belong.
DG: What are a couple of things that you need to improve either before the Summer League or during the Summer League to prove to teams that you are worth signing?
TN: The biggest thing is my body. I need to put on some weight. That’s no mystery. That’s something I need to do and teams have been telling me that. That’s the biggest thing holding me back. Since that’s my main focus I know that it will take some time to do that. I also want to show teams that I can play the point guard and shooting guard.