You know who he is, you’ve seen him play, and chances are you’ve awed over his British accent. If you haven’t, then you probably haven’t been to a single basketball game this year; in which case, I strongly suggest you start going.
From across the pond comes UC Irvine’s freshman phenom, Luke Nelson. Nelson is one of the many fresh faces on UC Irvine’s 2013-2014 men’s basketball team and is undoubtedly making his mark on the NCAA. At just 18 years old (the youngest player on the team), the freshman guard stands tall at 6-foot-3 and walks on the court as one of Coach Turner’s vibrant starting five.
Born in London, Nelson moved to Worthing at just 18 months, a little over 50 miles from London. At 16, Nelson moved once more, about an hour and a half away from his home in Worthing to Oxon, in order to attend The Henley College.
Nelson was picked to play for his national team and during a tournament two summers ago, was spotted by UCI’s assistant head coach Ali Ton. “We exchanged emails, went back and forth for about a year, then [he] offered me an official visit. [I] came. Loved it. And committed about a month later,” Nelson said.
Growing up, Nelson was always a very athletic kid. He played soccer until the age of 14, switching off between soccer and basketball games during the weekends. “It came to a point where I stopped improving in soccer and just really started to love basketball,” Nelson admits. “That’s why I stuck with it.”
Nelson undeniably made his mark in England, being named 2013 England Player of the Year in Division I; the youngest player to ever earn that honor and was selected as England’s U18 Player of the Year.
“I’ve come from a winning mentality, [from] winning teams,” Nelson said. “Basically we have national championships in club teams in England and [during] my time from when I was 12, started playing in the national league, to when I stopped at 18, I’ve been to five final-fours within that time with two different teams. I have two silver medals, two gold, and a fourth place finish.”
Playing for his national team, Nelson won the European championships Division B; U16 he has a silver medal, and U18 he has a bronze. “I’m here to win,” Nelson said.
Luke was offered a professional contract this year to play in Europe, but turned it down for the opportunity to play for UC Irvine. “I felt like it would be better for me to come get an education,” he said.
But the dream is ultimately the NBA for Nelson. “I don’t want to be someone who plays in college and goes back to England [to] play. I want to explore America, the NBA. That’s the dream,” Nelson said.
The transition from U.K. to U.S. was not as difficult for Luke as one might assume. Having left home for two years to attend The Henley College, Nelson is used to being away from his parents. “That part wasn’t too bad,” he said. “But it’s essentially a whole ’nother world [here].”
The geography is not the only difference between California and England. According to Luke Nelson, so is the basketball. “Here [the game] is a lot faster. The speed of the game is a lot quicker.”
Nelson has been seriously lifting weights for two years now since the game here is so much more physical. “That’s an adjustment for me to make,” Nelson said. “The main [difference] is the speed and physicality of things.”
Luke Nelson has had an incredible support group throughout his journey thus far. “I’ll give you a long list,” Nelson laughingly replied when asked who he attributes his success to. “Probably the main was my dad.”
Like father, like son, Luke’s father also played basketball in England. “He was my coach in Worthing, and when I moved away, he was still heavily involved. He worked away from home too. Try and picture it. We lived in Worthing, Southeast of England. He worked on the West Coast of England and I was somewhere in between going to school.”
But Luke’s father clearly didn’t ‘mind the gap’. “At times he did a lot of driving. He came to as many games as he could. He’s been very supportive,” Nelson said. “He’s a great man [and] he’s done a lot for my family; I’d like to be able to be like that,” Nelson admits.
Luke has also received a lot of support from his family here — his team. “The coaches are very supportive here. Russell Turner, Ali Ton, Nick Booker, Ryan Badrtalei, the whole coaching staff,” Nelson said. “All the guys are really supportive. I’ve met with the families of the guys on the team; they’ve been really kind to me, very supportive as well.”
UC Irvine’s men’s basketball team is currently 4-1 in conference play, and remains first in the Big West.
“We treat the next game as the biggest game. Coach always says the next game is the biggest game of the season. We approach every single game like that,” Nelson said.
“In terms of what we do on the court, we have a very big emphasis on defense. Fortunately, we have guys like Mamadou, Will Davis, John Ryan, Mike Best behind us. If as guards we get beat, we know we have help coming from them.”
If Nelson’s skill, talent and performance during matches doesn’t make him shine and stand out (which it definitely should), his accent will.
When asked if girls fan-girl over the British accent, Nelson laughingly replied, “No comment. I tell them I’m from Texas sometimes. Some people believe it, some people don’t. It’s funny. I enjoy it when they believe me,” Nelson laughs.
Luke Nelson is a charismatic, young spirit whose skill, work ethic and determination will serve as a prime asset on the Anteaters’ road to success this season.