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Jameer Nelson Jr. proving he’s got game to go with famous name

HAVERFORD >> Kharon Randolph looks over his shoulder and offers a sheepish apology for the answer he is about to give.

For two years, the junior guard has grown close to Jameer Nelson Jr. as a teammate and a friend at The Haverford School. They’ve developed a connection on and off the court as basketball-loving teens, irrespective of one possessing a famous basketball moniker.

Jameer Nelson Jr., here driving past Shipley School’s Eli Gorrell, is averaging 9.1 points per game as a sophomore starter on a 16-1 Fords team. (Courtesy of Haverford School/Jim Roese Photography)

When it comes to appraising Nelson on the basketball court, though, Randolph can’t help but fall back on a ready-made explanation.

“It sounds cliché,” Randolph starts hesitantly, “but he plays like his dad.”

There’s no avoiding the prestige that the name Jameer Nelson connotes on basketball courts around Philadelphia. But make no mistake: Jameer Nelson Jr. isn’t the second coming of his father, the Daily Times Player of the Year from Chester, the Wooden Award winner at Saint Joseph’s and the 13-year NBA veteran. He’s charting his own course, and he has no more vocal supporter than his namesake.

“It’s not pressure,” Jameer Nelson Sr. said by phone last week. “The kid works, so in my opinion when you work, you kind of alleviate as much pressure as you can. He’s ready for it. He understands that with me being a pro athlete, he’s going to be criticized in different ways and put in situations other kids aren’t. Sometimes it’s a positive thing, too, that other kids don’t get. …

“He’s his own kid. He’s his own person. Regardless of his name, he has to make a name for himself.”

“He told me not to listen to it,” Nelson Jr said. “Be myself, and be the best person I can be before (being) a player. And to just not worry about what everyone else thinks about it. It’s what I think about it.”

Basketball is undeniably in the blood of Nelson Jr., as sure as the toddler nicknamed “Meer Meer” became a sensation in his father’s arms as Nelson Sr. spearheaded St. Joe’s dream 2003-04 season.

Nelson’s mother, Imani Tillery, is a Chester High grad whose father, George, played for the Clippers in the late 1960s. Nelson Jr. was born in 2001 while his father was in Saitama, Japan, winning gold with the U.S. at the FIBA Under-21 World Championships in the summer before his sophomore year on Hawk Hill. Nelson Jr. and three younger sisters have been reared in the shadow of pro basketball, spending 10 years in Orlando, where Nelson was an all-star with the Magic, and a half-season in Dallas. After Nelson was traded twice in four weeks in the 2014-15 season, Imani and the kids settled back in Philadelphia for Nelson Jr. to start high school, landing him with the Fords while Nelson is in his third season with the Denver Nuggets.

Nelson Jr. saw limited varsity action as a freshman but has become an indispensable part of the Fords’ rotation as a sophomore. He’s averaging 9.1 points per game, fourth-most on a team that is 16-1 and in pole position for a first Inter-Ac crown since 1999. Nelson Jr. has carved a reputation as a dogged rebounder and daunting perimeter defender.

This is where we resist the urge to draw the late-bloomer comparison to his father.

Haverford School guard Jameer Nelson Jr. has his eye on making a name for himself while helping his Fords team succeed. (Courtesy of Haverford School/Jim Roese Photography)

“The energy on the court, defensively, he’s everywhere,” Randolph said. “And like his dad, he’s very athletic. It’s like a different type of level athletic. Three plays in a row, you’ll watch him grab a rebound, catch a crazy pass, lay it up.”

Both father and son chalk up the rapid improvement to a productive summer of workouts with Nelson’s cousin, Archbishop Carroll All-Delco and Samford freshman point guard Josh Sharkey.

The impetus for that hard work, the elder Jameer strenuously points out, had very little to do with him.

“He had an unbelievable summer of training and just understanding how to develop a great work ethic and great habits,” Nelson Sr. said. “I never push him to do anything. He has to love it. I can’t say, ‘Go workout, go do this.’ He has to make himself do that.”

Comparisons to his dad are inevitable, and Nelson Jr. receives most with a knowing but respectful smirk. People have so often framed his accomplishments and traits through the lens of his father’s prowess that he can’t recall when it started and doesn’t expect it to end anytime soon. He acknowledges the praise for the privilege that it is, and Nelson Sr. makes sure that any parallels remain constructive. That’s taken on a different significance with Nelson Jr. in high school, where his father holds a hallowed place in the annals of the game in Philadelphia.

“I’m pretty used to it now, people asking me,” Nelson Jr. said. “It’s kind of weird because it’s like, why are you talking to me about him?”

His Haverford teammates got past that hang-up pretty quickly. Nelson Jr. has his stories — Rashard Lewis, for instance, was his favorite of his father’s teammates — but he seldom flaunts his famous bloodlines.

“We all notice it,” Randolph said. “Jameer Nelson, he’s from the area, we know him. But we don’t talk about it much because that’s his dad. He probably hears about it from other people, so we just keep it to the side.”

That Nelson Jr. excels on the court may not be coincidence, but it’s also not by exhaustive design. Nelson Sr. won’t even commit to the fact that basketball is his son’s best sport, as he excels in baseball as well.

It’s often forgotten that Nelson Sr. was an excellent baseball player before committing wholeheartedly to hoops.

“It’s fun to see him grow as a human being and not just a basketball player,” Nelson Sr. said. “Obviously you want your child to do well in whatever they’re doing, first and foremost at school. Jameer’s a kid that wants to be good at everything in life and it’s a matter of him putting the pieces together. …

“I can’t say what he does. But I tell him, ‘Whatever you do, you do 100 percent. And I’ll put 100 percent in it.’”

Nelson Jr.’s goals are shifting, too. The Fords’ success has been spurred by a pair of talents garnering Division I interest in Randolph and sophomore forward Christian Ray. Extrapolating Nelson Jr.’s growth from freshman to sophomore seasons, it’s no stretch to imagine him rising to that level.

“I would love to go to college for basketball,” he said. “That wasn’t really the goal last year until I was pushed to keep working in the summer. Now it’s become a must. And that’s my goal.”

That would entail making a name for himself, and Jameer Nelson Jr. isn’t shy about that.

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