How Alabama's Grant Nelson rose from 'the middle of nowhere' to the cusp of a Final Four

LOS ANGELES — Alabama men’s basketball coach Nate Oats was walking to his postgame news conference Thursday night when he glanced at the box score from his team’s victory over North Carolina for the first time.

Even he seemed surprised by the extent of the damage that forward Grant Nelson inflicted on the top-seeded Tar Heels.

Turning to Nelson, Oats chuckled and said, “24, 12 and 5? Not a bad stat line.”

The North Dakota State transfer sheepishly smiled and agreed he had a pretty good night.

Nelson’s performance in Alabama’s 89-87 Sweet 16 victory is one that will live on in NCAA tournament lore. Nineteen of his points came in the second half as the Crimson Tide rallied to earn an Elite Eight matchup with Clemson on Saturday night and to move within a single victory of their first Final Four in program history.

It was Nelson who rolled to the hoop, scored a layup and drew a foul to give Alabama the lead over North Carolina with less than a minute to go. It was Nelson who found himself isolated against All-American point guard R.J. Davis on the Tar Heels’ ensuing possession. And it was Nelson who swatted aside one of Davis’ attempts to tie the game and severely altered the other.

When the game was over, after CBS play-by-play man Brian Anderson declared that Nelson had just played “one of the all-time great second halves in an NCAA tournament game,” a reporter asked the Alabama hero to describe his path to this point. It’s a question that requires far more than just a quick sound bite to answer, but Nelson gamely tried.

“I’m from a small town …” he began.

Alabama's Grant Nelson (2) was a mostly unknown player coming out of high school in small-town South Dakota. Now he's a star in the NCAA tournament. (Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)
Alabama's Grant Nelson (2) was a mostly unknown player coming out of high school in small-town North Dakota. Now he's a star in the NCAA tournament. (Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports) (USA TODAY Sports via Reuters Connect / Reuters)

Rising from 'the middle of nowhere'

Here’s the ultimate measure of how isolated and remote Devils Lake, North Dakota, is: Even people from other parts of North Dakota describe it as "the middle of nowhere."

The city of 7,000 is the biggest dot on the map in a region of northeast North Dakota otherwise dominated by farmland. It’s the only town for 90 miles in any direction with a Walmart, an Applebees or a McDonald’s.

Devils Lake’s proximity to North Dakota’s largest natural body of water has turned the town into a nationally renowned hunting and fishing destination. Outdoors enthusiasts come from all over to hunt waterfowl or to catch walleye and perch.

The town is less fertile ground for college coaches hunting for overlooked prospects. The most physically gifted young athletes from Devils Lake often have to trek to bigger cities or even to neighboring states to find top-tier coaching and sufficient competition.

“The obstacles that my players face are things that big-city kids don’t have to worry about,” Devils Lake boys basketball coach Dustin Brodina told Yahoo Sports. "It’s a challenge for my players to get 10 guys together to go play a 5-on-5 pickup game. In a big town, you can just pick a playground and you’re going to play against some real dudes.”

It’s a testament to Nelson’s bloodlines and work ethic that he has overcome those hurdles. The son of Nels and Meg Nelson has eight siblings, many of whom are also known in Devils Lake for their athletic feats.

Older brother Leif recently unleashed the fourth-longest javelin throw in the history of USC’s storied track and field program. Younger brother Joel earlier this month led Devils Lake boys basketball to its first state title in 99 years. Older sister Erin played varsity football in 2015 and 2016 at Devils Lake, starting at kicker and dabbling at quarterback and linebacker.

Nelson’s passion for basketball blossomed on summer days playing against Leif in the driveway or at the park. Their 1-on-1 games were fiercely competitive. Leif, now 6-foot-6, was the taller, sturdier brother in those days. His slender younger brother had to develop his ball handling and perimeter shooting skills to compete.

Former Devils Lake head coach Derek Gathman recalls watching Nelson during one of his first practices his freshman year. Impressed but far from awestruck, Gathman told his assistant coaches that Nelson had a chance to be a “decent player.”

Nelson’s potential became more tantalizing after an astonishing growth spurt from 6-foot-1 freshman who didn’t make his school’s varsity team to 6-foot-10 senior honored as North Dakota’s Mr. Basketball in 2020. Justin Thomas, the eldest of Grant’s nine siblings, recalls one year when he came home to visit his family on Thanksgiving and then didn’t return again until Christmas. In the span of just a few weeks, his younger brother suddenly towered over him.

“Every time I would see him, he’d be a couple inches taller,” Thomas marveled.

The blend of Nelson’s quick-twitch athleticism, comfort with the ball in his hands and newfound length gradually helped him become the type of prospect seldom found in North Dakota. The tallest kid on the floor would sometimes grab a rebound at one end and drive the length of the floor or face up a defender and blow past him off the dribble for a soaring dunk.

Nelson did his best to accelerate his transformation by participating in open runs at his town’s junior college and by honing his skills at the park when the court wasn’t buried under snow and ice. He averaged 16 points and 11 rebounds as a junior, but Devils Lake was so far off the radar that he finished that season without a Division I scholarship offer.

From zero scholarships to stardom

That spring, after years of resisting AAU basketball because of the travel costs and the logistical challenges, Nelson’s parents agreed to let him try out for Fargo-based ECI Basketball. Lucas Moormann, the starting center on North Dakota State’s 2009 NCAA tournament team, needed only to watch Nelson warm up to recognize this total unknown was “the best player in the gym.”

“He was handling the ball like a guard and hammering dunks,” Moormann told Yahoo Sports. “All the other kids were staring at him like he was an NBA guy."

Moormann was impressed enough that he didn’t just offer Nelson a spot on the ECI team. On his way home from the gym that day, Moormann also dialed North Dakota State coach David Richman to tell him there was a kid he might want to come see.

Soon after that, Gathman drove Nelson and his Devils Lake teammates to Fargo so they could participate in North Dakota State’s team camp. Nelson put on a show that day, drawing the attention of the North Dakota State players who were refereeing the games or running the clock.

“You could see them looking at each other and looking at Coach Richman like ‘I think we gotta get this guy,’” Gathman said.

When a scholarship offer from North Dakota State quickly followed, that was the foot in the door that Nelson needed. He accepted the offer by June of the summer before his senior year, too soon for him to catch the attention of any out-of-state Division I programs while playing for ECI that summer.

Nelson didn’t get any taller at North Dakota State, but he grew in every other way imaginable. He became exposed to more of the world outside Devils Lake. He added muscle to his spindly 6-foot-10 frame. And he gained confidence, becoming more vocal and assertive in basketball and away from the game.

When Nelson averaged a career-best 17.9 points and 9.3 rebounds as a junior at North Dakota State, he decided he was ready for a new challenge. He entered the transfer portal and the NBA Draft, buying himself a couple months to decide how big a leap up in competition he was ready to make.

Feedback from scouts suggested that Nelson had the league’s attention but that he needed to improve his perimeter shooting and his defense to have a chance to go in the first round. Rather than spend the upcoming year playing in the G League on a two-way contract, Nelson shrewdly gambled that he could make comparable money as a college senior via NIL opportunities.

Justin Thomas, Nelson’s eldest sibling, didn’t know what he was getting into last spring when he agreed to serve as the gatekeeper to Nelson’s recruitment so that his younger brother could focus on the pre-draft process. Dozens of programs called about Nelson, maybe the most coveted transfer in all of college basketball.

“It was insane,” Thomas said. “I’d be driving home from a beer-league softball game and I’d get a call from Rick Pitino. Next thing I know I’m getting the hard sell from Rick Pitino when I’m just looking to take a shower and get home to my family.”

Mar 28, 2024; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide forward Grant Nelson (2) reacts in the second half against the North Carolina Tar Heels in the semifinals of the West Regional of the 2024 NCAA Tournament at Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Thanks to Grant Nelson's late-game heroics in a Sweet 16 win over North Carolina, Alabama is one win away from the Final Four in program history. (Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports) (USA TODAY Sports via Reuters Connect / Reuters)

On the cusp of a Final Four

A dizzying few weeks ended with Nelson selecting Alabama over Arkansas and Baylor. Oats recruited Nelson the hardest and needed him the most after the unexpected departure of center Charles Bediako left a 7-foot hole in the Crimson Tide’s starting frontcourt.

“I liked coach Oats a little bit, so I gave Alabama a chance,” Nelson said wryly while sitting next to his head coach on Thursday night.

Countered Oats with a laugh: “We’re both bad golfers trying to get better.”

On the eve of Alabama’s first practice last fall, Oats described Nelson to reporters in Tuscaloosa as “not a guard but certainly not a typical big.” Oats said that Nelson would face up and attack bigger, slower defenders or post up smaller ones. Nelson would handle the ball, Oats said, and feature in pick-and-pops and pick-and-rolls.

“We’re gonna put him all over the floor, to be honest with you,” Oats said.

For a variety of reasons, the version of Nelson that Oats promised never fully materialized. Nelson wasn’t physically overmatched by any means in the SEC, but he also wasn’t athletically superior to defenders like in the Summit League. He had to think the game better rather than relying on his physical tools.

A lingering knee injury hampered Nelson early in the season. Foul trouble has been a frequent issue more recently. And then there were just games when Alabama’s backcourt got rolling and Nelson wasn’t so much of a focal point.

Nelson, Alabama’s third-leading scorer and leading rebounder this season, emphatically shook off his recent struggles Thursday night to send the Crimson Tide to the Elite Eight for the first time in 20 years. He was so good that when Oats wanted to go to Mark Sears down the stretch, Sears had other ideas.

“Forget it, get it to Grant,” Sears told Oats. “Grant's cooking.”

Back home in Devils Lake, they were watching. Nelson’s family, friends, classmates and former coaches gathered to watch one of their own play in front of a crowd bigger than their whole town and a TV audience many times larger than that.

Late in the CBS broadcast, Anderson responded to Nelson’s game-turning and-one by shouting, “North Dakota, stand up!”

In Devils Lake, many already were.