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Physics Major Andrew Nicholson is the Smartest Player in the NBA
- Updated: August 5, 2012
By: Kels Dayton
Written for Slam Magazine
Andrew Nicholson isn’t like you and I.
He’s 6-9, 240 pounds, with a wingspan like Wilkins and a mind like Mendeleev.
He can beat you off the dribble, back you down in the post, or school you on the wave-particle duality of energy as it relates to the Planck constant.
(Seriously. That was his thesis project.)
Nicholson was a physics major at St. Bonaventure–only after switching from chemistry–and one of the best players in college basketball last season.
The kid from Mississauga, Ontario averaged 18.4 points, 8.5 rebounds, and 2 swats per game in leading the Bonnies to their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2000.
Also unlike you and I, Nicholson was selected by the Orlando Magic with the No. 19 pick in June’s NBA Draft.
“When you first see him, it’s kind of like, looks can be deceiving,” said Michael Davenport, his teammate and roommate freshman year. “Here’s this frail, geeky-looking dude who was walking around campus, you wouldn’t think he was an athlete. But when he gets on the court, he’s a different animal.”
Nicholson’s game is, as you might expect, sophisticated and cerebral; like a wine tasting or some function guys named Chadwick would attend.
But really, he’s best compared to one of those kitchen appliances Billy Mays used to sell on television at 1 a.m. He shoots! (43 percent from three-point range) He rebounds! (8.5 per) He even blocks shots! (2 per).
The big man put St. Bonaventure on his back during its thrilling three-day run to the Atlantic 10 tournament championship in March, averaging 23.3 points, 10 rebounds, and 5.3 blocks per game in wins over St. Joe’s, UMass and Xavier. The run capped off a remarkable transformation for the program, which had been downtrodden since an ugly eligibility scandal involving a welding certificate forced the school to self-impose three years of sanctions and a postseason ban. In the wake of the scandal, Bill Swan, the chair board of trustees, committed suicide.
St. Bonaventure went 24-88 in the next three years, and was widely considered a dead weight in the Atlantic 10. The once-proud basketball school was left searching for an identity, that is, until Nicholson showed up.
“Andrew is the answer to a prayer,” school president Sister Margaret Carney told the New York Times.
It took an almost divine confluence of events for Nicholson to sign with the Bonnies. First, he stepped on his phone with his size 18 sneakers in the summer of his junior year, leaving him unreachable to most coaches. He also didn’t participate in the AAU circuit that summer due to a sprained ankle, so Bonnies head coach Mark Schmidt sent assistant Jeff Massey up to Ontario to see him work out.
At first, Massey thought he was wasting his time, watching this 6-9 human Gumby meander his way around the paint. But then Nicholson flashed his on-court aptitude, the type of basketball brilliance that Schmidt says made him a cinch to coach. He flipped a touch pass to a teammate. He came out of nowhere to block a shot.
Massey was immediately smitten, and raced out of the gym to call Schmidt. “You’ve got to come see this kid,” Massey said. “He reminds me of Greg Oden.”
“When I saw him, I got goosebumps,” said Schmidt. “You could tell right away that he was going to be something special.”
Nicholson chose St. Bonaventure in part because they had been lucky enough to recruit him, and in part because he wanted to go to a rebuilding program. “I wanted to go somewhere where I could make a difference,” he said.
Most serendipitous for the Bonnies, however, was the brand-new William F. Walsh Science Center on campus, which Nicholson loved. “That was the big selling point,” said Schmidt. “For most kids, it’s about basketball first. Not him.”
Nicholson was able to balance both books and basketball through meticulous attention to detail and by sticking to his planner. He would study on the bus, constantly emailing his professors to make sure that he wasn’t missing anything. “He’s the type of guy that, things don’t slip his mind,” Davenport said. He also took several courses in the summer to help lighten the academic load.
Maybe the best way to describe his demeanor in class is the fact that he didn’t stand out–at all. Asked to recount anything memorable about his career in school, one of Nicholson’s professors said simply, “Andrew was a physics major among our physics majors. Maybe the tallest of our physics majors, but that’s all there is.”
He wasn’t so anonymous once he got to practice. “We’d joke around like, what chemicals are you messing with today?”, Davenport said. “Coach used to tease him about coming to practice with a lab coat on.”
“They called him the professor,” Schmidt said.
On the court, Nicholson is blessed with a Mother Teresa-like calm, always in control when he has the ball. The Magic like the fact that he can score in multiple ways, a luxury team hasn’t had since Tracy McGrady could still move around without a scooter.
Magic G.M. Rob Hennigan raved about Nicholson in a post-draft press conference, saying things like, “Andrew is a great human being,” and “he’s a humble, high-character guy.”
But what really impressed Hennigan was his on-court consciousness. “Andrew processes the game in a cerebral way,” the G.M. said. “He’s got an efficient way in which he scores the ball. He just has a natural instinct for the game.”
Nicholson’s instincts must be natural; there’s no other way to explain them. He’s only been playing organized ball since the 11th grade, when a growth spurt sent him from 6-6 to 6-9. It was then that the future first-rounder decided he ought to give this basketball thing a real chance.
Until that time, he had been a baseball player.
Sometimes that kind of prodigious talent can go to a kid’s head, but Nicholson has far too many physics equations bouncing around up there to let that happen. He’s quiet, measured and reserved, almost the antithesis of what a big-time athlete is supposed to be.
“He’s the most low-maintenance kid I’ve ever coached,” Schmidt said, recalling the time Andrew received his warmups in his bag at the hotel on his first road trip with the team.
“He’s got his pants, and they end up being like five inches too short. Now most kids would be like ‘come on man, give me me some real warmups’. Not only did he not say anything, he actually put them on and was walking around in them downstairs in the lobby. Everybody started laughing at him. But that’s Andrew.”
Although he’s been in Orlando since being drafted and had the rare chance to play in his new home during Summer League, the new millionaire hasn’t thought much about where he will live, or what kind of car he’s going to be rolling around in. He’s still living in a hotel.
“I’ don’t know when I’ll do that, but I’ll get to it eventually. I’ve got plenty of time,” he said.
Too bad for opponents, they don’t have the same luxury. Nicholson is here. He’s arrived. And the worst part is…
The brainiac can ball.