Nathaniel jumps at challenge

Murali Balaji

Gophers’ guard Kevin Nathaniel has made the leap from backup utility player to backcourt starter, but the transition pales in comparison to an even bigger leap: Air Force veteran to college basketball player.
Nathaniel, who turned 22 last month, is listed as a sophomore, but his experience as a military police officer doesn’t exactly qualify as standard college resume material.
Then again, the Camarillo, Calif., native has hardly been a standard player for the Gophers, filling in nicely at four positions before working his way into the starting lineup.
“Being in the Air Force didn’t really help me in basketball as it did for me as a person,” Nathaniel said. “Last year, I was a freshman just like everyone else. I think that maturity as a person has really benefitted me.”
The 6-foot-5 Nathaniel served three years at Lackland Air Force base in Texas before joining the team last season. In his short Minnesota career, Nathaniel has already carved a niche as a versatile athlete with speed and explosiveness at the point of attack.
“He can play one through four,” said backcourt teammate Kevin Clark. “He’s a bigger and more physical player, so he can be all over the court.”
Nathaniel’s versatility impressed Gophers coach Clem Haskins enough to promote him over guards Mitch Ohnstad and Terrance Simmons, the latter struggling with a calf injury as well as his confidence. But Haskins warned of typecasting Nathaniel as a true point guard.
“We don’t play our guards as ‘one’ and ‘two’,” Haskins said. “We’ll have (Nathaniel), Kevin Clark, Mitch Ohnstad and Terrance Simmons playing in the backcourt.”
But with Nathaniel’s promotion comes re-orientation. His rapport with established starters Clark, forwards Quincy Lewis and Miles Tarver and center Joel Przybilla could dictate the tempo and pace of the ball game. Haskins said the sophomore’s development at the point will take time.
“It’s all about chemistry,” he said. “We need to let Kevin get a few shots. He’ll need to get comfortable.”
In his first start of the season against Winthrop, Nathaniel shot 6-of-9 from the floor and finished with 15 points and four rebounds, a performance the Gophers sorely needed to compensate for the loss of Clark and Lewis, who both sat out due to suspension. Against Oregon, Nathaniel came back down to earth, finishing with only three points and three assists in 26 minutes of action.
“I think I did a decent job,” he said. “I was trying to get the other guys on the team involved.”
With the Gophers preparing to play Fresno State, Nathaniel agreed with Haskins that getting more comfortable with the starting unit as well as asserting his up-tempo style for extended minutes will be paramount.
“I believe the chemistry will get better with every game,” Nathaniel said. “I think we’ll be able to get more comfortable with each other.”
But Clark, who has entrenched himself as the team’s best pure scorer, says much of the pressure of playing the point will be taken off Nathaniel’s shoulders because of the team’s ball movement.
“Last year, I got used to playing with Eric (Harris),” he said. “But whoever plays with me this year, I know they’re going to step up. I know I’m going to be bringing the ball up more, too.”
With Nathaniel’s athletic ability and aggressive style, don’t be surprised to see the Gophers utilize a little more of the run-and-gun style they’ve employed in previous years. And that’s just fine with him.
“That’s how I played in high school,” Nathaniel said. “When I have the ball, coach just tells me, ‘It’s your show.'”