Nolen helps young players develop skills

The former Gophers basketball player started a skills training company.

Former Gophers basketball player Al Nolen poses at Williams Arena on Monday evening. Nolen now teaches basketball camps as well as private lessons.

Former Gophers basketball player Al Nolen poses at Williams Arena on Monday evening. Nolen now teaches basketball camps as well as private lessons.

David Nelson

Only 3.3 percent of all high school boys basketball players continue playing the sport at any level in college, according to a 2013 NCAA report.

The chance to play in a Division I program is even smaller. But from 2007 to 2010, Al Nolen played at Minnesota and was part of that select group.

Because playing the sport at such a high level remains an opportunity afforded to few, Nolen now focuses his time on refining the skills of young basketball players.

“I think a lot of kids are losing sight of the basic fundamentals at an early age because there’s so much emphasis on being the ‘highlight reel’ guy,” Nolen said.

After finishing his career at Minnesota and concluding stints in the NBA Development League and in Europe, Nolen started up his own skills training company over the summer called Al Nolen Elite Basketball Skills Training.

“I wanted to help out kids with their basketball skills,” Nolen said. “I know as a young kid I was helped out a lot by a lot of people.”

Getting to Minnesota

Though Nolen developed into one of the best point guards in Gophers history, his original passion sprouted on the gridiron.

“I loved football — football was my thing,” Nolen said.

But after his mother told him to get out of the house and go play basketball, Nolen fell in love with the game.

“From there on, it has been basketball, basketball, basketball,” Nolen said.

Nolen’s work ethic allowed him to average 14 points, eight assists, six rebounds and four steals during his senior season at Patrick Henry High School.

Those numbers helped him finish as a Mr. Basketball finalist and solidify his status as someone who would be an early contributor for then-Minnesota head coach Tubby Smith’s team.

But three years after his arrival, Nolen never got the chance to play in his final home game at the Barn.

Less than 20 games into his senior season, an awkward landing during a contest against Michigan caused him to break a bone in his foot — bringing the tenacious defender’s career with the Gophers to an end.

But being the leader he is, Nolen continued helping his teammates from the bench.

“He was a great leader both on and off the floor,” said redshirt senior center Mo Walker, who spent his redshirt season watching Nolen play.

Becoming a coach

Nolen said he wasn’t sure how business would pan out when he started his skills training company.

“I kind of started out not really thinking too much of it — thinking I would help out a kid here or there,” Nolen said. “Once it actually got started, though, it picked up quite a bit.”

Because of the business’s early success, Nolen hosted his first-ever basketball camp this past summer with current Gophers senior Andre Hollins and past players Blake Hoffarber and Trevor Mbakwe.

“I was a little nervous to see what kind of showing I would get as far as kids went,” Nolen said. “But it was a lot of fun. I just basically used a lot of the knowledge that’s been passed down to me from all my coaches and all my experiences growing up playing basketball — kind of just meshing them together to make my own camp.”

True to how Nolen played, the young instructor pushes fundamentals when it comes to instructing his students.

“[We do] a lot of ball-handling drills, scoring moves, learning how to create space off the dribble to get a shot off [and] finishing strong at the rim,” said Andrew Howard, one of Nolen’s students. “Now we are working on my off-the-ball play.”

Howard, a sixth grader, has worked with Nolen at least once per week for the past five months.

As a point guard for his team, Howard said he’s already seen improvement in his game.

“Al was a point guard like I am, so he knows what I need to work on and get really good at,” Howard said. “His experience as a Big Ten point guard is the reason [my dad and I] wanted to work with Al.”

Recently, the upstart coach got the opportunity to see two of his pupils play at a tournament in St. Louis Park.

Nolen said seeing their development, as well as the growth of the others he coaches, has been the best part of the job.

“Watching them kind of do some of the stuff that we work on in our drills is very fulfilling,” Nolen said. “To see them grow as players and as people is the most rewarding feeling that comes out of training kids.”