Bright-eyed and nearly terrified, Roberto Nelson hit the road for the East coast in the shadows of the big city. In July of this past year, the 15-year old had completed his freshman season and one of the youngest participants in the Reebok ABCD Camp in Teaneck, N.J.
Nelson, a 6-3 180-pound combo guard from Santa Barbara, Calif. had played for the 16-under H-Squad AAU program. He was getting his first real test on a national level.
"It was a real big adjustment," said Nelson. "I honestly started off real slow and my first couple of games I didn't play very well."
As a freshman, Nelson averaged 16 points and five rebounds a game for Santa Barbara High School head coach Jeff Lavender, who calls Nelson the best freshman he's seen in 21 years of coaching.
His father Bruce Nelson, an associate head coach for the Dons, has seen his son provide a fair share of exciting moments in his young career. For instance, Santa Barbara is 3-1 through Dec. 7 and Nelson is averaging 19 points a game including a career-high 34 points.
"He's just 15 so there's a lot of improvement that he can do obviously," added the elder Nelson. "He's just fortunate that he's been able to do this AAU basketball and go all over the country and play against some of the best players."
After Nelson hit his stride at ABCD, he was playing with more confidence. Nelson finished the four-day tournament averaging nearly 10 points, four rebounds and three assists a game. He scored 15 points in the underclassmen all-star game.
As Nelson's own father knows, Roberto is not yet the finished product.
"He has the potential to end
up a high major, but a long way to go
before he reaches that level," said ScoutHoops.com West Coast Recruiting Analyst Greg Hicks. "They hype, so far, has been out of proportion to his actual talent."
Typically, recruiting of high school sophomores is more about hype and potential than being a polished stud. That's why according to both Nelson and his father, several schools have begun recruiting the young guard.
"UCLA is looking at me; Arizona, Washington, Washington State and Ohio State," Nelson added, "also USC, LSU and Illinois."
When watching basketball, says Nelson, he often tries envisioning himself playing for a particular program. It's usually whoever he happens to be watching.
Last season, Nelson enjoyed keeping tabs on a few of his favorite players.
"My favorite player last year was probably Aaron Afflalo - I like his game a lot," he said. "I liked Hasaan Adams (Arizona), I liked Hakim Warrick when he was on Syracuse and I also liked the guy for Michigan State - Shannon Brown."
Seeing teams up close and personal is an even bigger goal for Nelson.
Thus far, UCLA and Ohio State are the two programs that have had him on campus. Nelson said he had been to UCLA a couple of times including this past summer for the UCLA Elite Camp.
The Ohio State visit occurred in late November as Nelson and his father went back to Columbus, where Nelson's aunts, uncles and grandparents live, to watch an Ohio State basketball game and the Michigan-Ohio State football game the next day.
"It was probably the best weekend in Roberto's young life so far," Bruce said. "It left an impression on Roberto. It was very powerful."
Although Nelson's father grew up in Ohio and graduated high school in Columbus, Roberto has lived his entire life in California. It's for that reason that when UCLA and USC come calling, Nelson is listening.
UCLA's run to the final four had Nelson watching closely.
"I think Ben Howland is doing a real good job of teaching them defense," Nelson said. "That's where he's most consistent. You will always miss shots as a player but they will always play defense. He's got a great program."
Nelson's dad talked about the local programs showing interest in his son.
"It's an honor to know they like Roberto," he said. "With that in mind, if he was to put on a uniform and represent either one of their schools - it's just an honor for those great programs to show interest locally. But with that in mind, it was also an honor for us too that Ohio State jumped in there. It's going to be tough because he's from out here now but yet Ohio State seems to be very aggressive with where they're going with their program under Coach (Thad) Matta. Thad is good people. We hope that wherever Roberto goes, he's happy but I think it was good for him to see if he were fortunate enough to go to Ohio State, he would be happy."
Despite the high remarks for UCLA and Ohio State specifically, Nelson was not ready to name any favorites. He insists he's wide open.
With still over two and a half years before Nelson is ready for college, there's no rush on Nelson's behalf.
Another key question on top of his development will be what position Nelson plays if he gets to the next level.
"He can play both (guard) positions," Bruce said. "He can play point guard and he's better at the two because he can shoot really well and he can take you off the dribble...He needs to improve on his ball handling if he's truly going to be a point guard - and we've not settled in on whether he's a one or a two."
"He's about 6-2, a fairly good athlete and more of a scorer than a pure shooter," Hicks added. "His ball skills are decent. He has a feel for the game but his shot selection needs a lot of work."
Although Nelson has a long journey ahead, now he may be ready for the next big test.