Watching Andrew Nicholson prepare to play his first NBA game in Toronto you never would have guessed that he grew up less than a hour away from the Air Canada Centre in Mississauga.
Nicholson was calm and had a stoic look in Orlando’s locker room before the game as his demeanor gave observers an impression that this was just another game in his rookie season.
He pulled a veteran move by deferring talking to the media until after the game and then only filled a couple envelopes of tickets for friends and family. Some rookies are forced to pay for rows of seats, but it appeared Nicholson had 10 tickets max for friends and family.
Once he walked over to the scorer’s table to check into the game for the first time late in the first quarter, fans realized what was going on and a noticeable buzz started to build — even if it was muted slightly by a timeout.
Following the timeout, Herbie Kuhn announced Nicholson was entering the game and the crowd showered down a robust cheer but play was already underway and Nicholson was too focused on the game unfolding to allow even a small smile show.
Sure, Nicholson enjoyed being on the court he had watched a lot of games when he was younger, but for him, playing in Toronto amounted to just another game during his rookie season.
“It’s fun, but I’m still a rookie and learning a lot. I’m just trying to grow as a player and enjoy every day of it,” Nicholson said. “It’s a different game in the NBA with much better players. I’m still growing as a player so there’s a lot more improvement to go for me. I think it’s a good fit here (with the Magic). I trust the coaches and their judgment. And we have a great bunch of players around us and they help us in practice and games.”
A big part of the learning curve Nicholson is enduring this season is the challenge of seeing his minutes fluctuate from game to game while his touches have been inconsistent. This has resulted in the Canadian averaging a paltry 5.9 points and 2.3 boards in his 11.6 minutes of burn per game.
This summer Nicholson was one of five players named to the first team of the Orlando Summer League after he averaged 12.8 points and 6.8 rebounds while having the benefit of being the focal point of the team’s offence.
The ball hasn’t been in his hands nearly as much during the regular season as players like Glen Davis, JJ Redick and Arron Afflalo have commanded the ball during the season. Nicholson has had to learn how to blend in on the court — a change from his time this summer and the past few seasons at St. Bonaventure where he was the school’s top dog.
Although Nicholson’s learning curve has been steep, it has taken less than a month for the rookie to earn the respect of his coaches and teammates.
“He has earned his minutes this season,” Orlando’s new head coach Jacque Vaughn raved. “He deserves to play in this game (in his hometown). From Day
1 he has taken a professional approach which has helped him to earn the trust of this coaching staff. His work ethic in practice has been great and that is how you get on the court during games.”
Jameer Nelson is one of the tougher point guards in the NBA so hearing the floor general brag about Nicholson being tough holds extra merit.
Orlando’s veteran leader had been sidelined early in the season due to an injury, but Nelson has been impressed with what he has seen from Nicholson dating back to pick-up games that he organized in Philadelphia.
“I’ve seen (toughness) from him even when we were playing pick-up ball back in the summer,” Nelson boasted. “Guys were going right at him and he would go right back at them. You want somebody who will fight, but also be kind like he is off the court because he has that demeanor. He’s able to be that great guy, but still have that dog in him on the court and be aggressive.”
While Nicholson’s stats may not be flashy, there’s little doubt they will improve with time as he gets more comfortable and as his role expands in Orlando.
And, as his head coach boasted, Nicholson is poised to have “a long NBA career” due to his work ethic.
While Nicholson’s debut in Toronto wasn’t particularly noteworthy — eight points and three boards — hearing his coach and teammates rave about him, it’s clear this game was the first of many he will play in front of family and friends in Toronto.