- Andy Katz, ESPN Senior Writer
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When a college basketball team travels, the players tend to stand out in airports.
Saturday, a few hours after winning its 15th straight game to start the 2003-04 season, Saint Joseph's was going through airport security in Cincinnati when a TSA employee singled out one of the Hawks.
The woman with the wand didn't approach the player for more screening. She just questioned his role with Saint Joseph's. The player was walking among the tall group of players, but his size made it hard to believe he was actually one of the group.
Yes, ma'am ... Jameer Nelson is a player.
In fact, at the midway point of the 2003-04 season, the Saint Joseph's senior guard is the leading candidate for national player of the year honors.
The security woman obviously isn't a college basketball fan, nor was she one of those at Xavier earlier that afternoon who watched Nelson score 28 points in helping the Hawks beat the Minutemen, 81-73.
"She was like, 'Are you on the basketball team?'" Nelson said. "I said yes. And then she said, 'You must be the water boy, you're so short."
"He's amazing," Saint Joseph's coach Phil Martelli said. "He just cracked up and kept going. I've got the best player in the game and nothing fazes him, not that, not 10,000 people at Xavier, not 17 NBA teams being represented, not Larry Bird sitting courtside Saturday."
Maybe it has something to do with Nelson's lack of national attention. Unlike recent years when the nation's best players all had faces the nation knew by this time of the season, Nelson has played in all but a vacuum in Philly. The security woman isn't alone. Outside of fans devoted to the college game, few in the general public know Nelson from, well, the water boy.
Yet, with two months to go before Selection Sunday, it's Nelson that is the favorite for the Wooden Award or any other national player of the year honor.
Why? We'll let some of his peers, a teammate and Martelli clue you into Nelson's game. And, while there are certainly other candidates within striking distance -- such as Connecticut teammates Emeka Okafor and Ben Gordon, Syracuse's Hakim Warrick, Texas Tech's Andre Emmett, Louisville's Francisco Garcia and Kentucky's Gerald Fitch -- the award is all but Nelson's to lose in the second half of the season.
While all the players above could all end up making a strong case to be first-team All-America, none has as strong a case for player of the year as Nelson. And, ironically, the player who doesn't even measure 6-feet tall (Nelson is listed at 5-11) is a step or two ahead of the tallest contender -- 6-9 Okafor, who was a popular preseason pick for the honor and hasn't done anything to hurt his case.
It's just Nelson has done more than anyone expected, on a team exceeding all expectations to this point.
Just look at how those around Nelson and competing against the senior guard define the criteria for a player of the year.
Martelli: "The player of the year should clearly be the best at his position, has to perform in the team's biggest games and should be consistently excellent."
Sounds like Nelson, all right.
Emmett: "He needs to get the players around you better. Winning must be there, too."
Well, the Hawks are one of only four unbeaten teams in the country and Nelson's backcourt mate Delonte West is also enjoying a career season.
Garcia: "He's got to carry his team. He has to be the leader and must make his teammates better."
Nelson started the season with a statement, falling just two rebounds short of a triple-double (20 points, 10 rebounds, eight assists) in the Hawks' victory over Gonzaga in Madison Square Garden.
Fitch: "Your team has to win. You have to be the leader. And you've got to make big plays. You have to take your team far (in the tournament)."
The Hawks are still perfect in large part to Nelson's game-winning jumper with 4.3 seconds to play in a 59-57 victory over California in Oakland, Calif on Dec. 20. It's the closest the Hawks have come to losing. As for the NCAA Tournament? Well, it remains to be seen just how far St. Joe's will go, but Nelson's doing all he can to make sure the Hawks have their highest seed in team history going into March.
Gordon: "He's got to be a go-to guy. He has to be a guy like Emeka who plays great defense, rebounds and does something in every category. If he's a guard, he's got to be a floor leader and gets everyone involved."
While Nelson may not change the game like Okafor in the paint, he does average nearly four steals a game and is the only player in A-10 history to lead the conference in assists two straight seasons ('00-01, '01-02).
Okafor: "It's someone who plays hard every game, and leaves everything on the court."
Nelson's desire to be the best he can be brought him back to Hawk Hill for a senior season after flirting with the NBA draft this spring. Oh, and he's started every game he's played for St. Joe's.
Nelson: "Stats are going to matter, but winning and being a leader is more important. No one is going to pick a player of the year with only two wins."
Uh, did we mention the Hawks are 15-0 and realistically could enter the NCAA Tournament without a loss?
And what about talk of an undefeated season? Nelson's decision to return to college for his senior season is turning out to be one of the best of any player since the early-entry draft rules were put in place. There is no question Nelson's play at the point is the reason the Hawks are undefeated and flirting with a perfect season.
"If he doesn't stay, I don't have too many 12-for-12 games," said West, who was perfect from the field in scoring 33 points in win at Xavier. "He's the player of the year -- without question. If you see him in practice, that's where you'd see that he's not about the hype. He practices hard every day."
How high expectations were going to be on Hawk Hill depended on Nelson's springtime decision to return or not. Once he did, the Hawks knew they could be a NCAA Tournament team. The backcourt of West and Nelson was billed as one of the best in the preseason.
Fifteen games into the season, the duo is the best, hands down.
Nelson is averaging 20.8 points, 5.1 rebounds and 4.9 assists a game. West is right behind him at 18.4 ppg and 5.2 rpg. Nelson's had a hand in winning every game, whether he takes a last-second shot, leads the team in scoring or simply sets up West for another big night.
Leadership is the intangible Nelson provides St. Joe's. He's a senior and his maturity shows in the way he leads the Hawks both on and off the court. There is a growing feeling in Philly, not to mention nationally, that Nelson and the Hawks are on the verge of a long-awaited deep NCAA run. Nelson was a freshman when the Hawks lost to Stanford in second round of the 2001 NCAA Tournament. Saint Joseph's lost in overtime last season to Auburn in the first round, and hasn't advanced past the second round since 1997.
There is a similarity at least to last year's Wooden Award winner -- T. J. Ford. While just a sophomore, Ford led Texas to the Final Four for the first time since 1947. The Hawks haven't been to the Final Four since 1961. Nelson certainly is the go-to player needed in March.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves a bit. What St. Joe's and Nelson ultimately do in March won't determine who win the Wooden Award winner. And again, while the nod goes to Nelson at this point, the race is far from over.
So, based on what's happened so far, just who would those in the race pick if they couldn't vote for themselves?
"I like Jameer Nelson," Emmett said. "He made a good decision to come back to school. I've watched him a few times and he's playing solid. He's doing what he does to get his teammates better."
Said Garcia, "Jameer Nelson. He's playing pretty good and he's leading his team in points and steals and they're undefeated right now and playing pretty good."
Fitch, however, would give the nod to Gordon, but that's in part because they're good friends. As for Nelson, "I haven't seen him play, but I do know he dishes out a lot of assists."
The two Huskies split their votes, which is something that could happen with voters come March, preventing either from winning the actual award. Okafor would vote for Gordon and Gordon would tab Okafor.
Again, Okafor is the closest to Nelson at this point, and could make a strong push with his nightly flirtation with triple-doubles. Okafor was four blocks shy against North Carolina, five short against Georgetown, only one away against Oklahoma, and four below a triple-double against Rutgers.
Okafor said Gordon always finds a way to contribute, even when his shot isn't falling. Gordon said Okafor dominates the game like few other players have this season. But Gordon does know all about Nelson, even if he wouldn't get his vote.
"He does a lot for his team and put St. Joe's on the map," Gordon said. "He wasn't always shooting the ball well, but he gets people involved and makes the game easy for his teammates."
Nelson said shooting and leadership were the two aspects of his game that he focused on when he returned to school. Nelson's vote, by the way, would be for West, because he continues to be overlooked and Nelson said he's one of the best at his position.
One thing is for sure, if Nelson winds up with the Wooden Award, he'll be the latest poster boy for staying in school. Shane Battier stuck around Duke as a senior and won a national championship in 2001. Nelson may not cut down the nets in San Antonio, but the five months he will have enjoyed as a senior, will make it harder for a junior or sophomore to squawk about the benefits of staying in school through his senior year.
"This has been great," Nelson said. "We're winning and I'm having a lot of fun."
Jameer Nelson may be the smallest of the player of the year candidates, but he's made the biggest impact so far.