Take one look at Rex Nelson, and basketball wouldn't be the first thing to come to mind.
He looks like a John Cena clone, better suited for a show of rugged WWE wrestling than shooting corner 3-pointers for the University of Puget Sound men's team.
The 6-foot-4 senior obsesses over his physique and his weight, which fluctuates between 210 and 212 pounds during the Loggers' season. Northwest Conference play opens Jan. 3.
But then actually watch him play basketball, and it all makes sense. He is the bully. He unsettles those he guards, or who guard him.
Nelson is both the super role player and the superstar that will lead UPS wherever it goes this season — hopefully with an ending in the NCAA Division III playoffs.
"I was not always the most athletic kid, so I had to find an edge to put myself above the pack," Nelson said. "I fell in love with the weight room. I figured if I was the strongest guy on the court at all times, I would have an edge at all times."
Nelson has put it all together during nonconference play. He is third among NWC players in scoring (17.1 points per game) and rebounding (6.9 rebounds per game). Each game, he gives the Loggers 31.8 of the most effortful and entertaining minutes a coach could ask for.
In many ways, Nelson reminds folks of former all-NWC forward Kaleb Shelton-Johnson (2008-12), who pretty much did a little bit of everything during his time with the Loggers.
"Both have the heart of a lion and are relentless on the boards," UPS coach Justin Lunt said. "Kaleb always posed more of a threat from the outside, where Rex is a much better finisher around the basket.
"For us to be successful, Rex has to touch the basketball. And so far this season, he has touched it."
Very early in his time in Amateur Athletic Union basketball with the Seattle-based Explosion, Nelson had an assistant coach who always called him by a different name.
"I was just a thick kid – an undersized big guy," Nelson said. "He always used to say, 'Just be my Charles Barkley.' "
Not a pure scorer, Nelson always fell into piling up points, even once leading the Metro League 3A while starring at Bishop Blanchet High School.
He spent two seasons at Bellevue Community College before transferring to UPS in 2012. Last year, his role and playing time fluctuated, but he ended up second on the team in scoring (8.3 ppg) and led the team in rebounding (5.0 rpg).
In the offseason, Lunt handed Nelson the keys to the program, telling his captain he would be the featured go-to player and undisputed leader of the program.
Nelson has taken that responsibility and run with it — with plenty of nastiness and feistiness to hold anyone accountable.
Case in point: the Loggers’ most recent game, a 77-65 victory over The Evergreen State College in Olympia.
Late in the game, Nelson went up for a shot and was hit so hard on the side of the head, a cut opened.
"I was pushing this guy around the entire game," Nelson said. "And what fueled the (hard foul) was that a couple plays previous to that, I got fouled and made (the shot).
"Usually we huddle near the free-throw line before free throws, but he stood right there. I just walked right through him, and he got mad."
Did Nelson say something after the retaliatory move?
"No, I am not one to whine," Nelson said. "I frustrate people. It is an advantage."
PUGET SOUND LOGGERS
Coach: Justin Lunt, eighth season (114-76 record).
2012-13 season: 9-16, 4-12 in Northwest Conference (seventh place).
Preseason coaches’ poll: Sixth place.
Starting five: PG AJ Maw, 6-2, sr.; SG Erin Barber, 6-0, so.; SF James Osorio, 6-3, jr.; PF Rex Nelson, 6-4, sr.; C Nick Holden, 6-7, jr.
Key reserves: PG Matt Reid, 5-11, so.; SF Keith Shattuck, 6-6, so.; PF Dan Cheledinas, 6-7, sr.
Player to watch: How can you be a role player and a superstar? Nelson is that kind of guy. While always being a reliable rebounder and get-under-the-skin defender, Nelson has made great strides as a primary scorer. Everything will run through the Blanchet High and Bellevue Community College alumnus.
Skinny: With the NCAA’s crackdown on hand-checking in mind, Lunt decided to incorporate the “pack line” containment defense over the offseason designed to limit penetration into the key and post play while forcing long jump shots. And playing in a conference full of 3-point shooting, the Loggers’ version of the pack line extends further than normal, pushing opponents well past the 3-point line. UPS has enough long-armed defenders to make it work. Early returns are promising as it is one of the best teams in the NWC in defensive field-goal percentage and rebounding.
NWC schedule (all games 8 p.m. unless noted): Jan. 3 vs. Lewis & Clark (Ore.); Jan. 4 vs. Linfield (Ore.); Jan. 10 at Whitman; Jan. 11 at Whitworth; Jan. 14 vs. Pacific Lutheran; Jan. 17 vs. Willamette (Ore.); Jan. 24 at Pacific (Ore.); Jan. 25 at George Fox (Ore.); Jan. 31 at Linfield; Feb. 1 at Lewis & Clark; Feb. 7 vs. Whitworth; Feb. 8 vs. Whitman, 6 p.m.; Feb. 11 at Pacific Lutheran; Feb. 15 at Willamette; Feb. 21 vs. George Fox; Feb. 22 vs. Pacific.
Coach: Loree Payne, fourth season (52-34 record).
2012-13 season: 14-11, 7-9 in NWC (tied for fifth place).
Preseason coaches’ poll: Fifth place.
Starting five: PG Ashley Agcaoili, 5-6, jr.; SG Taylor Jones, 5-6, sr.; SF Emily Sheldon, 5-11, so.; PF Amanda Forshay, 6-0, jr.; C Katy Ainslie, 6-1, jr.
Key reserves: PG Olivia Roberts, 5-6, jr.; SG Hannah Lekson, 5-9, jr.; SF Alexis Noren, 5-10, fr.; PF Allie Wyszynski, 5-11, so.
Player to watch: With the graduation of Kelsey McKinnis, this now becomes Forshay’s team. The California native not only is steadily the team’s top scoring option, but she is a top-flight rebounder and has no problems sticking her nose into the action, giving the Loggers toughness.
Skinny: In Payne’s perfect world, she would like to field a lineup full of rangy 6-footers who can defend, pass and shoot. That is why the one constant in her recruiting has been finding an impact wing player in each class. Noren, an all-state player from Milwaukie, Ore., is the latest who could end up being one of the Loggers’ best all-time scorers. She joins Forshay and Sheldon in that stable of frontcourt standouts. Perhaps the best development so far comes from Agcaoili, who has been a hit-or-miss distributor the past two seasons, but has shown maturity and composure in clutch moments in 2013-14.
NWC schedule (all games 6 p.m. unless noted): Jan. 3 vs. Lewis & Clark (Ore.); Jan. 4 vs. Linfield (Ore.); Jan. 10 at Whitman; Jan. 11 at Whitworth; Jan. 14 vs. Pacific Lutheran; Jan. 17 vs. Willamette (Ore.); Jan. 24 at Pacific (Ore.); Jan. 25 at George Fox (Ore.); Jan. 31 at Linfield; Feb. 1 at Lewis & Clark; Feb. 7 vs. Whitworth; Feb. 8 vs. Whitman, 4 p.m.; Feb. 11 at Pacific Lutheran; Feb. 15 at Willamette; Feb. 21 vs. George Fox; Feb. 22 vs. Pacific.
Todd Milles: 253-597-8442 todd.milles@ thenewstribune.com @ManyHatsMilles firstname.lastname@example.org