For two years now, DeMarcus Nelson has been an enigma.
His outstanding potential has been a mirage of sorts-waved in front of the Cameron Crazies' eyes before being yanked away, remaining hidden for weeks on end.
The good times-like during Nelson's freshman year, when he outdueled North Carolina's Marvin Williams in leading Duke to a thrilling victory-have been memorable.
Blue Devil fans won't soon forget what Nelson did at home against the Tar Heels again last season, pouring in 17 points and nailing two three-pointers in the final three minutes. For however brief a moment, it looked as if Nelson might be the savior in Cameron Indoor Stadium on the night that was supposed to belong to J.J. Redick and Shelden Williams.
But for all the good times, the past two seasons at Duke are ones Nelson, now a junior and the Blue Devils' oldest scholarship player, would like to forget. Playing with injuries, of which only a select few knew the true severity, Nelson checked his ego, contributed to the team what he could and bided his time waiting for the moment when his health would return and he could shine.
"Nobody really knows except for my doctors and trainers the trauma I went through last season," Nelson said. "Right now, I'm at a good spot physically and health-wise. Now, it's just about going out and getting ready for the season and leading this team."
Ask Nelson if he had ever been through an experience like his first two years at Duke-slowed by frustrating thumb and ankle injuries-and the 6-foot-3 physical specimen issues a one-word response: Never.
During his first action at Duke, the Blue-White game his freshman year, Nelson ruptured a tendon in his right thumb. He sat out several weeks while waiting for the injury to heal, and when he returned to the lineup, Nelson was forced to wear an uncomfortable and cumbersome metal splint on his shooting hand.
Then, back at full health last season, Nelson played just three games before the injury bug bit again. This time, he went down with a broken ankle during Duke's win over Drexel in the NIT Season Tip-off in Madison Square Garden. He sat out nine games before returning to action in the Blue Devils' win at Wake Forest, but in reality, he never fully overcame the ankle injury.
A month later at Maryland, feeling better than he had all season long, Nelson reinjured the ankle trying to split two Maryland defenders on a drive to the hoop.
Wearing what he described as eight to 10 pounds of protective equipment to stabilize the injured joint, Nelson took a backseat as Redick and Williams broke records, enjoyed glory at times and ultimately lost in the Sweet 16. Nelson was in many ways the forgotten man.
"At the time, going through that, it's always in your head," Nelson said of his injury. "You try to do things you would normally do, and your body won't allow you. You start doubting your abilities and some of the things you've been good at."
Although he wouldn't miss another game, the rest of the season was an absolute nightmare, Nelson said, even though there was the exhilarating moment against UNC.
By the time the NCAA Tournament rolled around, the sophomore's health had reached an all-time low. Warming up for Duke's first-round game against Southern, Nelson could not get loose. He and the Blue Devils' coaching staff considered the unthinkable-having him sit out a game in the Big Dance.
They decided against it, but the guard scored just two points while committing four turnovers in the game. That he wasn't 100 percent was clear to anyone who watched, but Nelson bit his lip and gave what he could to his team for 22 minutes.
"It was bad-very bad," Nelson said. "I would say honestly around 50 percent would be right health-wise. It was painful."
When the Blue Devils made their earlier-than-anticipated exit in the Sweet 16, Nelson already had an eye on 2006-07, a year he hoped he could stay healthy and finally deliver on his promise.
Nelson finished up his coursework the final day of April, and the next day he caught a plane to San Francisco, where he would begin a month-long training regimen designed to strengthen his ankle.
Nelson participated in the "Chameleon" program-though he referred to it as "Chamillionaire"-for four weeks, five days per week. On the weekends, he'd drive home to Sacramento to be with his family.
Staying with his best friend from home, Warner West, a football player for Northern State, Nelson completed a workout regimen that has helped pros like Leon Powe and Gilbert Arenas recover from injuries. Nelson would do basketball training from 9 to 12 each morning, have a nutritious lunch, and workout on the beach in the afternoon. There were no weights involved-just pushups, situps, pull-ups on playground monkeybars and the like.
"It was a different type of aerobic training," Nelson said. "The whole time I was moving in the sand, my ankle was being strengthened.. I was also getting the same strength and conditioning I always do. After a few weeks, I could feel the difference."
In the end, Nelson may have earned more than what he bargained for. He signed up to rehab his ankle, but after a month of toil on San Francisco's Baker Beach under the guidance of an ex-Navy SEAL, Nelson's psyche was also rehabilitated for the upcoming year.
With Nelson's body and mind restored to their rightful place, the Blue Devils are now counting on their junior leader more than ever to produce on the court. Named as one of the team's captains before the season began, Nelson said he is relishing the leadership opportunity, which was unavailable with a full stable of seniors at the helm last year.
"It's no different to the role I've been in for every team I've been on," he said. "This is fun, just stepping into this role at Duke."
And Duke's coaches are hoping, knock on wood, that the injury bug that's bitten Nelson the past two seasons is finally exterminated.
"He's the one kid-we want everyone to stay healthy, but you feel badly for him," head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "He is good, and he'd be even better now if he was able to play and not play hurt. The DeMarcus Nelson you've seen has played hurt."
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