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Nelson standing tall

Hawks in steady hands with senior

PHILADELPHIA -- The tattoo across Jameer Nelson's back, stretching from one shoulder to the other, reflects how he felt shortly before last summer's pre-draft camp: "All Eyes on Me." "I suddenly realized that a lot of things have been focused on me throughout my college career," the Saint Joseph's guard said. "On the streets, wherever I go, everybody's watching me. Who knows if it's going to carry throughout my life, but that's how I felt."

Now he's trying to leave an indelible mark on the 10th-ranked Hawks, months after bypassing the NBA Draft to return for his senior season.

Nelson's average of 19.8 points and 5.8 assists helped the 11-0 Hawks to the school's best start since the 1914-15 team went 11-0 and finished 14-1.

"It's a start, and it's a great start, but we have goals of winning championships," Nelson said.

Unlike his generosity with the ball, a shot at a national title was something he couldn't pass up and was part of the reason he returned to Hawk Hill. Nelson had declared his eligibility for the NBA Draft and attended the camp, looking for assurance he would be a high first-round pick.

Instead, the feedback Nelson received indicated that at best he was a late first-round selection. After spending part of the summer considering his options, Nelson decided to stay.

"It's not just the money. It was about testing his game at the highest level," Hawks coach Phil Martelli said. "He certainly gave it a hard look."

Nelson was already an honorable mention All-America selection as one of the top point guards in the country, beating teams with his passing or scoring by finding open holes.

He is the only player in Saint Joe's history with at least 600 assists and 1,600 career points. He's teamed with Delonte West to form one of the best backcourts in the nation, leading the Hawks to their highest ranking since 1965-66.

"I think we all knew with him back how much better we could be," West said. "He's the type of player who makes everyone around him better. He knows where I am or where I'll be before I do."

The knock on Nelson isn't his game, but his frame. Martelli said the goal this season was turning Nelson into a draft lottery-caliber pick, but 5 feet 11 inches may not be tall enough for that to happen.

"I hear I'm too small, too small, then they say go back and you'll be a first-round pick," Nelson said. "That's why I say nothing's guaranteed because I'm not going to grow anymore."

He faced tougher obstacles growing up in Chester, a downtrodden, crime-ridden town about 20 miles south of Philadelphia.

Nelson credits his family for keeping him straight. Though his parents are divorced, both remarried and all four are fixtures at Nelson's games. Nelson promised his family he'd graduate and says he's on target to earn a sociology degree in the summer.

"If you're around the right people and you're raised right, you can easily avoid going the wrong way," Nelson said. "I keep telling people they ought to give credit to my parents for leading me in the right way and being there whenever I needed."

He's needed plenty of assistance the last couple of years.

Nelson, who lives alone in an off-campus apartment, balances school and basketball with fatherhood. Nelson's 2-year-old son, Jameer Jr., lives with his girlfriend.

"It's tough, probably a little tougher than the average student," Nelson said. "At the same time, I have so many people to help."

Nelson had his choice of sports growing up, playing football and baseball. But Chester is a basketball town -- though Virginia Tech running back Kevin Jones is from there and the two are friends.

Nelson played all day and night in parks and playgrounds to give him "something to do" and keep him out of trouble.

"I was just being a kid," he said. "I never really sat down and said, `I can be something in basketball.' "

What caught Martelli's interest was how Nelson could dominate and control games without taking many shots. With Nelson at point guard, Chester High won the state title his senior season.

"His teammates know he's a lot better person than he is a basketball player, and he's the best in the country at his position," Martelli said. "This kid's humanness is what really separates him from the pack."

For now, the NBA can wait, especially when there's the matter of helping Saint Joe's to an Atlantic 10 title and a deep postseason run. There's plenty of room in the Alumni Fieldhouse rafters for a championship banner.

Space for another tattoo, however, is limited. Nelson has eight already, everything from the Chinese symbol for loyalty to Jesus Christ nailed to a cross with the inscription "Only God Can Judge Me Now."

"I'll find room somewhere," Nelson said with a laugh. "We'll see how I'm feeling if we win the championship."

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