Coach Jim Hayford doesn’t change his Seattle University men’s basketball starting lineup often, but he decided to try something different for the start of the Western Athletic Conference slate.
He put 6-foot junior Aaron Nettles into the starting shooting guard spot that 6-5 Delante Jones had occupied in hopes of giving the Redhawks an offensive boost.
Nettles, the former four-year starter at Seattle Prep, responded immediately.
In the WAC opener, Nettles scored 17 points in a 90-86 triple overtime loss at Kansas City, his career most over an NCAA Division I team. He was 5 for 9 from three-point range while the rest of the team was 1 for 21.
Nettles stayed in the starting lineup, with Seattle U winning 86-54 at Chicago State after trailing by 10 points, then winning 83-50 at home Saturday against Utah Valley.
So there is no doubt that Nettles, perhaps the best team’s best three-point shooter, will stay in the starting lineup when Seattle U (9-9, 2-1) hosts Texas-Rio Grande Valley (6-10, 2-1) on Thursday and defending WAC champion New Mexico State (12-6, 3-0) on Saturday.
“It has been the best for both of them,” Hayford said. “Delante has improved coming off the bench. … In the last two games, we’ve had 14 and 11 threes. We’ve had more field-goal attempts from (three-point) range and Terrell Brown’s assist numbers have gone up. We were trying to find a little more balance because we were a little too drive heavy.”
Nettles helps give the Redhawks that balance, and he is doing it in front of his hometown fans.
He committed early to Seattle U under then-coach Cameron Dollar, who was fired before Nettles’ freshman year. Nettles was the first player Hayford talked to after becoming coach.
“When Dollar got fired, I didn’t know where I would end up,” Nettles said. “I didn’t necessarily want to play for a coach who didn’t know who I was. But coach Hayford came to my school and sat down in my high school coach’s office. He expressed their interest and that they would love to have me here. He saw me play a couple of times, and from then on, I felt it was the right place still.”
Nettles averaged 2.6 points while averaging 7.6 minutes as a freshman. Last season, he averaged 3.1 points and 12.1 minutes.
Everything is up this season, except turnovers. He is averaging 6.5 points in 20.9 minutes. In the past three games as a starter, he is averaging 10 points, 3.3 rebounds and 1.3 steals per game, and has gone 8 of 18 from three-point range.
“It wasn’t always great mentally (not playing a lot), but it was put your head down and work,” he said. “If something’s not right, hard work is going to pay off. I knew that hard work would eventually come to light.”
That hard work is paying off now. But even when he isn’t playing, Nettles finds other ways to help his team.
“The thing about Aaron is he is a natural leader,” Hayford said. “He’s just naturally positive, so he’s the ultimate teammate guy. I thought his freshman year he really embraced, ‘I got these older guys around me, and I’m going to be the best energy on the bench,’ and he still does that. He’ll start, then come to the bench and be the best energy guy. He is always a team-first guy.”
Said Nettles: “If I can’t be in the game, the best way I can contribute is to be energetic on the bench.”
Most often now, you will see Nettles on the court. His comfort level has risen dramatically.
“I’ve gotten the mistakes out of the way and now I am just playing basketball,” he said.
And he gets to play in front of family and friends, joining former Garfield player Brown as one of two starters in the backcourt from Seattle.
“My parents, and my sister and brother, they come to every game,” he said.
Next season, Nettles could find himself playing more at point guard with senior Morgan Means leaving, but his focus is on this season. He said the Redhawks “can be as good as we want us to be.”
“It’s going to be on us,” he said. “We have the talent to do special things. A WAC championship is always the end of the goal and we can see it. And as long as we can envision that, and we’re coming to work every single day, I can see us winning it.”