Somebody was going to call to inquire about Washington Huskies forward Nate Roberts.
Jason Smith was sure of it.
The famed boys basketball coach at powerhouse Brewster Academy in Wolfeboro, N.H., would see glimpses of greatness in the lanky 6-foot-10 kid from Baltimore during their two years together.
“He was somebody that the word potential would always apply to,” Roberts said. “He was a year away from being a year away. But you knew that when that light clicks, he’s got a chance to be pretty good.
“The spring of his senior year, my staff and I would say in another year or two there’s going to be that moment where people are going to say, ‘Where did Nate come from?’ ”
It’s a good question.
But perhaps the most pressing inquiry after the redshirt-freshman forward came off the bench and put on a dazzling first-half performance in Washington’s 72-40 blowout win over USC on Sunday is: Where has Roberts been all season?
Mike Hopkins offered an explanation before Washington (11-4, 1-1) plays Stanford (12-2, 1-1) at 6 p.m. Thursday at Maples Pavilion.
“You’re setting your rotation and what you want, you develop your guys on the bench and you never know where you can get better,” the UW coach said. “Watching Nate in practice, he always has great energy. He got that opportunity.
“You never know what you’re going to get when you put a guy in and has that opportunity, and he’s been tremendous. Really happy about that.”
Roberts flushed three highlight-worthy dunks to finish with seven points and seven rebounds in 22 minutes – all career highs – while subbing for Isaiah Stewart, who was saddled with foul trouble in the first half.
“The thing that I was more excited about was, you always question a young guy’s ability on the defensive end,” Hopkins said. “He was defending and he was rebounding. And when you look at what our problems were, (it) was defensive rebounding.
“He’s a physical guy who is a great rebounder. To see him play good defense and rebound, him scoring was just an addition. That’s going to help us become better.”
The first time Roberts touched the ball, he caught a feed from Sam Timmins and soared high to flush a one-handed dunk.
After the play, Roberts wobbled his head while bouncing down the court with a big smile plastered on his face. After reaching the other end, he slapped hands with Timmins and yelled at no one in particular.
“It was just a lot of emotions going through me,” Roberts said. “But that was the best way I could show it.”
Sunday was a bit of a cathartic breakout for Roberts, who displayed flashes of potential during UW’s four summer exhibitions in Italy and was touted as the team’s most improved player during the preseason.
After redshirting last season and reshaping his chiseled 245-pound frame, Roberts had hoped for an expanded role this season. However, he’s been buried on the bench behind Stewart, Jaden McDaniels, Hameir Wright and Timmins.
“It definitely has its dark days, but you got to remain humble and remain patient,” said Roberts, who averages just 1.4 points, 1.8 rebounds and 6.6 minutes in nine games. “My teammates, family and coaches always tell me to remain patient. Wait your turn. Your time is coming.
“(Sunday) is the beginning of what y’all are going to see. That’s the motto I live by.”
Roberts knows all about patience.
After starring at John Carroll High in Baltimore, he transferred to Brewster before his junior year but failed to crack the starting lineup during his two years.
Still, Roberts was rated the No. 8 prep recruit in New Hampshire as a senior in 2018 behind Brewster teammates Miles Norris, Derek Culver and Lukas Kisunas, who were ranked Nos. 1, 2 and 5 in the state, respectively.
Norris spent one year at Oregon before transferring to UC Santa Barbara, Culver plays at West Virginia, and Kisunas is a backup at Stanford. Roberts, a three-star prospect, turned down offers from Syracuse and Nebraska to join a UW recruiting class that included Jamal Bey, Bryan Penn-Johnson and Elijah Hardy.
“Nate played behind some talented front-court guys, but his work ethic, particularly in the weight room, is what separated him,” Smith said. “He was always an unbelievable teammate.
“It’s tough for some high-school kids to understand that they’re going to be coming off the bench when they are a highly regarded player. But he never once complained. He was a leader for us and helped us win a lot of games.”
Roberts helped the Huskies win on Sunday, and in doing so might have commanded more minutes in a suddenly crowded rotation.
It’s not difficult to fathom a larger role for Roberts next season if Stewart and McDaniels, who are projected first-round picks in this year’s NBA draft, decide to turn pro.
Seemingly, Roberts would highlight a front line that would include Penn-Johnson and 6-9 sophomore forward J’Raan Brooks, who is redshirting after transferring from USC. Perhaps at that point Roberts will finally get a chance to maximize his potential.
“That’s the million-dollar question,” Smith said. “Unfortunately, he’s had to play a secondary role and he’s really embraced that, but I’m sure he’s just waiting for his moment to have a bigger role.
“Big guys take a little bit longer to develop. That’s why we would say a year or two down the road the light is going to click and Nate is going to have performances and games where people will say, where did he come from? We certainly saw glimpses here, and I’m excited that he’s starting to show it out there.”