Jameer Nelson at age 35 - what it takes to still thrive in the NBA | Mike Jensen

Jameer Nelson, holds a guard camp at Girard College. DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer

Out of the mouths of teenage hoop phenoms can come wisdom. Chester High guard Michael Smith, at a basketball camp this past week sponsored by former Chester great Jameer Nelson, hit it on the head when asked about how Nelson still is in the NBA at age 35.

“We don’t know,’’ Smith said at Girard College with some of the best young guards in the region.

How could they? All are less than half Nelson’s age. His own teenage son was there, one of their peers. The three-day Jameer Nelson Lead Guard Invitational Camp was designed to give the invitees a window into the working life of a veteran pro. The young guys started with a little boxing workout. Nelson, now with the Denver Nuggets, put on the gloves, too.

“Kind of similar, but we’re a little more physical,’’ boxing trainer Henry Racich said about this workout compared with what he and Nelson have done in offseasons during Nelson’s 13 years in the NBA. “We do some body work. I’ll lean on him and have him throw punches and I’ll counter to the body.”

The dozen players in the camp worked on phantom combinations, trying to line up footwork with the punches, moving across the gym. After almost 30 minutes it was time to move on. A couple of the young hoop stars stationed themselves in front of a fan.

“Their tongues were hanging out after three minutes,’’ Racich said. “Without knowing it, those guys threw 500 to 700 jabs today with their weak hand.”

If you’d assume Nelson now has all the answers, it isn’t like that. Every offseason, Nelson basically has the same discussion with his agent Steve Mountain, which gets to the same core question. Work on my strengths, or my weaknesses? Different years, they have reached different conclusions.

“He’s in better shape than the first five years I trained him,’’ Racich said, adding that Nelson picked up the boxing part “like it was walking.”

Now, there is nobody in the NBA who is both older and shorter, nobody 6 feet or under — Nelson will tell you he is 5-11 and ¾ — and 35 or older.

“That’s a hell of a combo isn’t it,’’ Nelson said. Thinking of how he could he tell his wife: “I’m the oldest person my height.”

Or shorter.

“See, I always like to be different,’’ Nelson said.

He’s outlasting what was initially expected of him as the 20th pick in the 2004 draft, after that storybook St. Joseph’s Hawks season. Take the 20th picks in the drafts from 1993 to 2006. Only three of them started more than 200 NBA games:  centers Zydrunas Ilgauskas (724) and Brendan Haywood (549) and Nelson. Ilgauskas, now retired, is the only one from those 14 drafts who has played more games than Nelson, and Nelson, with 828 games,  needs only 15 more to pass Ilgauskas.

The average 20th pick from those drafts played 383 games and started 196 games. Only Nelson and Ilgauskas have averaged 10 career points a game, and only Nelson averaged 5.2 assists a game, or 15 points per playoff game.

Another way to look at it his status: Luke Jackson, 10th pick in the same draft as Nelson, has been a college coach for four years.

Now that Kobe Bryant has retired, Nelson is the Philadelphia-area player with the longest NBA tenure.

“When we first started working together, he said, ‘Hey, I want to sneak a year or two more out of my career,’’ said Drew Hanlen, Nelson’s offseason skills trainer. “Now we’re at four years and he’s still sneaking more years out of his career.”

Hanlen was on the court next showing the dozen young guys how precise the skills work gets.

“Step one, float, split, hand and foot work together …”

Hanlen showed a hesitation move the high school guards later said they wanted to incorporate into their games, showing a feint of a backstep that could fool a defender, and the hand work required to go with it.

“It’s not just, go get a basketball and shoot 100 jump shots,’’ Nelson said of the skills workouts. “It’s not easy.”

Hanlen made it clear he has seen his share of NBA players who have sloppy fundamentals.

Camera icon David Swanson
Jameer Nelson holds a guard camp at Girard College with skills trainer Drew Hanlen (right). DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer

“They don’t pay attention,’’ Nelson said. “If I can’t do something, I’m going to ask.”

That’s what Hanlen immediately told the teenagers:  “From this moment forward, I want you guys asking questions.”

“When he first came to me, his big thing was, ‘I was once an all-star,’ ” Hanlen said of Nelson. “ ‘I had a down year. I want to get back to play at a high level, so I can contribute and add value.’ … Really what I do, I look at his advanced analytics and kind of reverse-engineer what he was doing when he was at his best.”

So they “locked in” on changing speeds. They worked on balance during jump shots — “which had slipped up later in his career when his legs went out,’’ Hanlen said. They worked on finishing at the rim, a skill that also had slipped. Even with a lower usage rate, Nelson’s numbers were up in all those areas last season, his trainer said.

This past season, Nelson played 75 games for Denver, starting 39, his highest total since 2013-14. His 9.2 points in 27.3 minutes were his highest scoring total in three seasons, his 5.1 assist total just under his 5.2 career average. His 38.8 three-point percentage was fifth highest of his career, and highest since 2010-11. His effective field-goal percentage was second highest of his career.

“It’s amazing — it’s beyond amazing,’’ said Nelson’s St. Joseph’s coach, Phil Martelli. “Each summer, I’ll say to him, what’s the plan? It’s very regimented and very specific, in terms of dates he’s going to start, how he eats. The greatest thing about him, he has never been afraid to be alone. If you’re with him, you’re going to match him or you’re not going to be there. He’s not going to cave.”

Nelson doesn’t claim to be inventing anything here. The older guys in the league have similar regimens. He learned from veterans above him. One of them, Keyon Dooling, overlapped with Nelson for three seasons in Orlando. He said Nelson “was a sponge. I always say you have to be a great follower to be a great leader. Jameer, he had that perfect balance.”

Even as a younger guy, the starting point guard would have his Magic teammates to Philadelphia for a few days. This week’s camp also is an attempt to re-create that experience, which included a trip to the NBA Finals.

Dooling stopped by Girard on Wednesday and spoke to the teenagers. His message: “Accountability. Seizing the moment. The art of visualization, seeing where you want to go and working toward getting there. … Channeling issues from your life, whether anger or bitterness, channeling it into basketball. Using that negativity to turn it into something positive.”

This season puts Nelson over $70 million in career earnings, which is probably why a video guy going out for sandwiches seemed to believe Nelson when he offered his keys and said, “You’re not scared to drive a Rolls-Royce are you?”

“You drive a Rolls-Royce?”

“I’m just messing with you.”

(There may have been an Escalade in the parking lot.)

Nelson was smart enough to know that the young guys at the camp were in top basketball shape. He picked his own spots when joining them, since he had already had a full workout before they got there, starting at 7 a.m.

“I’ll bet you he hears something he hasn’t used yet and he’ll incorporate it,’’ Steve Mountain said of the camp week, talking about how they talk about fitness techniques, and both are using an ultrafit system in the mornings these days.

“You changed four times,’’ 30-year Chester assistant Keddy Harris, just retired, told Nelson at lunchtime  Tuesday.

“I’m going to lose 15 pounds this week,’’ Nelson said.

Camera icon David Swanson
Instructing Mikeal Jones (21), Jameer Nelson, holds a guard camp at Girard College. DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer

About then, Delgreco Wilson led one of his sessions on NCAA eligibility standards, explaining to the younger guys how hard it is to recover from poor grades as freshmen or sophomores. Wednesday,  a Sixers staffer led a sports science session. Former Hawks teammate Dwayne Jones, now on the Sixers staff, led a simulation of a pre-NBA draft workout. This was right in the wheelhouse for the high school players as they drained streams of jump shots. The talent on the court almost overflowed.

What’s it like for Nelson having Jameer Nelson Jr., slightly taller, out there with him?

“It’s special,” Nelson said. “When we had him, people said you’re too young to have a kid, blah, blah, blah. But when you look at it now, he just turned 16, we can work out together. There’s not too many guys who can say they can work out with their son who is a rising junior, and doing it at a pretty high level.”

He also has three daughters, the two older ones, Jamia and Jayden, more into softball. And his youngest, Jayce, 5 years old, she’ll say to him, “Daddy, you better shoot that ball and make it.” And she’ll follow up, quizzing him on whether he scored.

“It’s funny because if I haven’t scored, I’m like, ‘I’ve got to make a shot because tomorrow she’s going to ask me if I made a shot.’ ”

He allows himself to eat a cheesesteak or hoagie early in the offseason, Nelson said, “Then I’m like, all right, it’s time to not do that.”

While his workouts have evolved, Nelson said, “you work smarter. You get a little older, you figure your body out, you do things a little different. You still work hard — it’s the same type of stuff. I still do boxing, I do spin classes, my basketball, my lifting. It’s trying to eliminate some of the pounding on my knees and my ankles, stuff like that. When you’re younger, you want to play five-on-five all the time.”

So Nelson’s message for the high school ballplayers, he said, is that they’re going to get to college and maybe they’re going to have to do things they don’t want to do. Get past that.

“So none of them have boxed before,’’ Nelson said. “It’s challenging, physically and mentally. Exhausting. I’m trying to help these guys understand there are ways to work out. Everyone is not going to take this — I’m going to box. But it may open their eyes up for them to do other things as well.”

And if they got a nice hesitation move out of the deal, that’s a bonus, an and-one free of charge, before they finished off the day with a yoga session.

“That was harder than boxing,’’ one of the ballplayers said.