The rise to the upper echelon of the college basketball world has been meteoric for Nevada's Nick Fazekas.
He has gone from scoring two points in his college debut against Vermont as a freshman last season ... to later scoring in double figures in 11 of the 13 games after being inserted into the starting lineup ... to a sophomore season and being named Western Athletic Conference Player of the Year last weekend ... and becoming a potential first-round NBA draft pick.
His future is as bright as the marquees on the hotels along South Virginia Street in downtown Reno. His future is so bright he needs shades.
And, none of this surprises the 6-11, 225-pound forward from Arvada, Colo. Fazekas, the possessor of one of the finest shooting strokes in the country, doesn't thump his chest and proclaim to anyone how good he is. He does, however, ooze with confidence. He feels he should be averaging a double-double every game, and he's amazed when every shot he takes doesn't go down.
Former coach Trent Johnson told the media in a post-game press conference one night last season that "Nick thinks he could score nine out of 10 times against Shaq O'Neal."
Fazekas smiled when reminded of that comment, and he doesn't dispute it.
"I've always been that way," he admitted. "I always felt that the only player that could stop me was myself."
If it sounds like bragging, it's not, because Fazekas has backed it up. He has scored in double figures in all 29 Nevada games to date, and he has scored 10 or more points 51 times in 63 games overall. He has 22 double-doubles in his career. He is averaging over 21 points and nearly 10 rebounds a game season.
"Nick is a great player," Nevada coach Mark Fox said. "In the last couple of months he has become a more complete player. He keeps taking steps forward, and that's what you want to see in a young player like Nick.
"He played a lot better than I thought he would last season. He made the transition much quicker than I originally thought. He's got such a great stroke for a big man."
Fazekas was asked to grade his play to date in his career, and after a few moments of pondering the question, he said he would give himself an A.
"I feel like I've played well," Fazekas said. "I think I've helped the team win games, even last year, and I feel I help make others on the team better.
"I felt like last year I was the third and maybe fourth option at times last year. This year I'm the first or second."
And, while he was happy not to have to shoulder the burden of being the go-to guy last year, he welcomed that role and the pressure that came with it this year, and has responded well to the consistent double and triple-teams that he's faced.
"He was obviously a very good player last year," UTEP coach Doc Sadler said. "Last year he wasn't the guy that got all the attention focused on him. That allowed him to get off to a great start.
"He's improved a lot. He gets a lot of attention this year, and he's still putting up great numbers. He's one of the guys that you have to have a conscious effort to stop."
Sadler should know. In a showdown last year in Reno, Fazekas scored was then a career-best 32 points in a 92-63 victory. This season, Fazekas scored 29 in an 83-80 overtime loss, and followed up with a 15-point, 8-rebound effort in a 62-60 win at EL Paso, which is one of the toughest venues in the country.
Much of his production has come in heavy traffic, and if you try to play him straight man-to-man, forget about it. Vermont learned that lesson the hard way when Fazekas tallied 31 in Nevada's 74-64 Bracket Buster win.
"I felt like I could score because there was no double-team," Fazekas said. "They were playing me straight up; 1 on 1. I'm over there drooling about that. All season I'd been seeing double teams. I felt like I could do anything I wanted."
His defense has improved from last year when he would get manhandled by some of the bulkier WAC centers. He put on 10 to 15 pounds, and that's helped him hold his own.
"He's made more of a commitment to be a better defensive player," Fox said. "He's done a better job of making post guys work hard for their points this year."
"I've got to get quicker on my feet," Fazekas said. "I need to get quick enough so that I can guard a 3 (small forward) or 4 (power forward)."
IN THE BEGINNING
Fazekas and his dad, Joe, have a very special relationship. They are truly best friends, and talk nearly everyday on the phone.
Joe came out to watch the season-opening tournament when Nick scored 27 points in back-to-back games to win MVP honors in the Dodge Classic. Because of work commitments, he hasn't seen Nick play in person since. He will, however, be at Lawlor for the WAC tournament and wherever Nevada is sent for the NCAA Tournament.
Joe, who played two years at Wyoming and two years at Idaho State, had Nick shooting hoops when he was 5 years old.
Even in sixth grade, Nick's dad said his son, was still shooting from the hip. That changed quickly, and Nick wasn't wild about it, and started to cry after about two hours.
"He said he couldn't do it," Joe said. "That got him to where he is now."
Joe said that he and Nick used to battle on the family driveway all of the time.
"Oh yeah, we played a lot of 1-on-1," the elder Fazekas said. "After he started beating me, I quit. I think it was eighth or ninth grade."
By then Nick was already 6-foot-3, and he grew six inches between his freshman and sophomore season at Ralston High School in Arvada.
He played three years of varsity basketball at Ralston, leading the team to a 25-2 record and a state title his senior year. He was MVP of the state tourney after averaging 25.6 points, grabbing 44 rebounds and blocking 15 shots. Ralston was 63-12 in that three-year span, and Fazekas was named Mr. Basketball.
THE BIG SNUB
You would think that being Mr. Basketball means having your choice of colleges. Unfortunately, that wasn't the case. Colorado State recruited him briefly. Colorado said it had a scholarship waiting, but coach Ricardo Patton didn't exactly make the Fazekas family feel warm and fuzzy all over. He never came to visit Fazekas at home, which was less than 30 minutes away from the Boulder campus.
"I think that Colorado State didn't think they had a chance for me," the Nevada sophomore said. "Colorado never made an attempt. The knock on me was that I didn't have the body, especially to play in the Big 12."
"They called and said they had a scholarship here and he could have it," remembers the elder Fazekas. "We got one piece of mail from them. I think Ricardo Patton might regret what he did. Now he tries to pass over it when it comes up."
That left it to Marquette, Utah and Nevada. Utah had the early edge, according to Nick.
"We were there (Utah) for two or three practices," Joe said. "One, we were sitting on the edge of the court, and (Rick) Majerus was running practice, and Nick said 'I can't stand watching this.'"
That left Nevada and Marquette.
Fox was only too happy to scoop up Fazekas.
"When you are looking at a big kid who can score, you better sign him," Fox told the Denver Post. "He was a very polished player when he came to us, and he keeps getting stronger and stronger."
THE NEXT LEVEL
The NBA has always been a dream for Fazekas.
"I don't know when it really hit me; where I really felt it was a possibility," he said. "I always had the confidence. My senior year in high school I was playing so well, we had an assistant coach that really pushed me, and he kept telling me it could become reality."
San Jose State's Phil Johnson, who has been an assistant coach in the NBA, believes Fazekas has a future at the next level.
"He is so unique," Johnson said. "To have that kind of length, have hands like he does and a great shooting touch. He has some deficiencies, so it doesn't make him a lock to play at the next level.
"It's who can he guard and how physical he can be. The scouts look at everything. They might not like the way a guy runs, but if you can shoot, that equalizes a lot of things."
The NBA can't talk on the record about undergraduates, but several NBA scouts that have ventured to Reno this year, say Fazekas has a future in the NBA. In fact, eight scouts had credentials for the Nevada-San Jose State game. The Raptors, Kings and Magic sent two scouts each.
The question is, when he will make the move. Reports have Fazekas as a second-round pick, and if that's the case, he'll be back at Nevada next season.
"I don't know what I'm going to do," Nick said. "I'm just playing it out, find out what I can do when the season's over. I want to see who is saying what. What's real, what's fake."
"Where I'm at, if he's going to go in the first round, I'm fine with it," Joe said. "I'm just waiting to see how it all shakes out. If somebody tells me we're going to pick him in the first round, then probably so (he'd leave after this year)."
Realistically, Fazekas' dad believes that his son will be ready after his junior season.
That's good news to the Lawlor Faithful, who adore watching Fazekas light up opponents and block shots.
n Darrell Moody can be reached at email@example.com, or by calling (775) 881-1281