Feb. 28, 2008
By Matthew De George `10
Regardless of what the stat sheet may say, anyone who watches a Saint Joseph's men's basketball game knows that the game runs through one man. One big man.
Junior forward Ahmad Nivins has become the main focus of the SJU offense and opposing teams' defenses. His emergence as one of the premier offensive threats in the Atlantic 10 has coincided with the Hawks' recent rise toward the top of the conference standings.
The polished low-post player that Nivins has become is a far cry from where he started his basketball career. A mere seven years ago, he was a baseball player at Hudson County Prep, and basketball was only a casual pastime. With the encouragement of his father, Larry, a former basketball player at Slippery Rock University, and a change of scenery to St. Anthony's Prep, Nivins began to develop into a legitimate Division I prospect.
"I played baseball my entire life," said Nivins. "I didn't really like basketball because I was too uncoordinated. Then, basketball just got fun for me."
That fun translated into great improvement. Under the expert tutelage of St. Anthony's head coach Bob Hurley, Nivins became a vital piece of one of the nation's strongest high school programs. He led the Friars to a perfect 30-0 season as a junior, and averaged a double-double (15 points, 10 rebounds) as a senior.
According to Hurley, Nivins was an ideal student to teach the game of basketball to, and his lack of experience was at times more of a help than a hindrance.
"From baseball, he had good hands and good eyes," said Hurley. "He was also a very good student and very attentive to coaching. A lot of times, when you get a kid, he has bad habits, and to improve him, you have to break some bad habits as you develop their game. Ahmad had no habits; he was like a piece of clay that you could mold."
With a strong foundation in place, his transition to the college game brought early success. In his first year, he averaged 6.1 points per game, and showed flashes of brilliance. He earned more consistent playing time as a sophomore, starting 31 games. His point total shot up to 16.6 points per game, earning him First Team All-Conference honors in the Atlantic 10 and a spot on the All-Big 5 First Team.
This season, his numbers have slumped somewhat, as he is averaging 13.9 points per game. Nivins has also been more inconsistent, as he has been kept below double-digits in points eight times already this year through 22 games played, compared to only five sub-10 point games all of last season.
Though his point totals may have dipped slightly, his importance to the Hawks scheme has grown. Much of the success of his teammates can be attributed to the attention paid to Nivins, who regularly draws double- and triple-teams, creating open opportunities for his teammates.
"It's been a gift and a curse," said Nivins. "People know about me, but at the same time, it gets a lot harder. I give a lot of credit to the coaches and my teammates. I have to find other ways to be productive, hitting the glass, blocking shots, and doing the little things to help the team win. It doesn't necessarily have to be getting all the points."
While Nivins may not be filling up the stat sheet at the same rate as last year, head coach Phil Martelli recognizes that evaluating his performance is now different.
"He has taken such strides that now in his junior year he is the focal point of every opponent's defense," said Martelli. "They start their game plan with challenging Ahmad, and the other players have benefited off the fact that Ahmad is willing to take on the challenge of being guarded by more than one man."
Two games this season illustrate the importance of Nivins' presence on the Hawks' play.
The January 26 contest against Temple was not one of his more offensively proficient nights, as he scored only eight points. And while Pat Calathes may have gotten the headlines for his game-winning three-pointer, it was Nivins' hustle and basketball sense that ultimately sealed the win with a block on Mark Tyndale's last-second lay-in attempt that would have snatched away the victory.
"When Pat hit the shot, I felt like celebrating," said Nivins. "But I looked up and there was about 3.6 seconds left. I immediately looked for [Temple guard Dionte] Christmas, because I knew he had the hot hand. I didn't even know where Tyndale was and I turned around and he was pushing the ball up the court. My initial reaction was just to get back. I didn't want to lose on a layup, so I got up as high as I could and I'm just glad I got a piece of it."
His "do everything" attitude was sorely missed in the 102-88 loss to Duquesne on February 6. With Nivins sitting out with an ankle injury, SJU was dominated by the Dukes to the tune of 60.4 percent shooting from the field. The absence of Nivins in the middle to stabilize the offense and allow Saint Joseph's to establish a half-court game led to a large halftime deficit and a tempo that favored the high-scoring Dukes.
While his play on the court may change, his coaches know that his character and personality is one advantage he will always have over his competition.
"By nature, he's a very affable young man," said Hurley. "That was hard for him to turn the switch to become a very aggressive person on the court when off the court he was very polite and a passive kid."
"He has an engaging personality," adds Martelli. "He has the ability to take the game and competition seriously, but not take himself too serious. In this day and age where too many players get the wrong impression of who they are, Ahmad has stayed very grounded."
No matter what may lay ahead for Nivins, the one constant for the man affectionately known as "Slim" is a determination and positive attitude that will always give him an edge.