Nathan Adrian, 6' 9" senior forward, West Virginia
Adrian was no one’s version of a five-star recruit coming out of Morganton (W.Va.) High School. Yet, he was barely good enough to do what no Morgantown native had been able to do since 1949—earn a scholarship to play for the hometown Mountaineers. Those Mountaineers, of course, are coached by another Morgantown native and WVU alum, Bob Huggins. (Huggins was born in Morgantown but played high school ball in Ohio.) Alas, Adrian found out the hard way that being a local hero can have downsides, but now that he is a senior, he has established himself as the face of the program. He even has the long hair and scraggly beard to play the part.
Mostly, though, Adrian has a sixth sense about how to play defense. That makes him an invaluable asset at the top of Huggins’ full-court press, which is an unusual place for a 6’ 9”, 235-pound power forward to find himself on game nights. “No matter where the ball is in the press, he is usually able to get to the right spot where the ball is going to end up. It’s uncanny,” says ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla, who specializes in covering the Big 12. “He’s more athletic than you think, but he does it more with guile and IQ than raw athleticism. He’s like a great middle linebacker in a great defense. He plays with so much heart and soul, and then being from Morgantown, he really embodies Bob Huggins’ ‘Press Virginia’ system.”
Adrian played pretty well as a freshman, but he was mostly a catch-and-shoot stretch four who made 35.8% of his three-point attempts and averaged 5.4 points per game. As a sophomore, however, he developed a painful cyst in his right wrist. He tried to keep the injury quiet, but it took a drastic toll on his three-point shooting, which plummeted to 17.7%. The locals who had once lionized Adrian turned on him so badly that the school’s athletic department produced a video in which he read “mean Tweets” to help make light of the situation.
The injury turned out to be a blessing in disguise because it forced Adrian to develop other parts of his game. In late January of his junior season, Adrian was moved into the starting lineup because one of the starting forwards was injured. The fans booed Adrian when his name was announced, but they cheered him as soon as he made a three-pointer and layup to open the game, sending the Mountaineers to an easy home win over Kansas State. Afterward, Huggins said it was Adrian’s best game in college because of the way he passed and played defense. “He made some shots, but I think his floor game was very good,” Huggins said.
Adrian has continued to build upon those skills and, despite a quiet personality, emerge as a vocal (and sometimes combative) leader on the court. He can often be heard barking out orders to his teammates from his position on top of the press. He is averaging career bests in scoring (10.3 ppg), rebounds (6.1) and assists (3.0), and he is converting a career-best 74% of his free throws. He has also earned Big 12 All-Academic honors in all three seasons. After he had a career-high 22 points to go along with six rebounds, three steals and two assists in a 21-point win over then-No. 1 Baylor, Mountaineers’ junior guard Jevon Carter said Adrian was the unquestioned team leader. “He can do whatever they ask him to do,” Carter said. “He can shoot, pass, rebound and he can make plays for other people. He’s our go-to guy.”
Whether he’s playing like a Go-To Guy or a Glue Guy, Adrian will always be Morgantown’s Home Town Guy. As his head coach can attest, that is a special legacy for a young man to carry forward. “You can’t say enough about what Nate has been,” Huggins said late last week. “He understands what it means to the people in West Virginia and what it means to the kids growing up here. He has been a great ambassador for West Virginia basketball.”