But bring up the name Anthony Randolph, and Nelson cracks an ever-so-slight smile. The 20-year-old Randolph is a beacon of hope for the tumultuous Warriors, a 6-foot-11, 220-pound multiskilled forward who has made a dramatic turnaround since a rocky start to his rookie year last season.
"I've never coached a guy quite like him," Nelson said while watching Randolph drain 15-foot jump shots before Monday's preseason game against the Clippers. "He's unique."
Nelson meant that in a good way, though he could have said the same thing last year and meant it in the worst way possible. Nelson, entering his 31st year as an NBA head coach, couldn't recall the last time he drafted a player he was as high on as Randolph who let him down as much at the start. Two months into last season, Randolph, the No. 14 pick in 2008, was so far in Nelson's doghouse that it looked as if he would never see the court again. Nelson told Randolph that he wasn't going to play until he began to work harder.
"We're going to put him on ice for a while," Nelson said at the time. "He's just going to have to grow up."
Randolph was always going to be a project. At 19, he was the youngest player in the NBA and had barely filled out his 6-10 frame (he's almost 7 feet now). But Nelson knew that if Randolph didn't begin to develop better practice habits, he would never fulfill his potential and likely wouldn't be in Golden State very long.
"He wasn't going to grow the way I wanted him to grow until he started working, and to get that point across took awhile," Nelson said. "In the draft, we saw a good-looking player with tons of potential, and if he would have just followed that up with hard work, with the normal growth, we thought we'd have a really good player someday."
That someday came a lot sooner than Nelson or anyone on the Warriors' coaching staff could have imagined. Nelson seemed content to keep the young forward "on ice" for the rest of the season until Randolph began arriving to the practice facility early and leaving late. Within a matter of weeks, he went from simply coasting to being the team's biggest gym rat.
"I've never seen a player change so much during the season," Warriors assistant coach Keith Smart said. "A lot of guys make the change over the summer, but he made a drastic change from not being one of our best workers to being one of our hardest and longest workers. The kid was working out three times a day."
The hard work didn't go unnoticed by Nelson, who finally let Randolph loose in February after benching him for 18 games. Once Randolph got on the court, he gave Nelson reason to leave him there. He averaged 13.5 points, 10.5 rebounds and 1.6 blocks in the final 12 games of the season; only Dwight Howard and Chris Bosh averaging more rebounds during that stretch. He continued his development during the NBA Summer League, averaging a league-record 26.8 points and earning an invite to the USA Basketball training camp.
"I feel that if everything was just given to me, I'd be a different player than I am now," Randolph said. "I realize that going through what I did that I have to work for everything. I'm playing a superstar every night [at power forward] so I have to work to get to that level."
Randolph has been a bright spot during an eventful preseason for the Warriors. Stephen Jackson was suspended for two games after an argument with Nelson; the team leader in scoring and assists last season has said he wants to be traded. Monta Ellis said he couldn't play alongside rookie Stephen Curry in an undersized backcourt (though Ellis has since been complimentary of the first-round pick). And forward Brandan Wright, who was expected to play a bigger role in his third season, is out indefinitely after having surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder. Randolph, meanwhile, has kept his head down and averaged 13.8 points, 9.4 rebounds and 1.6 blocks in five games, starting each one. He has been more assertive in barking out defensive assignments to teammates and showing off a mid-range jump shot he honed over the summer.
"He reminds me of a Kevin Garnett type with more ball-handling skills and athleticism," Jackson said before his suspension. "Obviously, he still has to work on his jump shot, but as far as his upside with his ball-handling skills at 6-11, 7-foot, you can't teach that. You don't have guys that size who can handle the ball like that."
While his game is evolving, Randolph's relationship with Nelson has improved too. During the offseason Nelson visited his parents, Anthony and Crystal Randolph, who both served in the military, at their home in Dallas. Nelson wanted to get a greater understanding of Randolph as a person and how he could better connect with the player who may end up being the centerpiece of the Warriors' rebuilding project (Golden State has 10 players 25 or younger on its preseason roster).
"We just talked about him as a person and the best way to approach him," Nelson said. "I wanted to let them understand what my issues were and they totally agreed. We both understood the guy and what it's going to take to get the most out of him."
Randolph may be out of the doghouse now, but Nelson isn't about to give up on the tough-love approach with his potential superstar.
"We don't really expect him to 'get it' until his third year in the league," Nelson said. "I don't expect him to understand everything we're doing, but he's made a huge step. I still need him to do certain things and he understands what he needs to improve on. I'm going to stay after him until he gets it, and that's just the way it is."