Drew Nelson-Crowell didn’t know what to do when he was cut from basketball tryouts at Foothill High School.
The then 6-foot-5 freshman assumed he’d be a lock for a roster spot but had to accept a hard lesson that it was going to take a lot more than height if he wanted to continue his basketball career. He transferred to Redding Christian and earned an opportunity to work his way up from being just a tall kid to one of the best hoopers in the North State. On Thursday, Nelson-Crowell celebrated his high school journey by inking his name on a NCAA National Letter of Intent to attend California State University, Stanislaus — a D-II program — on a basketball scholarship.
“I want to win at everything I do and basketball was my outlet to compete and when I was at Foothill, I didn’t have that mindset,” he said.
Nelson-Crowell found a way to flip his disappointment into motivation. He helped the Lions win a Northern Section Division VI championship and reach the CIF Northern California Division VI Regional Championship game. He blossomed as a junior, showing how dominant the big fella could be by averaging 16.4 points and 13.9 rebounds per night. He led the Northern Section in double-doubles (23), blocks (129) and rebounds per game en route to earning All-Shasta County Sports first team honors.
What was setting up to be his breakthrough senior season as a legitimate MVP candidate didn’t happen. The coronavirus pandemic put organized and school sports in jeopardy, leaving his future full of uncertainty.
“There was no one lining up to buy stock of Drew Nelson,” he said. “I thought I was a failure.”
That didn’t stop him from achieving one of his dreams of playing college hoops. It just took more work to get there.
Lions coach Todd Dwyer recommended him for West Coast Elite, a popular AAU organization in the Bay Area. Nelson-Crowell, now standing 6-foot-10, slimmed down from an “out-of-shape” 300 pounds to a “muscular” 285, and got the needed exposure from colleges by tapping into West Coast Elite’s expertise that helped him learn and develop the game from inside-and-out.
“He has worked hard at getting into much better shape, he’s slimmed down, added strength and has become more agile and athletic,” Dwyer said. “That has helped his confidence and playing for West Coast Elite this summer helped him play against some real good competition and helped him see he had to improve to play at the next level.”
With Redding Christian opting-out of a basketball season this spring to avoid competing for athletes to fill other athletic teams, Nelson-Crowell is grateful for the rare opportunity he got to play.
“The past 6-7 months have been really tough but I realized through these hard times I’ve seen a lot of people struggle, barely make ends meat, lose their jobs and I thought if all I lost due to COVID is a game then I’m doing something right,” Nelson-Crowell said.
He had heavy interest from Warner Pacific, an NAIA program out of Portland, Ore., and Augustana College, an NCAA D-III program in Illinois. Interest from nearby Chico State grew when Nelson-Crowell was nearing his decision but fell in love with Stanislaus, a fellow California Collegiate Athletic Association (CCAA) program.
“I love the coaching staff and the atmosphere there, you they’re all about winning and family,” Nelson-Crowell said. “I’m honored to play at the next level.”
Nelson-Crowell plans to major in business at Stanislaus State but wants to pursue basketball after college with a professional career in the sport he loves.
“When I was a freshman, I never thought I’d make it this far,” he said. “I want to keep going and see how far this takes me because I was never supposed to make it.”