Saturday, Jan. 12, 2019 | 2 a.m.
As a young high-school basketball star, Nick Blair was a highlight player. Explosive dunks were his calling card. By the time he graduated, he had won three dunk contests (while also helping Bishop Gorman to three state championships).
Now, as a grizzled old vet of 22 years, Blair describes his current role as a walk-on for the Runnin’ Rebels much differently.
“It’s about doing my job,” Blair says. “Whatever it is at practice I’ve got to do to help out, that’s my role, whether it’s playing defense, helping out offensively, rebounding or whatever it is. Just being an ultimate glue guy.”
Blair seems comfortable with his game these days, but it’s been a long road from dunk machine to role player. As a senior at Gorman, the 6-foot-5 forward went overlooked by most Division-I schools despite averaging 12 points, 12 assists and eight rebounds. Even hometown UNLV did not recruit him at the time.
“They were real big on Zimm and Chase,” Blair recalls, referencing his five-star Gorman teammates Stephen Zimmerman (who eventually committed to UNLV) and Chase Jeter (Duke).
Blair eventually committed to Idaho, but there weren’t many in-game highlights during his time with the Vandals. Blair played just 9.8 minutes per game as a freshman, then saw his playing time cut to 5.9 minutes as a sophomore. He averaged 2.7 points and 1.8 rebounds, and after two seasons he was looking to transfer.
Marvin Menzies was coming off a rough first season at UNLV, during which the Rebels posted a program-worst 11-21 record. Menzies was looking to fortify the roster with high-character players who would do the little things the right way, no matter how small the task. After two years in Moscow, Idaho, that role sounded like an opportunity to Blair — even without a scholarship attached.
“I knew they were struggling,” Blair says. “And me, being from here, I thought maybe I could help out. I wanted to come in and help the program any way I can.”
Blair has spent the last two seasons trying to live up to that goal, first as a redshirt in 2017-18 and now as an active player. The vast majority of his contributions to the team come during practice, away from cheering fans and television cameras. If the coaches instruct the team to run through a drill with their hands in a certain position, Blair makes a point to do it with 100-percent intensity. If he senses his teammates aren’t communicating enough during a scrimmage, he raises his own volume to get things going.
“As an older guy who has been at another Division-I program, I know it’s about helping the team as much as possible,” Blair says. “I’m a guy who has got a good basketball IQ. On and off the court, I try to do the right things. That’s what I can provide to this team and that’s what I focus on.”
Blair executed that role to perfection on Tuesday. With UNLV locked in a tight game down the stretch at New Mexico, Menzies found himself running short of big men after sophomore center Mbacke Diong left the game with an injury.
With limited options in the frontcourt, Menzies inserted Blair as his center. Menzies said after the game that he wasn’t worried about positions or matchups — he just wanted a player that he could trust. Despite appearing in just two games prior to Tuesday, Blair was his man.
Blair entered the game with 11:51 remaining and New Mexico ahead, 57-54. He played nine minutes the rest of the way, including the final 2:53. He didn’t attempt a shot. His only statistical contribution was a pair of defensive rebounds. But during Blair’s time on the floor, UNLV outscored New Mexico, 23-10, securing one of the biggest wins of Menzies’ tenure.
All reserves say they prepare for every game as though they expect to play, but Blair is being honest when he says his call to action came as a surprise.
“I didn’t think I’d get back in,” Blair says. “I guess from the first time I was in, the coaches liked what they saw and they went back to me. I just took advantage of the opportunity.”
Blair’s plus-13 rating was the best on the team, and he didn’t do it by throwing down acrobatic dunks. While guards Kris Clyburn, Noah Robotham and Amauri Hardy combined for 51 points, Blair focused on playing tough, rugged defense and using his court awareness to keep the Rebels running smoothly throughout the comeback.
“Rebound and defense,” Blair says. “I don’t have to worry about scoring in that situation. If the opportunity comes, don’t be afraid to go out and make a play, but we’ve got Kris, Noah and Amauri out there, guys that have played every game and had been scoring for us. So for me, it was just, ‘Go out there and do the little stuff.’”
With Diong’s status unknown, it’s possible that there could be more playing time in Blair’s future. But even with the prospect of a bigger role in front of him, Blair isn’t tempted to chase after highlight plays.
His responsibilities may expand, but Blair’s mindset will remain the same.
“I’m ready,” he says. “I’m prepared to go out there and keep it simple. The coaching staff trusts me. I’ve shown them in practice. They know I’ve got experience and they know I’m capable. I won’t go out there and force anything or make it harder on myself than it needs to be. Just keep it simple, and everything will be all right.”