For a long time, football was atop Nelson Phillips’ list of sports.
Back in middle school, he much preferred basketball to football.
“The NFL,” Phillips said about what he was thinking about five year ago. “I didn’t even like basketball, because I never knew how to play. I started learning in fifth grade.”
And he became a good student of the game.
Good thing he was finally convinced to give basketball a try. Now, the junior is on track to become one of Warner Robins’ top boys basketball players in program history.
Warner Robins head coach Jamaal Garman teaches at Warner Robins Middle, and Phillips attended Thomson Middle School.
“I heard his name, and up through the rec center league,” Garman said. “I go watch my sixth-graders when they play rec ball, so I can get them ready for seventh-grade football. I always heard his name throughout the rec circles. Middle school, I heard his name. I never met him.”
As Phillips’ interest and proficiency in basketball grew, and he became a little more aware of his own potential, he saw how strong the Warner Robins basketball program was, and he transferred.
The move was news to Garman, who saw Phillips for the first time as a ninth-grader playing junior varsity at Northside.
“He played JV, and this joker dunked in the JV game,” Garman siad. “I was like, (dang), who is this kid?’ ”
Within a few months, some Demons fans had some news for their head coach.
“They were like, ‘Nelson wants to come to Warner Robins,’” Garman recalled. “I said, ‘Nelson who?’ ”
Garman didn’t actually meet Nelson until he was enrolled at Warner Robins. And in a county where all moves of all athletes are scrutinized ...
“Everything was by the book,” Garman said. “I’m not doing anything ... The basketball program is on a roll right now, and some people would love to say, ‘Oh, he’s over there recruiting.’
“I ain’t gotta recruit anybody.”
There was, however, work to do. Garman said he was told that Phillips wasn’t taking academics anywhere near serious enough and wasn’t going to class as he should. That was going to stop.
“I said, ‘He ain’t met the right person yet,’ ” said Garman, a Warner Robins grad. “Got him in our program, and he’s passing classes, going to school, doing what he’s got to be doing.”
Garman said Phillips is communicating with him during the day about classes and makeup work, and Garman worked to make sure teachers and counselors stayed on Phillips.
If he’s going to be late for practice because of tutoring, he brings a note.
“He’s starting to be more responsible for himself, which is how we want him to be,” Garman said.
Phillips made a name for himself as a sophomore on a team that included basketball prospects like Marquez Callaway and Donovan Brown. Callaway picked football and is at Tennessee, and Brown is playing at Columbia State, a junior college in Tennessee.
This year, the 6-foot-5 wing averages 18 points, seven rebounds and three steals a game.
“This joker is damn explosive, now,” Garman said. “He does stuff in practice, and me and Coach (Antwan) Brooks look at each other, like, ‘Did you see that?’
“There’s something wild he does every day in practice. It’s a ‘wow’ factor. If I can get him to translate that to the game and be aggressive, we’ll be good to go.”
Phillips is a four-star prospect in the 247sports.com composite and among the top 100 juniors nationally, as well as a three-star prospect by Rivals.com.
He said Georgia Southern, Mercer and Georgia are showing the most interest, and the aforementioned websites also note interest from Butler and Wake Forest.
He is, naturally, laid back about all that, and just wants to play.
Garman said Phillips is the same, chilled, whether getting yelled at or praised. There’s more of the latter for the 18-3 Demons.
“Everything on the court, this boy can do,” Garman said. “He’s got a mid-range jumper, he’s got the pull-up jumper, he’s got the 3-ball, he can handle the ball, he’s long, he gets a ton of deflections every game, steals every game, rebounds well.
“He does it all.”