At around 10 on a Tuesday morning, William and Mary junior forward Nathan Knight was already drenched in sweat. The six-foot-ten centerpiece to the men’s program was shooting three after three.
For a player as physically imposing as the 235-pound Knight, the idea of him developing a consistent outside jumpshot strikes ear in opponents and makes head coach Tony Shaver giddy. So here he is, working with Austin Shaver, Tony’s son and an assistant coach. Today, Knight’s morning workout is to hit 100 three-pointers, as well as 60 free throws.
He’s getting towards the end of his workout and even though he’s just shooting, he’s obviously working. There’s a triangle of sweat on his shirt. When he eventually misses one bad enough that the ball bounces past him and down the court, he’s ready to catch his breath.
“Hey Austin, it’s time for you to get some cardio done,” Knight said.
Before he put together one of the best sophomore seasons in Colonial Athletic Association history, before he played 17 minutes per game as a freshman, even before he spent a year in prep school at Kimball Union, Knight was a five-foot-ten freshman pitching for the baseball team at Nottingham High School in Syracuse, New York.
“Basketball was the last sport I picked up,” Knight said. “It was baseball first, then basketball. … Yeah, I’m pretty good.”
Ever since Knight arrived in Williamsburg in the summer of 2016, everyone has noted just how hard he works. In fact, a few days prior, Tony Shaver told one of his favorite stories about Knight.
“He’s lost 45 pounds, almost 50 pounds, since he first got here as a freshman,” Tony Shaver said. “That’s amazing work ethic there.”
When relayed Shaver’s anecdote, Knight laughs.
“He loves talking about that,” Knight said. “It’s just year-round work. Putting on weight is easy, losing it is the hard part.”
After the workout, Knight retreated from the gym to one of the classrooms on the middle level of Kaplan Arena. You can tell on the court just how big of a person Knight is, but you get a more complete picture off it when he has to deal with normal-human-sized things. Standing next to people, walking through doorways and sitting in chairs all show just how huge Knight is.
Knight’s growth spurt that elevated him from scrawny guard to solid big man can best be described as the uncommon combination of fast and steady.
“Yeah, just hit it through high school,” Knight said. “Sophomore year six-two, junior year like six-five and senior year like six-eight.”
Even with his apparent height, Knight was not a highly-touted prospect out of high school, something that he is not embarrassed to admit.
“Through my public school, I had about, maybe, four offers,” Knight said. “That was all. It was Colgate, Niagara, St. Bonaventure, and then there was one more, I think Canisius.”
But, as became a theme throughout Knight’s adolescent life, hard work propelled him further than many thought possible. After his time at Nottingham, Knight attended Kimball Union Academy in New Hampshire for a prep year. It was that year that truly propelled him into the class of sought-after basketball recruits.
“That summer, I did a week at a Hoop Group [basketball] camp, and somebody told me that I got 20 offers that weekend,” Knight said. “It was great. You know, it’s very humbling to know that my hard work is paying off.”
One of the schools that came calling was the College. As it turned out, it was a perfect fit for both the College and the player. The Tribe got a player with great potential and a proven work ethic, and Knight found a comfortable place to call home for four years, as well as a coaching staff that believed in him.
“I liked the school before I even came here, just the coaching staff and then doing some research with my parents, just the rich history that we have here,” Knight said. “And then the official visit was what really did it for me. You guys know, it’s a very homey campus. It wasn’t a hard adjustment for me. I knew it wouldn’t be if I came here, so that was a really easy decision for me and my parents.”
So, Oct. 5, 2015, Knight committed to the College. Neither Knight nor the Tribe knew just how much an impact he would make in a short amount of time.
The previous day’s practice was long and tough, especially for a team that’s banged up — Knight, junior forward Justin Pierce, redshirt junior guard Matt Milon and redshirt senior forward Paul Rowley have all battled injuries at some point in the offseason. This practice served as more of a walkthrough, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t move fast. The Tribe’s offense is notable for just how hard players cut toward the hoop.
As the players run through their offensive sets, it’s clear that Knight is trying to be a vocal leader on the court. He yells out the names of the play and his teammates and asks questions of the coaches if something goes wrong.
This has been a point of emphasis all offseason for both Tony Shaver and Knight. A few days ago, the head coach mentioned just how important it was for Knight to step into a leadership role, even if it took some growing into.
“There’s an old coaching cliche, and it’s really, really true,” Tony Shaver said. “When your best player, or your best players, are your hardest workers, you have something special.”
The message has not been lost on Knight. Named one of four team captains along with Pierce, Milon and Rowley, he talks about how much leading the team means to him just about every chance he gets.
“Coach [Tony] Shaver talked to us back last spring about becoming not just great basketball players, becoming leaders for the team, and that’s something that I really try, I really have been focusing on these past couple weeks, because that’s something I haven’t been my best at recently,” Knight said. “So, that’s something that I’ve really been trying to do and vocalize these past couple of days, because I know that’s probably the most important thing I can do for this team, is lead the younger guys and show them what we need to be doing.”
The void that Knight is trying to fill is quite a large one. David Cohn ’18, who graduated from the College last May after a three-year stint as its starting point guard, was the unquestioned leader of the team. Stepping into his shoes will take some getting used to for Knight. When Cohn comes up in conversation, Knight immediately concedes that it has not been easy to take the place of such a figure, but portrays the change in leaders a chance to grow.
“Nobody on this team is as passionate about Tribe basketball,” Knight admits. “At least, that I can see. I want to say I am, but I haven’t seen a person that’s more passionate about the game of basketball than Dave. Dave was always screaming, he’s just always going at it and I admire that about David. I miss Dave, in that sense, but I feel like that, him graduating, it’s giving us an opportunity to embody that, to embody that love for leading a team, for being the best captain, for being the best teammate you can be.”
One way that Knight is obviously most comfortable leading is by mentoring younger players. During practice, he seems to focus on freshman center Mehkel Harvey; he talks to him during timeouts, teaches him the minute intricacies of playing in the post and encourages him throughout drills. Harvey, who is from Orange County, California, is far from home, but Knight has taken it upon himself to make the change a little easier.
“He went from far west to far east,” Knight said. “You know, that’s a tough transition. And he’s a good kid. Mehkel came on his visit in the spring, and I knew I liked him. I knew if he came here that he would be my guy. So, I feel I kind of did that, taking him under my wing, because he’s pretty rough around the edges but he’s a great player, and I see that.”
Practice ends, and after the team debriefs, huddled around the circle at center court, all the players break to get some extra work in.
Knight was recruited mostly by the Tribe’s associate head coach Jonathan Holmes. Holmes recognized early on that Knight would be someone to keep an eye on.
“We saw him after his senior year of high school, but then he decided to do a post-grad year,” Austin Shaver said. “So, that summer, he really blew up, from being a little bit of an unknown to having, probably, 30 or 40 offers. … All it took was the one official visit and he committed.”
Austin Shaver saw the potential as soon as Knight stepped foot on campus.
“[We saw] his ability to move, both laterally and up-and-down, for a big guy,” he says. “He can really pass; that might be one of his best attributes. And he could shoot a little bit, the potential was there for him to shoot.”
When Knight came in his freshman year, he expected to slot in behind Hunter Seacat, going into his senior year, and Jack Whitman, who was a redshirt junior at the time.
“Honestly, I didn’t think I would have played as much as I did, because we had Jack Whitman, Hunter Seacat,” Knight said. “I was willing to play third-string big man. Obviously, I didn’t want to, so I worked as hard as I could so that Coach Shaver could see what I was doing, what I wanted to do. And then doors opened up for me.”
Doors did open for Knight. Seacat transferred late into the offseason, and when Knight got into games to give Whitman breathers, he impressed the coaches, so much so that he started over the veteran for a few games down the stretch of conference play.
“Honestly, he would have played more minutes when he was a freshman, but he was in foul trouble,” Austin Shaver said. “That freshman year, you usually see marked improvement, and he did that. He just got better and better and better. He probably grew in his confidence in himself, through that experience.”
Following the season, Whitman announced he would transfer, effectively clearing the way for Knight. Despite being assured a starting spot, he did not lose any momentum in his work. In fact, he may have worked harder.
“He’s always been a hard worker,” Austin Shaver said. “He’s improved in that area, now as he gets into his junior year. So, a lot of it has gone into what he’s done over the summer. He’s stayed for both sessions of summer school and we’re able to work him out for eight weeks. … I’ve never had to ask him to come into the gym. He wants to work, plain and simple. That’s one of the main reasons he’s gotten so much better.”
Knight’s game showed just how much he improved his sophomore year. After averaging just over eight points as a freshman, Knight led the team with 18.5 per game last season. He was also second on the team in rebounds with 7.3. For his efforts, Knight was named to the Second Team All-CAA.
In addition to his running scoring success, Knight has taken another step forward over this past summer.
“The shooting he’s worked really hard on,” Austin Shaver said. “I think he’ll shoot it better from three. And then it’s just, last year he was really good with both hands in the post. We’ve just tried to continue to work on that, and we’re trying to expand his game a little bit.”
If his work with Knight is any indication, that expansion may indeed come.
With only a few fleeting minutes left before Knight needs to leave, he ruminates on what drives him to get better.
“I just want to be the best,” Knight said. “Whatever people think that means, I just want to be the best. I want to leave this school and I don’t want to have a doubt in my mind that I gave everything I had. So that, and I want to play as long as I can, and at the highest level I can play at. … That’s what drives me.”
Knight’s name has been floated by experts as a possible National Basketball Association prospect. A lifelong goal for Knight, he keeps his focus on the day, and the season, at hand.
“It’s every serious basketball player’s dream to play professionally,” Knight said. “That’s something that I work towards, that’s something that I work for. And that’s not something I focus on right now, in the near future. I’m kind of taking the stuff day-by-day, week-by-week, just making sure I’m doing the things that I need to do here at William and Mary.”
With a young team and a tough non-conference schedule, Knight knows that the early part of the season could be bumpy. However, he seems confident in the ability for the team to get on track for conference play. When asked about the CAA season, he smiles.
“I want to say that we’re going to win the championship,” Knight said. “That’s what I want to say. But, obviously, I can’t promise that, because it’s a really good conference. There are a lot of really good teams. … I’ll say it’s going to be fun. I mean that; it’s going to be fun. I’m ready. So, how I see it going? I see it going really well, if we can come together as a team when the time comes.”
Knight’s list of preseason accolades is quite long. He’s been named a preseason mid-major all-American by NBCSports.com, made the preseason Second Team All-CAA and has been named to the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Award, given to the best center in college basketball, watch list by the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. But none of those matter as much to Knight as a CAA Championship would.
“That would mean everything to me,” Knight said. “Believe it or not, that’s one of the reasons I came here. I saw that as an opportunity for me to really show myself, because that’s an opportunity for me to not just show myself but show everybody how good of a player, and how good of a captain, and how good of a team we can be. Because, like you said, if I can do that, that’s something that nobody’s ever done here. We have great basketball players who have come in and out of this program. We have [Marcus Thornton ’15], we have great players who have done amazing things here, but that is a feat that only very few people can have. So, if I could be one of those people, that would be a dream come true.”
The interview comes to an end, and Knight walks away, out of the room and down the hallway until he makes his was around the corner and out of sight. He has work to do.