By: Monty Mosher
The Commonwealth Games showed Erik Nissen he has the tools be a professional basketball player. It also showed him how much work lies ahead to get there and stay there.
The Acadia Axemen first-team all-star, who wrapped up his U Sports career with the nationals in Halifax last month, got to play for his country in Australia, earning a silver medal with a team of varsity players from across the land.
A six-foot-nine forward, Nissen, from Quispamsis, N.B., averaged 18.3 points per game in his final university season, his third with the Axemen. He played his first two years for University of Maine before returning to Canada.
His 10.4 rebounds per game topped the conference, earning him AUS defensive player of the year. He also blocked 59 shots to lead the AUS by a whopping 41.
It's no secret that there are many levels between Canadian university basketball and the top leagues of the world.
Nissen, turning 23 this week, had the size and strength to play inside in the university ranks. But the trees got far taller and thicker in the international game, particularly when the host nation put its best pros available on the floor. Australia won gold-medal final 87-47.
"It was a huge honour to represent Acadia, but also the AUS, in something like this," he said, taking a short break from a graduation trip to New York this week. "But we were playing against senior men's national teams, not just random university kids."
As for the Commonwealth Games experience, that was tough to top for a wide-eyed New Brunswick student set to graduate with a kinesiology degree in May. Olympic legend Usain Bolt was around, along with a current crop of Jamaican track stars.
"It was really cool walking around the athletes' village seeing these people that you've seen on TV that are world famous for doing what they do," he said. "And we're there competing on the same stage with them."
Canada sent a developmental team, coached by University of Manitoba's Kirby Schepp. Players from Ryerson, Ottawa, Manitoba, Alberta, Carleton, UBC, national-champion Calgary and Queen's filled out the roster.
Canada, in its first appearance in Commonwealth Games men's basketball, lost its preliminary round games to Australia and New Zealand while defeating Nigeria. But consecutive wins over England and New Zealand in the playoffs launched Canada into the gold-medal contest.
"I think it speaks to the level U Sports is actually at," Nissen said. "We beat some really good teams and we competed with some really good teams. I think the idea was to bring guys who could have a future impact on the senior men's national team … but I don't think they were taking us with the thought of winning a medal."
Schepp said he sees Nissen as a professional player and nothing happened in Australia to change his perception. He has the size to play inside, but also the mobility and skills to play effectively away from the basketball, which has become the prototype for the modern power forward.
"There's no reason he's not going to have a real solid career somewhere," said Schepp.
"I think for all the guys on the team it was a bit of an eye-opener in many ways," Schepp added. "Canada sent a young developmental team whereas the other teams did not. We were playing teams of seasoned pros. I think it was a great experience from that regard to play against that level."
Nissen played at the world university games in 2017 in Taipei, but a senior world championship was always his goal. It left him hungry for more.
"I've had a taste for it for a long time," he said. "This was a goal of mine. I didn't just cross my fingers. I've been working hard to get opportunities like this. To see it be able to pay out is pretty cool.
"Growing up it was always playing (NCAA) Division 1, play for Team Canada and play pro in Europe. I've crossed off a couple of those goals now and the Europe thing is coming together. Now it's time for some new goals and playing for Team Canada again would be right up there at the top of the list."
If you don't see Nissen around much in the next little while he might be in the gym. If there was a downside to his Commonwealth Games experience, he learned he'll need to hit the weight room to keep up, at least if he has to play near the basket.
"These guys are big men. You're banging with guys who are seven-foot-two, weigh 285 pounds and are all muscle. It was different for sure. I got a little taste of that at the world university games, but that wasn't the same level as these guys. They are some big boys. I'll be eating a lot and lifting a lot."
Nissen said he'll need to become more aware on the court as well. The pros played with an awareness borne of experience, always standing in the right spot and always making the right decision with the ball.
He said the Acadia basketball program pushed him to be a better player and he thanks the coaches for helping advance his career.
"It's going to be a different feel for sure. Acadia has been a big part of my life for the last three years. Even though I'm really excited to move on to the next level and see what else is out there in the world of basketball, Acadia will be a big part of my heart."