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Kevin Schnepf, Published December 07 2009

‘Energizer’ a ‘Force’ in SD: Former Bison Nelson makes Sioux Falls pro team

He forked out $115 for a tryout. Now, Mike Nelson is making $14,000 to play basketball.

“Not bad at all for my first year,” said Nelson, who last March was one of four seniors guiding the North Dakota State men’s basketball team to the NCAA Tournament.

Ironically, Nelson is now getting paid to play on the same Sioux Falls Arena court where he and the Bison clinched their NCAA Tournament berth. The 6-foot-4 guard – often described as the “Energizer bunny” – is making an early season impression in the NBA Developmental League with the Sioux Falls Skyforce.

“It was kind of a good feeling to get back onto that court,” Nelson said. “I have a lot of good feelings toward that court.”

Like last spring’s Summit League Tournament championship win over Oakland – which prompted a throng of fans to mob Nelson and his teammates on the Sioux Falls Arena court.

Would Nelson ever have imagined returning to the same court – and getting paid for it?

“Not a chance,” he said.

Nelson’s chances of playing for the Skyforce seemed slim two months ago.

While his Bison teammates Ben Woodside and Brett Winkelman headed overseas to play professionally, Nelson waited for a call to do the same.

His agent had a 100 percent success rate in finding overseas teams for his clients.

But with the tough economy hitting Europe, pro teams weren’t signing as many American players.

“There were a lot of good players who were still waiting,” Nelson said.

Then, somewhat out of the blue, Nelson’s dad spotted an advertisement on the Internet: Open to the public, tryouts for the Sioux Falls Skyforce.

So Nelson drove to Sioux Falls, paid his $115 fee and proceeded to impress Skyforce coaches during a two-day tryout that included 34 other players. The Skyforce invited Nelson back for their preseason camp.

He made the first cut after the first four days. After surviving yet another cut, it came down to him and Draelon Burns, a 2008 DePaul graduate who grew up in Milwaukee – less than an hour from Nelson’s hometown of Madison.

“We never talked about it but I knew one of us was going to get cut,” Nelson said. “It was nerve-wracking. But it made me work that much harder at practice.”

Nelson has never shied away from hard work. It was his identity at NDSU. Now – officially a member of the Skyforce’s 10-player roster – it has become his identity as a pro.

“He’s been one of our biggest surprises – how hard he plays, how tough he is,” said Skyforce head coach Tony Fritz. “He does all the little things that go unnoticed but helps you win games.”

As a backup who averages 15 minutes of playing time per game, Nelson has helped the Skyforce to an early-season 2-2 record. Nelson is averaging 5 points per game – throwing in 10 in a Nov. 27 home win over Maine.

Nelson said he’s adjusting to playing three or four games a week. He’s also adjusting to a game in which teams spread the floor – allowing playmakers to drive for shots or dish out to shooters like Nelson.

“I’ve gotten a lot of good looks standing in the corner,” said Nelson, who was a 43-percent 3-point shooter at NDSU.

“His shooting ability has surprised me,” Fritz said. “He has the knack for hitting big shots.”

Defensively, Nelson tries to stop some of the best guards in the D-League – like Moe Baker and Renaldo Major of the Dakota Wizards and 34-year-old veteran Billy Thomas of Maine.

“Those are NBA-caliber players,” Fritz said. “He’s been a great defensive player for us. He has a great future in the pro game.”

That’s what Nelson is hoping – perhaps joining Woodside and Winkelman overseas someday. Woodside, earning more than $100,000, is the leading scorer for a professional team in France. Winkelman, earning nearly $80,000, is the second-leading scorer for a team in Italy.

For now, Nelson is content with his non-guaranteed, four-month, $14,000 contract that includes a free apartment.

“I wasn’t worried about how much money I was making … I want to establish myself,” Nelson said. “This can give me some credibility as a professional. It just feels good to be able to contribute and prove to myself that I can compete.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Kevin Schnepf at (701) 241-5549