Look up on the basketball court, and much of the gym sees just one side of Altamont freshman Grace Nelson:
Nelson, the 2019 IESA state champion in the 100-meter hurdles and long jump, and a medal-winner in the 4×100 relay and 400-meter dash, was a member of Altamont’s 1A team title as a seventh grader.
This season, she’s off and running, using her pace and speed for the Altamont Indians to score 151 points over her first four games, including two 40-plus scoring outings.
Stepping onto the varsity floor at home against Neoga in her varsity debut, she recorded a 40-point, 6-rebound game. Since, she has racked up totals of 34, 36 and 41, in that order.
“I would describe myself as an aggressive player, fast, just get it and go,” Nelson said.
That’s not to say she doesn’t score in a number of other ways. She has an improving three-point stroke, honed from time spent with her Indiana Elite Havoc travel club. And she has begun to work well with teammates coming off screens and moving within Altamont’s productive transition offense.
“I’m comfortable because they all know I can get to the basket and score,” Nelson said. “So they see an open opportunity for me down low, they’ll get me the pass. Playing together so long we’ve got good team chemistry.”
Excelling in a small town (Altamont’s population is approximately 2,300), Nelson hasn’t exactly taken local squads by surprise, as her excellence in youth basketball has been well-documented. Just weeks into her high-school career, she’s living up to the hype — reaching scoring marks most varsity stars will never achieve.
“This is my 15th year as head varsity coach, and I have to say, coaching junior high, JV and on, she’s one of the most complete (players) that I’ve seen,” Altamont coach Katie Lurkins said. “Not just that I’ve coached, but I’ve seen in the area.”
“She has big goals,” Lurkins said. “The upside is I really think it’s the knowledge and the belief that she can do it. Some people had some question marks and some speculation about whether she was going to be the big deal at (this) level. I think her coming out at this level is going to push her.”
Nelson has been complemented thus far by talented teammates like fellow guard Brooke Runge, a senior and Parkland College signee.
“I think we work pretty together pretty good and we’re a fast team so we transition a lot and get a lot of our points on transition layups,” Nelson said.
Nelson said it was a shock to cross the 40-point threshold in her first game. Since then, however, she has come into a steady comfort on the floor each time out for now 3-1 Altamont, leading to her being awarded Illinois-Basketball.com’s first Girls Player of the Week distinction.
Nelson’s stats through four games: 37.8 points, 6 rebounds, 4.5 steals and 2 assists per game. She’s shooting 37.5 percent from three (9-of-24), 58.5 percent from the field (55-of-94) and 82.1% from the free throw line (32-of-39). She’s creating scoring chances for her team with prolific consistency, often by turning deflections into transition points.
“I’m pretty comfortable,” Nelson said. “I can finish most of my drives, finish strong and up with contact.”
Finding that continued success is something that Lurkins is confident Nelson will strive for. A combination of Nelson’s school pride, doing small things and her commitment to watching game film are all reasons Lurkins sees Nelson’s game only continuing to grow.
“She puts the ball cage away … she takes the laundry basket on and off the bus,” Lurkins said.
Getting good grades and being involved in non-basketball activities are just a few of the ways Lurkins said Nelson is a balanced kid.
“As much success as she’s had on the court, she understands it’s her success and her team success is equally important,” Lurkins said. “This start gives her the encouragement and the energy to continue to push forward and push for those personal and team goals.”