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Nate Reuvers is taking his game to the next level for Badgers

January 26, 2019
Reuvers

Nate Reuvers was doing his best to answer the question. Meanwhile, his two teammates seated to the left of him at the dais in the Kohl Center media room were doing their best not to bust out laughing.

As the scene played out a week ago following the biggest win of the season to date for the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team, it was probably confusing to most of the people gathered in the room.

Reuvers hadn’t even said anything remotely funny while answering a question about his role in the Badgers’ 64-54 victory over previously unbeaten Michigan. But the first few words were barely out of the sophomore forward’s mouth when Ethan Happ tapped Brad Davison on the leg and chuckled, setting off a giggle fest between the two.

“We love Nate, we do,” Happ said. “But we love him for a lot of things, and one of them is he’s kind of a goofy kid, almost in the same way that Frank was kind of goofy. Some of those answers in the pressers are funny to me just because it’s Nate.”

Frank, of course, is Frank Kaminsky, the former UW star who became the poster boy for player development en route to claiming national player of the year honors in 2015.

What some may not remember about Kaminsky: As good as he was in front of the camera and at filling up reporters’ notebooks with material that could be simultaneously insightful and amusing, he was a reluctant interviewee at times during his career.

Which brings us to an anecdote that shows something else the 7-foot Kaminsky and 6-11 Reuvers have in common. After UW’s 72-60 victory at Illinois on Wednesday night, Reuvers emerged from the visiting locker room and was informed by UW athletic communications staffer Patrick Herb that a small group of reporters wanted to speak with him.

Reuvers’ inclusion on the interview list was a no-brainer: He had finished with 22 points and 10 rebounds — both career highs — for his first double-double with the Badgers.

After a brief conversation, Reuvers gave in and did the interview. Before it started, Herb politely informed Reuvers that he better get used to the attention, a déjà vu moment if there ever was one. “I remember having the exact same exchange with Frank a few times,” Herb said.

Debating was — and still is — one of Kaminsky’s great joys in life. He’s been known to wax philosophical on many topics, another trait he shares with Reuvers.

Davison, who is Reuvers’ roommate on the road, says the two often burn time with long conversations involving a wide range of subjects: the stock market, girls, politics, faith, whatever. Davison likes that Reuvers is intelligent, has a different view on the world and isn’t afraid to speak his mind.

“He keeps things interesting, to say the least,” Davison said. “He has perspectives and he’s strong with them. He’s fun to talk to.”

Any comparison between Kaminsky and Reuvers on the court is admittedly premature. But, well, here it goes anyway because Reuvers has been Kaminsky-esque at times recently, albeit in small doses.

For starters, Reuvers has been lethal in pick-and-pop situations, much as Kaminsky was while leading the Badgers to back-to-back Final Fours. A surge over the past five games has pushed Reuvers’ 3-point percentage to 40.8, with much of that damage coming from a hot spot a shade left of the top of the key.

Kaminsky could take over games, and Reuvers showed a little bit of that during the second half at Illinois. When the 6-10 Happ went to the bench with four fouls and 9:38 remaining in a tie game, Reuvers responded with a dominating stretch on both ends of the court to spark a 9-0 run that put UW in front for good.

“Definitely (some) similarities,” said Happ, who served as Kaminsky’s understudy while redshirting during the 2014-15 season. “The height, being able to shoot the 3 ball the way they both did.

“Nate’s got a ways to go with the way Frank could put it on the floor and distribute, but he’s got the core things Frank had. So I think there’s a possibility it could mirror him throughout the next few years.”

More like Leuer

A better comparison for Reuvers is another former UW standout, Jon Leuer.

That’s the association Joe Krabbenhoft made when he got his first look at Reuvers in 2015 at an AAU tournament in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

Krabbenhoft is an assistant coach with the Badgers now, but back then he was on the search for players while on the staff at South Dakota State. Between games involving recruiting targets, Krabbenhoft was the only coach in the gym and couldn’t help but notice a tall, skinny junior-to-be running up and down the court, mixing in dunks with 3-pointers.

Krabbenhoft grabbed a roster, saw Reuvers’ name and noticed he was from Minnesota. Naturally, Krabbenhoft called another tall, skinny Minnesota product.

“I’m watching this kid,” Krabbenhoft told Leuer, his former teammate. “Not only does he play exactly like you, he looks exactly like you.”

Krabbenhoft convinced his boss, Scott Nagy, to offer Reuvers a scholarship shortly thereafter, knowing full well that Reuvers’ recruitment might blow up to the point where the Jackrabbits wouldn’t stand a chance against high-major programs. That’s exactly what happened, but Krabbenhoft was too stubborn to give up without a fight.

Krabbenhoft officially threw in the towel in March 2016 after he caught wind that UW had offered Reuvers late in his junior season. A few days before the interim tag was dropped and he was awarded with a five-year contract to coach the Badgers, Gard watched Reuvers score a game-high 21 points in Lakeville North’s 60-58 victory over host Rochester John Marshall in a section championship game.

Afterward, Gard informed Reuvers’ coach that a scholarship offer was on the table. Later, Reuvers called Gard on the bus ride back to the Twin Cities and thanked him for the opportunity.

That same night, Reuvers received a text message from a number with a 605 area code: It was from Krabbenhoft: “Congrats on the Badger offer,” Krabbenhoft remembers writing. “Just so you know, that’s where you need to be.”

A few weeks later, Krabbenhoft was hired by Gard and took over as the lead recruiter in UW’s pursuit of Reuvers. When Reuvers arrived on campus in the summer of 2017, Krabbenhoft couldn’t help but feel like he was watching Leuer all over again.

“Comparisons are probably not fair, but it’s still fun to do,” Krabbenhoft said. “I don’t want to take anything away from Nate or Jon. But with the build, the skill-set, the uniform, the comparison is easy to make. They have very similar games and I think the trajectory is similar.”

Leuer averaged 2.9 points and 1.3 rebounds as a true freshman on a veteran, 31-win team in 2007-08, while Reuvers averaged 5.3 points and 2.0 rebounds on a young team that struggled. Leuer averaged 8.8 points and 3.8 rebounds as a sophomore, while Reuvers is at 8.9 and 3.3 during his second season with the Badgers.

“I remember Jon’s first couple months of his freshman season,” Krabbenhoft said. “We’d see him at practice and be like, ‘Jon is really, really good.’ And people would be like, ‘He hardly produces. He’s hardly playing.’ Last year with Nate, same thing. We were like, ‘Nate is really, really good, people just don’t know it yet.’ ”

Next step

Reuvers, for his part, isn’t a fan of comparisons.

“I think I’m my own unique player,” he said. “I’m not trying to base my game off someone else.”

When the Badgers (13-6, 5-3 Big Ten Conference) host Northwestern (12-7, 3-5) today, it will be a good measure of just how far Reuvers has come in the past 12 months. A big reason Northwestern beat the Badgers at the Kohl Center last season was because Dererk Pardon manhandled Reuvers while finishing with 17 points on 8 of 8 shooting.

Pardon outweighed Reuvers by 20 pounds. Now that Reuvers has added 25 pounds to his frame, it’s a fair fight in the paint.

UW’s chances of winning would have been torpedoed last season if Happ got in foul trouble. When it happened at Maryland earlier this month, Reuvers led the Badgers’ charge back into the game. When it happened again at Illinois, Happ put his arm around Reuvers in the huddle and delivered a message: “You have to own the paint. You need to rebound, you need to finish inside. I need you in there.”

What happened next had Happ cheering from the bench. Reuvers had a hand in every UW basket during its game-deciding run, scoring six points and assisting on Brevin Pritzl’s 3-pointer. He drew two fouls on the offensive end during that stretch and another while taking a charge.

Afterward, his confidence was soaring through the roof of the State Farm Center.

“I feel like if I get the ball on the block,” he said, “it’s a bucket every time.”

But Reuvers realizes the hard part is yet to come. The 6-10 Leuer, who is now in the NBA, made a jump to 15.4 points per game as a junior and earned first-team All-Big Ten honors as a senior after averaging 18.3 points and 7.2 rebounds.

And while Reuvers is further along than Kaminsky at the same point of their UW careers, the latter made a huge jump as a junior and another big leap the following season before heading to the NBA.

“He’s got a lot of room to grow, that’s for certain,” Kaminsky, who’s in his fourth season with the Charlotte Hornets, said while back in Wisconsin for a game against the Milwaukee Bucks on Friday night. “And I think the problem is, from what I see on the internet, people want instant gratification. I don’t know what it is now with college basketball, but people think when somebody gets recruited and comes there they should be able to play and perform immediately at an insane level. But that’s just not the case for some people.”

As for Reuvers being reserved with the media and selective with his words around people he’s not totally comfortable with, Krabbenhoft says he likes that about him. He may be the butt of teammates’ jokes at times, but Reuvers’ rise to potential stardom is no laughing matter.

“I’ve seen how much better I’ve been this year and it gets me thinking, what if I put even more time in, more work in the offseason?” Reuvers said. “It should pay off even more.”

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