Michael Chen
Freshman forward Reeves Nelson grabs a rebound against No. 23 Butler during the 76 Classic in Anaheim. UCLA lost in the game’s final seconds, 69-67.

It was a bittersweet moment for Reeves Nelson.

On the one hand, it meant a chance to start and a larger role in which to show the coaching staff what he can do.

On the other, it meant losing a close teammate.

The mutual decision between sophomore forward Drew Gordon and coach Ben Howland that resulted in Gordon’s departure means Nelson will start against Kansas on Sunday.

For Nelson the player, it is a huge opportunity to continue what has been a solid start in his first year with the Bruins. Yet for Nelson the person, it is difficult to see a friend leave.

“I’m probably going to get more minutes, but I’m more worried about Drew’s future and the team’s future, not my own,” Nelson said.

Through the Bruins’ first six games, Nelson has been a pleasant surprise in what has been a largely gloomy start to the season. He is currently tied for third on the team in rebounds (28) and is fifth on the team in points per game (7.3).

“When you look at his numbers relative to his minutes played, he’s been the most productive rebounder on our team,” Howland said.

One aspect of Nelson’s game that his teammates have been particularly impressed with is the immense passion and energy with which he plays night in and night out.

“I’ve played with Reeves a long time, and I know he has a lot of heart,” sophomore point guard Jerime Anderson said. “He plays with a lot of heart and passion out there on the court. And that’s one thing that we really need right now on our team, is guys who are going to go out there and play hard.”

That energy is just a product of wanting to do whatever Howland wants him to do, Nelson said.

“I try to be a team player,” he added.

However, Nelson did admit that the intensity of the practices and the commitment that it takes to play at the collegiate level has been a definite change from when he played at Modesto Christian High School.

“For, me it has been (a big adjustment). I’m just not used to being every day, three hours a day, just coach on your back and everything,” Nelson said. “That’s what it takes to get better.”

An area in which Howland would like to see Nelson make an improvement in his play is on the defensive end of the floor. One particular mistake that Howland pointed out was staying out of foul trouble ““ something he saw as an issue in the loss to Long Beach State last weekend.

“One time, for example, he came over and got a foul instead of just coming over and walling up,” Howland said. “These are things he’s going to learn as he goes along.”

Howland said that, with a solid week of practice to work on the fundamentals ““ something the Bruins were not afforded with a schedule that had them playing six games in 14 days ““ Nelson’s defense will improve greatly.

“He’s really learning stuff here for the first time,” Howland said.

A full month into his first regular season as a Bruin, Nelson said that it has been a great experience, aside from the losing.

“I’ve never lost three games in a row in my life in anything,” Nelson said.

Listed at 6 feet 8 inches tall, Nelson does not have the size of some of the other centers. Yet he said that his smaller size for his position does not keep him from playing hard.

“It’s not a big deal to me,” Nelson said. “I’m obviously not going to be as tall as some of the other centers, but I’ve never been as big as any of the centers in AAU. I just pride myself on playing harder than them and just working my butt off.”

That mentality in the freshman is what has surprised senior guard Michael Roll.

“He’s a really strong kid (and) just comes in and tries to bully people, get rebounds, play physical,” Roll said. “Just do the dirty work that we need, and we just need more from him.”

With the departure of Gordon, that need becomes all the more critical. In his short time with the Bruins, Gordon earned a reputation as an aggressive and energetic player, something Nelson hopes he can provide for the team. And while he will look to step into Gordon’s shoes, Nelson has nothing but good things to say about the guy he is replacing.

“I just want him to succeed, obviously,” Nelson said. “I’ve known him since my freshman year (of high school), so I just want what’s best for him.”

Anderson said he is confident that Nelson will fill the void created by Gordon’s decision to transfer.

“He’ll step up,” Anderson said. “Once you have more opportunity, I think he’ll step up.”

Nelson hyperextends right knee

Nelson injured his knee during practice Tuesday. An MRI Tuesday night was negative, and he will be out until Friday. Nelson will be ready to play Sunday.