DENVER – Organized practice was over, but Nate Engesser remained on the court with four University of Denver teammates and two coaches for a lively, violent 3-on-3 game.
Engesser was heading toward the basket, just minding his own business, when former Air Force star and present DU assistant coach A.J. Kuhle gave him an enthusiastic shove.
This did not surprise Engesser, the former Colorado Springs Christian School megastar.
“Oh, yeah,” Engesser said. “He’s always pushing me. Literally and figuratively.”
Engesser, a 6-foot-3 guard, crafted a superlative career at CSCS, scoring 1,909 points (ninth highest in state history) while leading the Lions to a 49-2 record in his final two seasons.
He’s struggling, as freshmen usually do, for playing time. Engesser plays for former Air Force coach Joe Scott, whose version of the Princeton offense is ruthlessly complex.
“I’ve never been a player who struggles to know what to do,” Engesser said. “But just learning this offense has been challenging. I know I’ll get it eventually.”
Engesser averages 3.2 points and 6.8 minutes for the Pioneers, who play at Wyoming on Tuesday night.
He refuses to complain. When he talks about his challenges, he speaks with the voice of a coach’s son. Nate played for his father, Mark, at CSCS.
“It’s not Joe Scott’s fault for not playing me,” Engesser said. “It’s my fault.”
When Kuhle gave Engesser an encouraging shove, Scott was sitting a few dozen feet away, talking about his hopes for Engesser. Scott realizes Engesser is making a big jump from 3A high school basketball to D-1 college basketball.
“He’s doing all right,” Scott said. “He’s a freshman, and that’s about all I can say. Welcome to college and how hard it is. Every day is hard. When he learns and gets stronger, both physically and mentally, he’s going to be a good player. He is going to be good.”
A few minutes later, a sweaty Kuhle sat down to talk about Engesser. Kuhle’s rule for success at Air Force was simple:
Be tougher than anyone else on the court.
“It’s a strength thing for Nate right now,” Kuhle said. “His skill set is high enough, but it’s about the physicality of the game. To play at the highest level, you have to be strong enough and have a physical toughness about you. It’s just a question of how quickly he can adjust.”
Engesser did not enjoy breezy times in high school. He was the target of the opposing team’s defense every night. He endured his share of bruises.
But the tough times from high school failed to fully prepare him for college.
“The thing that’s been surprising to me is the level of physicality,” he said. “You have to be strong and hold your ground.”
Engesser is learning from Kuhle, an expert on the dark arts of surviving in the lane. Engesser is so intent on learning his lessons, he even stays around for extra punishment after practice
Scott has the right idea when it comes to Engesser.
Just give him time.