Ailene Voisin

Ailene Voisin: Nolan Berry brings big-man skills, pedigree, personality to UC Davis

Sophomore center Nolan Berry battles Josh Fox (21) for the ball during practice at UC Davis on Nov. 3, 2015 in Davis, Calif.
Sophomore center Nolan Berry battles Josh Fox (21) for the ball during practice at UC Davis on Nov. 3, 2015 in Davis, Calif. pkitagaki@sacbee.com

Nolan Berry is an interesting cat, or more specifically, an interesting Aggie. The UC Davis sophomore has the versatility coveted by major college coaches, an amiable personality that makes him popular in the locker room and a jaw-dropping basketball pedigree he slips into a casual conversation, with a shrug, as if everyone’s grandfather is a Hall of Famer.

Somewhere out there, the late “Easy” Ed Macauley must be smiling. His grandson is a trip.

At 6-foot-10 and 235 pounds, with his body still more free-form than sculpted, Berry roams the floor with the ease of someone born on the court. He compensates for average athleticism with deceptive mobility, an intuitive feel, and a combination of passing, shooting and low-post skills that explains why he was a coveted prospect out of high school. And later, when his preferred college coach, Butler’s Brad Stevens, left abruptly for the Boston Celtics, he was pursued aggressively all over again.

That combination of abilities? The trend favoring big men who do more than score in the post and collect rebounds? Stevens wanted Berry badly. Fortunately for the Aggies, so did UC Davis coach Jim Les.

“Coach knew me a little bit from when he was coaching at Bradley,” Berry said. “When he called, I had never even heard of UC Davis. But things happen for a reason. I talked to the staff, heard what they were teaching, how they wanted to play, and it felt like a good fit. I came here and loved it.”

Berry, 21, part of a frontcourt rotation with junior Neal Monson and senior Josh Fox, is instrumental in the Aggies’ shift from a guard-oriented offense dominated by Corey Hawkins, and he’s enjoying a surprisingly smooth transition. Though forced to redshirt the Aggies’ breakout 2014 season because of NCAA transfer rules after playing at Butler his freshman year, he excelled in practices and often was seen on the bench in street clothes, cheering and encouraging his teammates, occasionally ducking into the huddle and offering insights.

The Aggies (4-2) are all ears. And they can all read. Berry’s teammates not only recognize his potential as the most gifted big-man recruit in the program’s Division I era, it takes only a few minutes to discover that Macauley, his grandfather, was the youngest male player to reach the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame (at 32 in 1960). He was a seven-time All-Star who played for his hometown St. Louis Bombers and the Boston Celtics, and a devoted family man who, later in his career in 1956, orchestrated one of the biggest heists in NBA history.

When one of his sons contracted spinal meningitis, Macauley threatened to retire if he wasn’t traded back to his hometown. The crafty late Red Auerbach obliged. Macauley and Cliff Hagan were sent to St. Louis Hawks for the draft rights to a skinny center out of San Francisco, Bill Russell.

“That worked out pretty well for the Celtics,” Berry said the other night, with a wry grin.

Though Macauley died four years ago after a lengthy illness, Berry recalls spending hours on the court with him, listening to stories about the early NBA travels, being schooled in fundamentals and embracing the modern philosophy that encourages big men to play away from the basket.

“From an early age on,” Berry said, “he was on me to expand my skill set, to shoot the ball, pass the ball, dribble the ball. He played down low, but he was one of the first big men who could play inside-out. Maybe that’s why, as a kid, I loved Dirk Nowitzki. I’ve started to like the Spurs a lot recently because I’m such a big Tim Duncan fan.”

Les, a former NBA journeyman and an unabashed admirer of both future Hall of Famers, is quick to cite their length, aggressiveness, work ethic and almost obsessive commitment to physical conditioning. When he analyzes Berry’s physique, he sees a body that is “wiry strong” but lacking the core and lower body strength that would improve his stamina and enable him to withstand the pounding on the frontline.

Then there’s the hair. Dirk’s blond locks have curled down his neck, but Timmy would never be caught in public with the scraggly, distinctive mane that Berry tucks into a bun for practices and games.

“The year Nolan was at Butler,” said his mother, Meg, “someone created a Twitter account about his hair. It was pretty hilarious. I was hoping it just was a phase, but his brother, Keenan, has long hair, too. Keenan said to me recently, ‘Mom, he has to do his man bun better.’ I told him I couldn’t help him out with that.”

And for Les? A coach straight out of GQ, with nary a hair out of place during his most animated sideline dances? This is a first. This is also California.

“I pick my battles,” Les said, laughing. “I don’t have a problem with it at all. Nolan’s a laid-back kind of guy. He’s a true Californian even though he grew up in Missouri.”

Few would confuse St. Louis with Sacramento, but Berry felt at home the minute he stepped on campus.

“When he got out there, he called and said, ‘Do you know everybody out here is like us?’ ” his mother said. “We own a store and do energy work, holistic work, inspirational work, yoga. That’s probably not a big thing out there, but here, that’s not very common. But we raised our boys a little differently. They went to Catholic school, but we taught them to see what you agree with, and see what you don’t. Mostly, listen to your authentic self.”

Berry and the Aggies. The hair, the skill, the personality. He’s only a sophomore. This will be a fun ride.

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