Who is Grant Nelson? How Alabama forward overcame March Madness struggles to lift Crimson Tide past UNC

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Grant Nelson
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A March Madness star was born Thursday night.

Alabama forward Grant Nelson didn't have the season many expected after transferring into the program with high expectations in the offseason. But he picked the most perfect time to morph into a two-way monster for coach Nate Oats, powering the Crimson Tide to their first Elite Eight since 2004.

Nelson took over in the second half of No. 4 seed Alabama's 89-87 upset win over No. 1 North Carolina, finishing the night with 24 points, 12 rebounds and 5 blocks despite struggling mightily to start the NCAA Tournament.

Nelson made only one shot over Alabama's first two tournament games, shooting a combined 1-for-7 and grabbing a total of two rebounds. But no one will remember those numbers after his Sweet 16 performance Thursday in Los Angeles.

Here's what you need to know about Nelson and his journey to Alabama.

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Who is Grant Nelson?

Nelson is a senior forward who transferred to Alabama from North Dakota State ahead of the 2023-24 season. The 22-year-old was actually one of the last impact transfers to make a decision during the 2023 offseason, committing to play for Oats and the Tide in late June.

It's no surprise Nelson drew so much interest from major programs, as he averaged 17.9 points and 9.3 rebounds per game for the Bison as a junior while earning spots on the All-Summit League team and All-Summit League defensive team.

Despite his accolades, the 2023-24 season largely wasn't the one Nelson envisioned. He entered Thursday averaging just 11.4 points and 5.4 rebounds through 34 games, shooting 26.5 percent from 3-point range. Alabama's defense also regularly struggled down the stretch despite Nelson's defensive prowess at North Dakota State.

Those struggles followed Nelson into the NCAA Tournament, where he was a nonfactor in Alabama's wins over Charleston and Grand Canyon. The Tide finally got to see the Nelson they envisioned all along against North Carolina, taking down a No. 1 seed on the back of a totally dominant second half by the Summit League transfer.

MORE: Sporting News 2023-24 All-America team

Where is Grant Nelson from?

Nelson is a North Dakota kid, as he grew up in Devils Lake, N.D., before staying in-state and starring at North Dakota State.

That might be one reason why adjusting at Alabama was so difficult for Nelson. Many teams add high-level transfers expecting immediate results, but playing for the Tide represented an entirely different challenge for Nelson.

The forward had his ups and downs throughout the year. But all that will be remembered, at least for now, is his excellent Sweet 16 display against one of the best teams in the country.

Grant Nelson stats

Season School Games PTS REB AST BLK FG%
2020-21 North Dakota State 27 6.3 3.7 0.6 0.9 47.1%
2021-22 North Dakota State 29 11.6 4.9 1.1 1.3 50.8%
2022-23 North Dakota State 30 17.9 9.3 2.1 1.7 52.1%
2023-24 Alabama 34 11.4 5.4 1.6 1.5 48.5%

Grant Nelson NBA Draft projection

Nelson had a rough year at Alabama before Thursday night's explosion, but he was on the radar as an NBA Draft prospect entering the 2023-24 season.

Nelson declared for the 2023 NBA Draft and attended the draft combine before deciding to return to college, as many players do. If he had remained in the draft pool, Nelson almost certainly would have been a second-round pick.

For the 2024 NBA Draft, NBADraft.net ranks Nelson 95th overall on its latest big board. There are only two rounds in the draft, so 95th isn't an ideal spot if a player is hoping to be drafted. Still, Nelson showed that his potential is still there in the win over North Carolina.

Nelson is a senior, but he has one more year of college eligibility remaining because the NCAA granted all players who played during the 2020-21 season an additional "COVID year" of eligibility.

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Dan Treacy is a content producer for Sporting News.