Konner Metz (@konner_metz)
There were a couple moments on Friday afternoon that seemed like a flash from a time gone by. There’s Christian Ray, inbounding the ball to Jameer Nelson Jr., jogging upcourt at the Palestra side-by-side. You could almost picture the two in their maroon-and-gold Haverford School uniforms, not the blue Delaware ones they currently wear, as they soared for rebounds and layups, knocking down jumpers from all over.
Running up and down the court, Ray has found that he often reflects on being reunited with his old high school teammate.
“We’ve been through a lot as a collective duo,” Ray said. “Haverford, first year wasn’t great, and then we made it to the top. And then me and him both went to our own colleges. And now we’re back together, so we kind of went through the journey together, and it means a lot.”
Friday marked the duo’s first game back as teammates in their home state of Pennsylvania, over 1,300 days since Havertown clinched the 2018-2019 state championship over Westtown.
Jameer Nelson Jr. (above) has become a star at Delaware after starting out at George Washington. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Nelson Jr. and Ray traveled different paths after their high school careers at the Haverford School, where they won a state title as seniors.
Ray was bound for La Salle, a program rebuilding under then first-year coach Ashley Howard. Meanwhile, Nelson decommitted from St. Joseph’s in 2019 – a program his father Jameer Nelson Sr. was renowned at – in favor of Atlantic 10 rival George Washington after Phil Martelli’s firing. But a few years and a couple transfer decisions later, and they are back on the court alongside one another as starters for Delaware.
The two were initially set to be A-10 conference foes. But Nelson made the move to Delaware in 2021, and this past spring, he was instrumental in Ray’s transfer to coach Martin Ingelsby’s program following Howard’s dismissal.
“He was affecting my decision,” Ray said. “He spoke highly of coach Martin, [associate head] coach [Bill Phillips] and all the coaches in the program. Having him here, he was the first person that I went to.”
“For us, his relationship with Jameer played a part of that,” Ingelsby said. “I just think they have a great relationship and they kind of ebb and flow off each other. I think they’re still trying to figure it out from their high school days and what works.”
Ray was a standout scorer in his final year at Haverford, averaging 23.3 ppg in 2018-2019, while Nelson (14.7 ppg) complimented him offensively. Now, Nelson is one of Delaware’s premier offensive weapons (16.8 ppg in four contests), with Ray slotting in as their leading rebounder (11.3 rpg).
Though they’ve switched roles, Nelson still sees in Ray all the things he valued as a teammate back in high school, the leadership that Ray’s coaches have glowed about since he was an underclassman at Octorara. He’s still the super-versatile, positionless wing/forward, the shot a little higher-arcing than back when they sported a 28-0 record but the other facets still there.
“He can do all the things he did in high school, just a little bit better,” said Nelson. “I feel like he’s become a better leader, even better than he was in high school.”
On the flip side, Nelson’s transformation from a raw athlete at Haverford to a full-package starting point guard (2.2 apg and 1.6 spg last year) catches Ray’s eye.
“I just think that he’s slowing down a little bit,” Ray said. “He’s always been athletically gifted, jumping around the gym, running faster than anybody. But he’s slowing down a little bit, probing a little more, getting guys involved.”
On Friday, at the Palestra’s inaugural Cathedral Classic, the dynamic duo harkened back to old times to muscle Delaware (2-2) to a 72-68 win over an impressive Colgate (4-3) squad.
Christian Ray (above) set season highs with 10 points and 15 rebounds on Friday. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Nelson poured in 21 points on 8-of-17 shooting and added six rebounds. Ray notched his first double-double of his Blue Hen career with 10 points and 15 boards.
With under a minute left, two straight turnovers from Nelson allowed Colgate to inch within one. But Ray gestured to his point guard to reset and get back on track.
“They started speeding us up a little bit, so I told Jameer, ‘just relax, we’re fine, we’re in the driver’s seat here, we control our own destiny,’” he said.
A clear stream of communication on the court is nothing new for the Haverford pair. In fact, Nelson called Ray his “favorite teammate ever,” and now that the two are reunited, Ingelsby is relying on them as team leaders.
“We missed some free throws, we had a careless turnover, but this group stayed together,” Ingelsby said. “[Christian] and Jameer went along, keeping the guys together, and did a great job communicating what we were in defensively.”
The Haverford products will be critical parts of a Delaware squad that’s defending its CAA championship from last year. From high school to the Atlantic 10 to Newark, everything is coming full circle for Nelson and Ray.
“I thought I was going to beat him for four years,” Ray said. “But we still have competition, every single day. Any day in practice where we’re against each other is still competition.”
Friday’s Delaware victory marked Ray’s return to the Palestra after many previous appearances at the famous venue as an Explorer, such as double-digit losses to Penn (2019) and Villanova (2021) – games the 6-6 senior would like to forget.
“I spent the last three years in Philly, high school in Philly, so it was great coming back,” Ray said. “I didn’t have a lot of great experiences at the Palestra before this, so it was great…getting a win.”
The senior guard was a late-game hero for Delaware, sinking two clutch free throws with two seconds remaining to put his team up four.
Ingelsby said Ray has been working with Phllips before and after practices to hone in on his free-throw shooting.
Playing small ball
So far this season, Ingelsby has rolled with a small starting five. Nelson, Ray, senior Ebby Asamoah and UMBC grad transfer LJ Owens are the four guards, with 6-7 forward Jyáre Davis (17.5 ppg) manning the paint.
However, Ray has proven adept at winning battles on the boards for the Hens, with a team-high 11.3 rebounds per contest.
“I think that’s why we’re willing to play smaller with him in there,” said Ingelsby, “because he’s such a good rebounder [and] has such a great knack for the basketball.”
According to Nelson, it did not take long for Ray – who plays as positionless as anyone on Delaware – to fit in and carve out a role.
“The way Christian plays, I feel like he can play on any team in the country.”