There aren't many lanky, 6-foot-7 blonds walking around campus, so when one is seen strolling down Sheridan Road, it's safe to assume it's Northwestern men's basketball's lone true freshman, Nate Taphorn.
Although the soft-spoken forward from Pekin, Ill., was former head coach Bill Carmody's last successful recruit, he remained committed to the program after Carmody's firing in March. He was a big pickup for new head coach Chris Collins, who otherwise would have entered his new job with only nine scholarship athletes.
Fans who have followed the program for the last few years might see some similarities to a Wildcat legend when Taphorn hits the floor. He gives a slight grin when reminded about comparisons to John Shurna, Northwestern’s all time leading scorer, but it's not something for which he wants to be known.
“I can see it, but we’re two different players," he said.
The difference can be seen whenever "Tap" steps on to the court. While Shurna is more of an unconventional jumper, Taphorn’s form is what you’d expect from a prototypical spot-up shooter.
Taphorn played at Pekin Community High School, where as a senior he averaged 16 points and 7 rebounds per game while shooting 41 percent from three-point range. He owes a lot of that success to his father, Pat, who played college ball at University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and was the assistant coach at Pekin.
“My dad’s been my coach, my trainer, my strength and conditioning coach for the past ten years,” the freshman said. “He’s given me a lot of advice that helped me a lot.”
But while his father certainly gave his son the tools to succeed, it was Nate’s ball handling that led Northwestern to offer him a scholarship. Taphorn jumped at the opportunity by verbally committing to the Wildcats after his junior year.
Northwestern's decision to fire Coach Carmody took him aback, however, considering how important a head coach is in a player’s decision regarding which school to attend. Still, it wasn't enough to sway him.
“You could kind of see it happening, but it was kind of surprising,” Taphorn said. “I had an idea that I was still going to go here and I fell in love with the school .... Once I found out that all the guys were coming back, especially [senior] Drew [Crawford], that was one of the easy choices for me.”
Carmody's replacement is certainly happy he made that decision. He now has another sharp-shooter on his roster, but Taphorn also provides so much more.
Although Collins wasn’t in contact with Taphorn throughout the recruiting process, he sees heaps of potential in the freshman, so much so that he’s willing to compare him to some of the current NBA players he coached during his tenure as an assistant at Duke.
“I think he's a little bit of a sleeper," Collins said. "I'm really excited about his future. He's got great size. He's almost 6-foot-8, he can really shoot the ball, and I'm not ready to say this, but he reminds me a lot with his size and his skill level of, in the past, for me, Kyle Singler and Mike Dunleavy. That kind of game. He's not there yet, but I have high hopes for his development."
Being the only newbie on the team this year presents some unique obstacles for Taphorn, who’s quickly realized that fitness is taken up a notch in college. So far, one of his biggest challenges has been “just getting up and down the floor with the guys that are in better shape than you are.”
The results of his work ethic have been seen on the floor. Against Eastern Illinois, he played 25 minutes and was one of the first players off the bench for the Wildcats. Through three games, he's been asked to play very significant minutes.
Yet Taphorn is more concerned about helping the team in any way possible than he is about the number of minutes he plays per game.
“It depends on who’s on the court and what I need to do, what Coach wants me to do," he said. "Obviously, I’m not going to bring the ball up or play the big man inside, but anything in between there I have the ability to do that."
So far, he’s shown that versatility. In the home opener, he grabbed four rebounds, drilled a three-pointer and guarded multiple positions on defense. Since then, he's garnered appreciation from his teammates by showcasing this versatility on a daily basis.
"He's been great for us," junior guard Dave Sobolewski said. "He really has. He's just a great shooter, but he's tough, too. He'll get into the paint, hit a pull-up, finish at the rim. He'll battle on the boards. I think he's a guy who really understands his role, and as a freshman, he's done an awesome job coming in and really making sure he brings his game every single day."
As the only fresh face on the Wildcats' roster, he said he’s still trying to find his place on the team, but going forward, Taphorn will gain more respect of his teammates the best way he knows how to: one swish at a time.