In all of college basketball, there are currently only two players averaging 19 points, nine rebounds and three assists per game.
One of those players is LSU’s wunderkind freshman Ben Simmons, the potential No. 1 pick in the 2016 NBA Draft. He rightfully gets as much attention as anyone in college basketball, as a 6-foot-10 forward who can sprint out in transition and make the fantastic seem elementary and the improbable seem downright likely. Simmons is an abnormally-gifted basketball player who has accomplished just about everything that was expected of him this season.
On the other side of the token is Toledo’s Nathan Boothe, a 6-9, 240-pound senior center who has largely defied every single reasonable expectation, not only this season, but throughout his entire career. Over his first three years at Toledo, he averaged nine points and five rebounds over nearly the same minute-load, playing as the fourth offensive option on some pretty strong teams that just barely missed out on going dancing in the NCAA Tournament.
This season, he’s improved just about every facet of his game and become one of the more fun players to watch, not only in the MAC, but in the country while averaging 19.5 points, 9.1 rebounds and 3.4 assists. Basically, if you’re a basketball fan who enjoys big guys that can step out and shoot threes as well as make no-look passes and post up smaller players — all at a high level — Boothe is the kind of player you want to watch.
And given that five years ago he was basically a 285-pound, non-prospect who wasn’t even totally sure he would play college basketball, that’s a pretty big surprise to the basketball world.
Boothe is from Gurnee, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, and comes from an athletically inclined family. His father is Northern Illinois’ all-time batting average leader in baseball. All of his uncles played sports collegiately, including three who played football at Northwestern. His brother was an offensive lineman at a Division III school. So yeah, the men in Boothe’s family have been pretty successful in sports.
However, it’s his sister who is arguably the most accomplished of all of them.
Sarah Boothe was Ms. Basketball for the state of Illinois in 2008, then went on to Stanford where she played in multiple Final Fours for the Cardinal from 2009-2013. She now plays professionally overseas in Russia.
She’s also the player that Nathan patterned his game after.
“In the beginning, I always looked at her game and thought I was similar,” Boothe said. “Not super athletic, and she’s not super athletic but she was always super effective. That’s kind of where I picked up on shooting the ball and passing the ball.”
Normally, when you ask people who they model their game after, you’ll get an answer along the lines of an NBA all-star. But that’s not the case with Boothe, who looked up to the sister that he wasn’t able to beat one-on-one until he hit high school.
“He’s got so much respect and love for his sister that he listens to her,” Toledo coach Tod Kowalczyk said. “He wanted to listen to her and pattern his game after her and I give him credit for doing that.”
Of course, the formative years of his basketball playing career were difficult for a different reason. Boothe was overweight from what he estimates as fifth grade onward through the conclusion of high school.
“Middle school was when I started gaining,” Boothe said. “I started eating way too much unhealthy food and my portions were out of control.”
Boothe credits plenty of different foods and eating issues with his weight gain. A huge sweet tooth. A love for pie. The inability to eat just one piece of candy in a sitting. Fast food was another culprit.
“My friends and I would always get “Fourth Meal” at Taco Bell after dinner,” Boothe says with a laugh now. “Steak and Shake, too, because it was open all the time.”
He eventually ballooned up to around 285 pounds at his peak in high school, which obviously turned off quite a few recruiters. It wasn’t a matter of exposure, as Boothe played for a really strong AAU program, coached by former Chicago Bull and NBA champion Dickey Simpkins, that saw three other players end up at the Division I level. Rather, it was just a matter of him not quite being in good enough shape to make colleges think that he could develop into a useful player.
Until Toledo and Kowalczyk came along.
“I think he had some intangibles as a player that you just can’t teach at our level,” Kowalczyk said. “One of them, he had a great feel for the game. Number two, he had great hands. Those two things, you’re not going to improve after you get here. He was also exceptionally coachable, and played for an AAU program I had incredible respect for with Dickey Simpkins. There was no doubt in my mind he would continue to get better.”
Kowalczyk and Toledo only had one scholarship in the class of 2012 to hand out, and they earmarked it for Boothe immediately above all other players. But one thing had to happen before he could realize that potential the Toledo staff saw in him.
He had to lose some of the weight he had spent years gaining.
“We had that conversation with him after we signed him,” Kowalczyk said. “But he knew. With him, it was nothing more than to stop eating fast food and to watch what he eats and to go on some extra runs. When we signed him, he was around 285 pounds. By the time he got to campus, he was probably closer to 240.”
“The beginning of my senior season was when I finally started eating differently and watching my portions,” Boothe said. “Not eating fast food as much. I was still overweight my senior season, but after the season, I really cut back. I limited what I ate, how much I ate. I ran more. I could really tell there was a difference.”
To do it, he didn’t really even go on a diet. He replaced the fast food with grilled chicken, watched his bread intake, and limited sweets without cutting them completely. He got to campus in much better shape, and started from Day One under Kowalczyk. In those first three years, he won 62 games as the starting center on teams that had high-level mid-major players like Julius Brown, J.D. Weatherspoon and Justin Drummond. But with all of those players gone this season, the Rockets had to enter a bit of a rebuild. That meant a bigger role for Boothe.
“Last year, I personally felt at times I was a role player,” Boothe said. “I shouldn’t have felt that way. I wasn’t as aggressive or as assertive as I should have been. This year though, I’m the only senior and the most-experienced guy. I knew I was going to have to go out and get shots and make sure everyone is getting touches. Just be more assertive on offense.”
He knew that the role would also require him to get into better shape if he wanted to carry a bigger load on offense. It’s not that Boothe was in bad shape anymore, but the big-bodied center understood that he needed to improve it further if he wanted to take the next step.
“This offseason was the first time I actually dieted,” Boothe says. “Two months of actual dieting. That helped a lot. Our (graduate assistant) Seth Evans also helped me a lot. He also got bigger after he stopped playing, and was dieting this summer so he got me into it and him and I would go on runs together and lift together. So this past summer was when I really started eating healthy.”
That’s resulted in a more mobile player who is now more comfortable playing on the perimeter both on offense and defense when necessary. He’s already taken more 3s this season than he did in his past three seasons combined, and he’s knocking them down at a 38-percent clip. His assist percentage has skyrocketed as the offense flows through him both in the high and low posts.
Boothe doesn’t even really even recognize the player he once was.
“I watch film of myself last year and say this doesn’t even look like me anymore,” Boothe says. “I look pudgy and stuff. My movements weren’t great. I was slower. My first step is quicker now.”
These improvements have also resulted in Boothe seriously considering his professional prospects for the first time after he finishes college.
“I would like to play after college,” Boothe said. “I never really wanted to before. It was never really my dream before. But now it is after my summer and realizing that I can actually do something I enjoy professionally. In high school, there were times where I wasn’t even sure I would play in college. I never thought I would actually be able to play at a high level.”
That’s all in the future though. Boothe will just continue attempting to lead the 12-9 Rockets to an NCAA Tournament berth for the first time under Kowalczyk. And that would absolutely mean something to Boothe, as the two have built up a terrific relationship largely built on Boothe’s sense of humor.
“He’s got the best sense of humor of any player I’ve ever been around,” Kowalczyk says. “Everyday, he comes up with something new. He’s very sarcastic, he loves to be sarcastic with me and the young guys. He makes fun of me and jokingly mocks me constantly. And I don’t mean that negatively, it’s great for our team. I know how loyal he is and how much he loves our program. Of all the guys I’ve ever been around, he’s the one who enjoys life and enjoys the game most.”
What exactly does Boothe do to mess with his coach?
“We put all of his furniture on top of his desk and tables one day,” Boothe said, rehashing old pranks he and his teammates have run on the staff. “One time, we found a mouse and put it in our assistant’s desk drawer. I’ll call him coach Ted Kowalski. Sometimes at away games people call him ‘Ted’ because his name has one ‘D’, so I just look at him and go, ‘yup, that’s Ted all right.’ So the name Ted just stuck.”
He’s got two months left of coming up with pranks to run on his coach. Two months left to try to get Toledo peaking at the right time to make a run to the NCAA Tournament.
He also only has two months left to do the best statistical impression of 19-year-old phenom Ben Simmons in the country.
For the kid who has been anything but a phenom throughout his entire basketball career, that’s a pretty solid accomplishment.