By Nate Rohr
Big 12 Campus Correspondent
He came to Nebraska an unknown, a walk-on from Blacksburg, Va., following his father, a professor, to Lincoln.
But as senior-guard Paul Velander nears the end of his Huskers basketball career, he has carved out a niche for himself not only as the nation’s top 3-pointer shooter, hitting 50 percent of his shots from behind the arc, but also as a force defensively taking 14 charges this season.
“Paul is as valuable as anyone we have on our team,” Nebraska third-year head coach Doc Sadler said. “He’s done a very nice job.”
Velander came to Nebraska after his father, William, accepted a position as a professor in the chemical and bimolecular engineering department after working at Virginia Tech. Paul said his father’s position as a university professor was an advantage to him.
“I can’t speak for all kids whose parents are professors, but in my case, it was a blessing that I had access to the university, to sit in my dad’s office and being able to go the university and shoot hoops with him there,” Velander said. “It also built in me a great respect for hard work and education.”
Velander has been named a first-team Academic All-Big 12 selection the last two years. Considering his family background, the academic success is not that surprising. His basketball career is.
“When I first came here, I had a lot of confidence to play right away just because of the opportunities I had to play in AAU games in Virginia against a lot of great competition,” Velander said. “I had played against guys who were projected to be really good college players. It’s just a matter of working hard and I figured it would happen.”
Though Velander’s confidence was eventually rewarded, he redshirted his first year. His second season he suffered an ankle injury that required surgery and kept him out of all but two games.
Before his sophomore season, Nebraska coach Barry Collier left to become the athletic director at Butler and was replaced by Sadler. It didn’t take long for him to catch Sadler’s eye.
“I didn’t know a lot about him,” Sadler said. “After being with him for two or three days, I saw he could really shoot the basketball. I was excited he was on our team.”
Velander’s emergence was slowed by lingering injuries to his shoulder and ankle. Yet, in his junior season he played 15 minutes a game and averaged 4.3 points per contest, knocking down 38 percent of his 3-pointers.
He finished the year with a flourish, hitting 15-of-40 from beyond the arc. One key to Velander’s progression was a more narrow focus on his role.
“When I first came here, I ran point guard when I was a redshirt freshman,” Velander said. “My game has been a lot more focused on my jump shots and playing hard on defense. Each of us has defined roles. When I first came here, it wasn’t that way. With Doc, I’ve really found a niche.”
Velander continued to grow in that niche, averaging 4.1 points per game while hitting 38 percent of his 3-pointers. He finished the year 18-for-42 from the field while averaging nearly eight points per contest in the final eight games of the season as the Huskers advanced to the second round of the NIT.
He has continued to improve into his senior season, averaging 9.3 points per game (third on the team) off the bench. Velander averages 25 minutes per game and has continued to be one of the team's most reliable and accurate shooters.
“You just shoot,” Velander said. “It’s a confidence thing, taking good shots and not taking bad shots, and competing on every shot you take.”
While Velander has always been a threat as a top shooter, he has added value to his game as a formidable defensive force. Leading the squad in charges this season (14), Coach Sadler sees that ability as natural.
“That’s just an ability (taking charges) that people have,” Sadler said of Velander's defensive ability. “I don’t know that you can teach those types of things. He just puts himself in position and he’s not afraid of contact at all.”
Velander attributes his defensive acumen to playing to his strengths.
“It has a little bit to do with, athletically, I’m not going to block a shot,” he said. “My initial thinking is, ‘How can I beat the guy to the spot’, instead of anticipating blocking (the shot). It’s playing to my strength a little more, whereas someone like Toney (McCray) has a lot easier time blocking a shot.”
As his final season winds down, Velander hopes to become only the eighth three-time Academic All-Big 12 performer in men's basketball. By rising from the bench to become a key contributor for the Huskers both on and off the court, Velander has already accomplished a great deal at Nebraska.