As Nate Roberts took the floor during Washington’s foreign tour in Italy this summer, he had to take a moment to let everything sink in.
It didn’t matter that these were exhibition games, that they wouldn’t count toward the Huskies’ upcoming season. All that mattered was this: Roberts was warming up. He was going to play. And after redshirting his freshman season, that was everything.
“It was thrilling, finally being able to get something you worked your life for,” Roberts said last month, “and now being able to see the fruits of it.”
The rest of the emotions came later, when Roberts started to see time when it counted. In the game where he made the biggest impact — a 72-40 win over USC in early January — the smile didn’t seem to leave his face for the entirety of his first postgame press conference.
That was the second game of the Pac-12 schedule, and the Huskies were coming off an opening loss to UCLA. Roberts had played sparingly over the first part of the season. Before that night, the most he had played was 11 minutes against Maine.
But when starters Isaiah Stewart and Hameir Wright got in foul trouble early against the Trojans, Roberts was brought in off the bench. He set a trio of career highs for minutes (22), points (7) and rebounds (7) — and the performance was highlighted by three rim-rattling dunks. It was everything Roberts had been waiting for.
“Relief,” Roberts said while reflecting on the game a week later. “Big ball of relief right there. Seeing everything that you worked on for a whole year. There was a lot of emotions going through for like the first game.”
That game seemed like it would be a turning point for UW. It was arguably the Huskies’ best performance of the season, one they could potentially build from as they headed out on the road. But shortly before the next game at Stanford, point guard Quade Green was declared academically ineligible. UW has only won one game since then.
On Thursday, the Huskies will face USC for the second time. With UW desperate to snap a six-game losing streak and earn its first road win in conference play, Roberts could play a key role once again.
Roberts usage dropped off after that win over the Trojans. But as head coach Mike Hopkins watched his team struggle on the boards, particularly on the offensive glass, he once again found himself turning to the 6-foot-10, 245-pound Roberts. He played 16 minutes in Sunday’s loss to Washington State, finishing with two points and five rebounds.
Hopkins said Tuesday that he’ll likely turn to a bigger lineup — one that features Stewart and Roberts or senior Sam Timmins — more often. That seems particularly likely against USC, who leads the Pac-12 in rebounding (38.8 rpg) and ranks second in offense rebounding (11.1). The Huskies are ninth in rebounding (35.3) and 10th in offensive rebounding (8.8).
“Nate is one of those guys that’s willing to do what’s important to win on a day-to-day basis,” Hopkins said. “It’s a focus. He has a God-given ability. He has a nose for the ball. He’s exceptionally physical. … He was a huge part of our USC game, him and Sammy (Timmins) both came in off the bench when Isaiah was in foul trouble and did an exceptional job.”
Roberts spent last season preparing for exactly these opportunities. While it wasn’t always easy to accept this time away from the floor, continual talks with his mom helped keep him focused. He used those months to mature his game and to gain perspective on the skills he needed to succeed at the college level.
“First and foremost, I would say my body,” Roberts said. “Just getting able to battle on a college basis with the college strength and the college conditioning. Then also fine-tuning my game on both sides of the court. Knowing our defense and kind of what Coach Hop looks for in the defense.
“Then knowing my spots on offense and being able to contribute on the offensive end as well. Then watching film and watching what the seniors did last year, have that in my back pocket so I know how to attack the game this year.”
This season hasn’t gone as planned for UW. The Huskies were once considered a threat to win the Pac-12 and seemed like a lock to make the NCAA Tournament. Now they’re alone in last place in the conference standings — and running out of time to dig themselves out.
But if there have been bright spots for UW lately, they’ve come in the form of the Huskies’ underclassmen. Freshmen Stewart and Jaden McDaniels, who are projected top-20 picks in the 2020 NBA Draft, won’t play for UW next season. But Roberts, along with freshmen Marcus Tsohonis and RaeQuan Battle, have provided reasons to be optimistic about the program’s future.
Robert’s teammates — the majority picked him as the teammate who impressed them the most this offseason — aren’t surprised.
“(Roberts) works hard on and off the court,” Wright said before the season. “It’s great having those guys around to really give you a benchmark for what it means to be a hard worker. … His energy. How hard he works. He never takes plays off. He’s just a great player to have on our team.”