A sense of cautious optimism surrounds San Marino High School’s varsity boys’ basketball team, a sentiment fueled by the Titans’ two opening Rio Hondo League victories, each taking place in front of raucous home crowds.
Most notable among the squad are Chuma Azinge’s electrifying slam dunks, Andrew Quach’s long distance three-point shots and Michael Shahan’s Shaq-like rebounding, all of which have become instant crowd favorites and in Azinge’s case, social media standards.
A more discerning eye, however, points to a less obvious source for the Titans’ success. A quiet, unassuming point guard who until this past November had spent three years in San Marino’s basketball program but had not yet played a single meaningful minute, donning a varsity uniform only upon playoff call-up.
In the late fall of 2016, Nathaniel “Nate” Wang was asked to do exactly what every junior rightfully despises: play yet another season on the junior varsity team, the equivalent of basketball purgatory. Few ever recover from this kiss of death to make meaningful contributions as a senior, but there is only one Nate Wang.
Merely allowing juniors to occupy a valuable roster spot and take the resulting court time from a younger athlete on the junior varsity is unorthodox in itself and takes a commitment from both player and coach. Mihail Papadopulos, in his eighth year as the head coach of the program, has trusted this process in the past, but it has rarely, if ever, paid dividends as in the case of Nate Wang.
“We have never had anyone who played junior varsity as a junior transition to being a starter their senior year in the point guard position,” said Papadopulos. “It requires so much understanding of the game, to see things and communicate things that are happening during a game. It’s tough to come in and be very solid but Nate has made the jump. He had a very good junior varsity season last year, but still not easy to make that transition.”
Papadopulos knows the value of playing time and understands that holding a player back during his junior year can backfire.
“We are really thoughtful about how we approach it,” said Papadopulos. “We keep juniors that we think are going to be able to contribute as a senior. That is exactly what Nate did.
It’s even tougher with the younger players. Are they going to get enough minutes to make it worth their time? But Nate is the reason why you keep a junior on junior varsity. He has contributed and he has contributed in more ways than just the one.”
Wang is quietly averaging six points, three assists and three rebounds a game for the Titans, who feel they have as good a chance as any to win the school’s first Rio Hondo League basketball championship since – sit down for this one — 1981.
“It’s the three rebounds a game that impresses me,” Papadopulos added. “He is just 5’8” and is usually the smallest player on the floor. But most people don’t get to see his competitive spirit.”
Papadopulos called Nate “selfless,” a rarity in the current generation marked by self-promotion and a seemingly unquenchable thirst for instant gratification. “I have never once seen him to be a selfish kid. He gives you his best every time, whether its practice or a game. And he never complains. We pulled him up during the playoffs and he played hard and prepared hard. He is the type of kid who does what you want him to do.”
The aforementioned Michael Shahan has played basketball with Nate for years. The two also have served on San Marino High School’s ASB, where Nate is vice president and Shahan is spirit commissioner.
“Nate is one of the more mature players on our team,” said Shahan, who has put the “pow” in the power forward position with his physical brand of play. “For his size, Nate can do so many things. He is a very strong player and a very good defensive player. Nate is unique. He is a good teammate and he always says what’s on his mind. I like playing with him.”
The last person who will say good things about Nate Wang is Nate Wang, but his perspective on the matter is intriguing.
“At the beginning of the season I was a little disappointed, but as the year went on I saw it as an opportunity to improve my game as well as my leadership skills,” he said when asked what it was like when he was kept on the junior varsity squad for a second consecutive year. “Looking back on it, there wasn’t ever a time I was not having fun, and that is what it’s all about. Would I have loved to be on varsity? Yes, but I’m not upset about it.”
But certainly his teammates are reticent to take orders from someone who spent two seasons on the junior varsity team?
“Not at all,” Wang said. “I have had other leadership roles on campus. This is just another group of guys.”
Wang was named captain of the boys’ varsity volleyball team last year as a junior and was also president of the junior class, so he isn’t uncomfortable with the buck stopping here.
Nate is the son of Tina and Henry Wang, both accomplished volleyball players in their own right. Henry Wang graduated from SMHS in 1988. Nate’s sister Nicole, also a volleyball player, graduated from SMHS in 2016 and attends Art Center College of Design. Hanna Wang is a junior setter for the Lady Titans, so athletics run in the family.
Nate was typically understated when asked for a prognostication about the team.
“As long as we stay grounded and focused on what we need to do, we will do well,” he said. “We just can’t get distracted by the crowd or the hype and hopefully, we can make some history.”