At first blush, Nate Linhart did not look like a player with a productive future at Akron.
Early in his career, Linhart's confidence peaked and waned depending on his offense. After his first month with the team, the coaches must have known that Linhart will not be a first, second, or even a third offensive option. He always played hard, but "playing hard" is often a euphemism for "not talented."
Something transformed Linhart from being a serviceable spare part to being an essential cog, to being a "Coach, I dare you to play without me" piece of the Zips. That transformation occurred when Linhart embraced what he is, and ignored what he is not.
It was only when Linhart accepted that truth that defense is his value. That knowledge allowed him to stride back into the locker room, knowing that regardless of how the ball bounced on the rim, he could be proud of grabbing the loose ball after an exhausting defensive stand, proud of keeping his proper crouched stance when the shot clock winded down, proud of smothering the other team's star no matter what position the star plays, proud of being the "what to do" example in Keith Dambrot's long-winded, high-volume rants, proud of convincing the underclassmen that Dambrot's defense-first attitude is an identity worth embracing, and proud of demanding the respect of every butt in the seats at Rhodes Arena -- or any arena, for that matter -- and getting it.
You could tell that Linhart pulled the best traits from players before him: Cedrick Middleton's desire. Nick Dials' toughness, grit and leadership. Romeo Travis' calmness and assurance. Jeremiah Wood's confidence. Dru Joyce's intelligence. Likewise, Nate's name deserves to be mentioned among those names when fans talk about the "good old days" 10 years from now.
Linhart probably won't get any votes for MAC Player of the Year. His season statistics are OK, but he isn't even averaging 10 points per game. His career statistics are approaching the top tier in school history, but that is mostly because of the massive amount of minutes he has played. On any given night, his box score is usually bland.
That is why Linhart is under-appreciated. But if you take him off the Zips, this is a below-.500 team. Akron is at least 15 points better each night with Linhart than without him. With respect for Chris McKnight and Humpty Hitchens, there are no Zips who are as consistently valuable.
And it goes back to Linhart's philosophy -- the one he was forced into. You play defense in the first minute as tightly as you play it in crunch time. You hustle like you're fighting for your family's life. You sweat and scrap and dive and bruise until the job is done. And when it is done, Linhart knows he will have played a more complete game than anyone else on the floor, even if he missed all of his shot attempts.
Linhart probably has no future in American pro basketball, but his size, quickness and work ethic make him a better candidate than any Zip in the past 10 years. He reminds me of a poor man's Tayshaun Prince. Unless Prince makes a stellar defensive play, no one pays much attention. Analogous to Linhart, Prince was a necessary cause for the Pistons' NBA titles.
Indeed, it's easy to overlook Nate's worth in the statbook. While you're watching him tonight in his last regular season home game, pay attention to contributions that statisticians cannot quantify. You'll begin to understand what Dambrot said Sunday: "Everybody thinks we will be a good team next year, but he won't be easy to replace, I will tell you that."
Linhart is the antithesis of the modern-day basketball culture. He doesn't want to mimic the And1 Mixtape guy. He knows he will never score 40 points. He doesn't want all of the attention on him. Nate is a throwback player who is humble, works hard and does it because it's the way you're supposed to play, not for the individual glory.
If Akron wins a MAC Championship in the dusk of Linhart's up-and-down career, it will be an appropriate bounty for one player who deserves it. If Akron does not, Linhart will still have the peace of mind that every moment he was on the floor was a moment where he expended his tank for his coaches, teammates and fans.