Rozelle Nix ready for big impact on Pitt frontcourt

Down in Florida’s Pensacola State swimming pool, a huge man swims laps, slimming his body to prepare for an impending trip to Pittsburgh.

The figure swimming up and down the pool is Rozelle Nix, Pensacola’s 7-foot, 308-pound star center and incoming Pitt recruit.

Evening swims, along with laps around the track and countless hours in the gym and the weight room, have helped transform Nix from a lightly recruited, overweight prospect, into an ACC recruit. He will be a much-needed recruit, providing size to a team that is losing senior big men Derrick Randall and Aron Phillips-Nwankwo.

Just three years ago, Nix tipped the scales at more than 400 pounds. A Cincinnati native, Nix struggled to stay on the court because of his weight, averaging 3.8 points and 5.9 rebounds at Withrow High School. Nix dreamt of playing college basketball and, eventually, professionally, but he said he wasn’t getting there at that weight.

Aiming to transform his basketball performance, “lose weight and get better every single day,” he said, Nix attended junior college for two years from 2013 to this spring. His first visit was Pensacola State College, a successful junior college program in Pensacola, Florida.

Though Pensacola’s men’s basketball coach Pete Pena knew Nix’s weight loss goal didn’t come with a simple answer, the center’s attitude and desire to improve made him an easy sell to Pena. Pensacola competed at the top of the Panhandle Conference, finishing second with an 8-4 conference record and a 20-10 overall record.

“What we got to understand during his visit was how bad he wanted to become a good player and how determined he was,” Pena said.

“We just hit it off,” Pena added. “I fell in love with the kid.”

The Cincinnati native was leaving Pensacola after his visit, and Pena said he told Nix, “‘Rozelle, I want to be a part of your life for the next two years.’”

Nix listened. A couple days later, he pulled the trigger and committed to Pensacola. This phone call to Pena was the unofficial beginning to Nix’s path to college basketball.

Though Nix whittled himself down to around 380 pounds in his freshman year, his weight blocked him from reaching his full potential. While he had the drive, he still needed the stamina. Nix couldn’t run the court like he wanted to or play long enough to make an impact at the next level. His first year, he averaged 5.5 points and 3.8 rebounds per game.

His dissatisfaction sunk in when he wasn’t playing up to his standards in the junior college state tournament. 

“Last year during the state tournament I was around 370 or 380 [pounds] at the time, and I was moving slower than usual,” Nix said. “[I thought to myself] this isn’t going to work because, if I keep on being like this, I will not make it.”

After losing his final game of the season against St. Petersburg College, Nix vowed to upgrade both in his body and basketball skills.

“The day after we lost, I decided I would work out every day, eat right and get better with my skills,” Nix said.

His desire for self-improvement was so strong that his coaches urged him to temper his workouts at times.

“There were some days that they wanted me to rest. I understand I need to rest my body, but that’s just how bad I want it,” Nix said.

Still, the work has paid off as colleges, writers and scouts noticed his hustle.

Corry Black, a writer for a site dedicated to junior college basketball, said his conditioning will only benefit him.

“Nix is starting to come into his own making plays on the block, and his improved conditioning allows him to be a factor for longer stretches in games,” Black said.

After attending the Mullen Top 100 Junior College Showcase Camp in St. Louis, Mo., in July, Nix’s recruitment started to “blow up,” according to Pena.

Pitt showed interest in Nix shortly after the camp. In late September, head coach Jamie Dixon extended an offer to Nix. The next month, after officially visiting Pitt, Nix committed, choosing the Panthers over South Carolina and Loyola Marymount.

“We are extremely excited about Rozelle and [incoming recruit Damon Wilson],” Dixon said in a release. “Both are good players from winning backgrounds, and both have outstanding work ethic.”

Nix clearly wanted to work with Dixon as well, as he cited his comfort with the coaches as a factor in his Pitt decision.

“He really took a liking to [assistant] coach [Bill] Barton and Pittsburgh and really hit it off with coach Dixon. That’s where he felt comfortable,” Pena said.

Pitt also has a history in developing big men, drawing Nix with stories of numerous players who have steadily improved in their Pitt tenures, including Ontario Lett, a former Pensacola State player and now assistant coach on their staff.

Lett could not be reached for comment on the phone on March 16.

“I knew about DeJuan Blair and Aaron Gray and my assistant coach Ontario Lett and Steven Adams. I know Jamie Dixon can develop me,” Nix said.

The San Antonio Spurs selected Blair 37th overall in the 2009 NBA Draft after two seasons at Pitt, and the Chicago Bulls took Gray 49th overall two years earlier.

Nix’s weight loss equated to a hefty push of success on the court. After averaging 11.2 points and 9.5 rebounds a game this season, Nix earned co-player of the year honors in the Panhandle Conference.

“I got a lot more developed. I got quicker, I got stronger, I got slimmer, and my skills improved 100-fold,” Nix said.

Nix is a self-proclaimed back-to-the-basket post player and a “tenacious rebounder.” 

Pena also lauded Nix’s rebounding ability and called Nix an apt scorer.

“His strength, without question, is rebounding,” Pena said. “He rebounds the ball very, very hard. He can score around the basket with both his right and his left hand.”

Along with rebounding, one of Nix’s biggest strengths is something he was born with: his size.

“Most of anything, he’s huge. He’s a big kid. A kid like that is going to take up a lot of room. He’s a tough kid. He doesn’t back down,” Pena said.

For Nix, though, perhaps his biggest priority is always exerting maximum effort, never letting it diminish.

“I hustle every single time up and down the court, offense and defense. I give 110 percent on the court and off the court,” Nix said.

As Nix prepares himself to attempt to fill Pitt’s lack of size in the frontcourt, Pena said Nix’s work ethic will serve him well.

“He’s going to have a heck of a transition. You don’t go into the ACC ready to go right away, but his work ethic is outstanding,” Pena said. “His attitude is outstanding. He’s going to do whatever he can to please the coaching staff as much as possible.”

“If you told Rozelle ‘you’re going to be successful if you do this,’ he’s going to kill himself trying to do exactly what you ask him,” Pena added.

Although Nix will now play in higher-quality games in the ACC, Pena pointed to the quickness of college basketball as the biggest adjustment Nix will need to make.

Nix said he recognizes the challenge he has ahead of him and is ready to face it head on.

“I know I need to come in and work automatically because I know it’s not going to be easy. I don’t want it be easy, I want everything to be challenging, because I’ll live up to the challenge,” Nix said.

After Nix’s college hoop dreams end at Pitt, Nix said he hopes that fans will keep him in good company, remembering  him fondly with the likes of Blair and Gray, who were both All-Americans in their time at Pitt.

“When I’m done, I want to join them as Pitt’s best big men,” Nix said.