Date: 07/08/2023

Worldwide Journey: James Nnaji Goes from Makurdi Markets to NBA Draft Pick

It’s hard not to imagine how much different James Nnaji’s life would have been had that older gentleman never come into the family market that one day or if his mother didn’t help him create a Facebook video that ended up going viral. The internet can be a powerful thing and luckily, the right set of eyes saw Nnaji at the right time, which opened a whole new world to explore and led him to becoming an NBA Draft pick of the Charlotte Hornets.  

By now, he’s told and retold his story more and more frequently the past few years, but that doesn’t make it any less remarkable or captivating. Flashback to the year 2016, when Nnaji is still a pre-teen living in Makurdi, the capital city of the Benue State in central Nigeria. His family owns a shop in the local marketplace called Modern Market, where Nnaji pitches in from time to time. It was here that a chance encounter with an older male customer, who just so happened to be a former soccer player, first sparked Nnaji’s eventual path towards basketball.

“This man came to our shop to buy something, and I stood up,” recalled Nnaji. “He was like, ‘Oh, you’re really tall.’ I was like, ‘I know’ and he was surprised to see a [12-year-old] this tall. He started telling me that playing basketball would be a good idea. I could be great, and basketball could take me to this next level, all of that. I said, ‘Okay, if that’s what you say, I’m going to give it a try.’”

At this time, Nnaji, who now measures at 6-11 and 250 pounds with a 7-4 wingspan, had only really played soccer, which is widely considered the most popular sport in Nigeria. But the older gentleman might be on to something, so he decided to give basketball a whirl. Somewhat surprisingly though, it wasn’t exactly love at first sight.

“The next week, I went to the stadium to see what the basketball court looks like,” he said. “There were a lot of other young guys like me, very tall, very long. At first, I didn’t like it. I used to play soccer and I’m used to having a goalkeeper at the post. With basketball, when I got there, I was like, ‘Where is the goalkeeper? This is weird to me.’ It’s a lot of running up and down, but nobody was passing the ball. Everybody was shooting the ball for themselves. You just have to run coast to coast. Bit by bit, I started feeling like I was part of the team. When I started blocking shots, dunking, I remember thinking ‘I think I like the game now.’”

A year later, after several months of getting accustomed to this new sport, Nnaji played for a team that won a big tournament in Makurdi. Clips from the competition made their way into a self-produced highlight video, which featured Nnaji wearing a t-shirt that said, ‘Nigerians Dream Big.’ The video was later posted on Facebook and at some point, a basketball scout from the Delta State in southern Nigeria came across floating on the worldwide web.    

“He wrote to me and said ‘Hey kid, I see you’re very tall. Would you like to travel abroad?’ I can help you get there,’” recalled Nnaji. “I was like, ‘Okay, but I have to talk to my family.’ He contacted my family and talked to them, and my family agreed with whatever he was talking about. He helped me get to Hungary by putting me in contact with people there.”

To help Nnaji get more up to speed on the sport, this scout also began sending YouTube highlights of NBA stars like Anthony Davis, Joel Embiid and fellow Nigerian Hakeem Olajuwon. Live NBA broadcasts weren’t accessible on local Nigerian TV, so this was the next best option.

“I couldn’t watch a full game, but I could watch highlights of the dominant players, which got me excited. By then, I didn’t know anybody or how the game works. When I was talking to the scout, he said because I’m a big guy, I must watch these guys, see how they move and learn from them. Those are the guys I watch most of the time.”

Like Nnaji, Olajuwon also grew up playing soccer before picking up a basketball for the first time at age 15. From there, he went on to become the star centerpiece of Phi Slama Jama at the University of Houston, the #1 overall pick in the 1984 NBA Draft, a 12-time NBA All-Star, an NBA MVP, a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, a two-time NBA Champion, a two-time NBA Finals MVP and undeniably one of the greatest big men the sport has ever seen.

Soon, Nnaji was on his way to Hungary, a central European country that probably couldn’t be more different than where he grew up in Nigeria. Still only 14 years old in November of 2018, he’s now enrolled in the Ratgeber Basketball Academy located about three hours south of the capital Budapest in an ancient, old-timey city called Pécs.

Within a year, Nnaji had slowly worked his way onto the local professional team, then known as Pecsi VSK, which was in Hungary’s first division until it was relegated last year. Working in an environment that was strictly catered towards basketball for the first time in his life, the teenage Nnaji continued to physically grow, and his career quickly began to pick up steam.

“After one year and a half, in April of 2020, I had a message from my agent that there were three to four teams in Spain that were interested in me and FC Barcelona was one of them,” he said. ‘I was like, ‘Yeah, I want to go play basketball there.’ Barcelona is a big club, and I knew about them since I was a kid in Nigeria because they have a great football (soccer) team. I took the offer, and I went to play basketball there.”

So, Nnaji headed west to Barcelona, one of the most prestigious basketball clubs in all of Europe. He spent his first season in Spain playing for Barcelona’s B Team, which at the time competed in the country’s third-tier LEB Plata. Much like he had done in Hungary, Nnaji kept working, kept improving and even helped the club get promoted to the second-tier LEB Oro. 

“I got a message from my agent that the next season (2021-22), I was going to start playing with the first team,” he said. “After the season started, COVID started coming back, so a lot of people couldn’t stay on the team because they need to be quarantined. So, they gave me a chance to play with the first team. It was a game against Manresa, this was my historic game in Barcelona. I did very well. That was the moment that I knew I was going to come to the next level. Barça was a big level, then the NBA was the next level. After that game, I started seeing some scouts checking me out and other stuff. That’s how far I’ve come.”

Only a few months removed from becoming the youngest Barcelona player to ever appear in a EuroLeague game, this outing against BAXI Manresa occurred on Jan. 9, 2022, and was Nnaji’s first start with Barcelona and only his third appearance overall. He finished with 10 points on 3-of-3 shooting, five rebounds – four offensive – and five blocks in a narrow 96-95 home loss. The statline might look modest, but scoring isn’t nearly as rampant in Europe as it is in the NBA, plus 17-year-olds hardly see the floor that often. This certainly seemed to be the start of something.

Nnaji’s first season with Barcelona’s top squad culminated with averages of 2.0 points on 76.7% shooting, 1.6 rebounds and 0.5 blocks in 6.3 minutes over 25 combined top-tier Liga ACB and EuroLeague outings, four of which were starts. Playing under the legendary Šarūnas Jasikevičius alongside a multitude of former NBA players like Nikola Mirotić, Dante Exum, Nick Calathes, Brandon Davies and Álex Abrines, Nnaji and Barcelona finished runner-up to rival Real Madrid in the Liga ACB Championship series, won the Spanish Cup and beat Greece’s Olympiacos in the third-place game of the EuroLeague Final Four.

This past season, Nnaji played in over twice as many games for Barcelona (56) across all competitions, leading to averages of 3.5 points on 71.7% shooting, 2.1 rebounds and 0.6 blocks in 9.0 minutes per contest. Once again, Barcelona came up a tad short of the EuroLeague title, although did get revenge on Real Madrid with a 3-0 sweep in the ACB Finals. Nnaji worked extensively with assistant coach Tomas Masiulis – a 1999 EuroLeague Champion and a 2000 Olympic bronze medalist for Lithuania alongside Jasikevičius – and continued to lean on his older teammates, which now included past NBAers Jan Veselý and Tomáš Satoranský.

“For me, it was a great season, even if we didn’t achieve our ultimate goal as a team to win the EuroLeague championship,” said Nnaji. “I think we did a really great job and for me personally, I really improved a lot. Every single day after practice, Tomas worked with me. On the team, we have some veteran players who played in the NBA and they’re very experienced. They helped me with what I needed to know and what I needed to do in order to be a better player in general. This year was a terrific one for me.”

Nnaji declared for the 2023 NBA Draft back in April and with Barcelona’s season running well into mid-June, he didn’t attend the Draft Combine or do any workouts for NBA teams. In fact, he had no idea that he was even on the Hornets’ radar until draft night, when the organization packaged a pair of second-round picks to trade up and take him with the 31st overall selection.

“So far, so good,” said Nnaji, once he arrived in Charlotte, the second stop in his first-ever visit to the United States. “It’s been great. At first, it was difficult to sit down just coming from New York, just coming from the championship game [in Spain] with no rest, no sleep. Now, all good. Just seeing everything I can see and having a good time.”

Only two players – San Antonio’s Victor Wembanyama (first) and Washington’s Bilal Coulibaly (seventh), who were also former teammates for Metropolitans 92 in France – were drafted higher out of an international program this year than Nnaji. While a good number of Nigerian-born players have made it to the NBA – Olajuwon being the most famous example – very few have done so without going to an American college beforehand.

“For me personally, it’s an honor to represent Nigeria,” stated Nnaji. “It’s a huge country full of a lot of people. I’m always proud to represent my country. It doesn’t matter where I play. I just want to represent my country wherever I go.”

His basketball career has moved quicker than many could have envisioned over the past few years and while his mighty stature would seem to indicate otherwise, it’s easy to forget that Nnaji is still only 18 years and has been away from home for roughly a quarter of his life now. Getting acclimated to Charlotte during Summer League minicamp, which included assistance from Raleigh native and Nigerian National Team member Stan Okoye, was certainly an adventure and included some interesting observations in the process.

“Compared to Europe, it’s a bit different,” he explained with a laugh. “So many things are indoors, and I don’t know why – like a cafeteria where I could just sit down and for a soft drink just to have a good time. Here, you must go inside, but I want to stay outside and have fresh air. It’s totally different here and I don’t know why.”

Nnaji is still a raw prospect – he’ll turn 19 next month – with extraordinary physical tools and athleticism. Early glimpses in Summer League show a player that has a solid post game, great footwork and floor-running abilities and an alertness on defense. Getting more comfortable with the ball in his hands and improving his shooting – he’s attempted one 3-pointer since arriving in Barcelona and made 50.7% from the line (34-of-67) this past season – should be amongst some of his short-term focal points.

“The one thing I have in mind right now is to be very dominant,” he said, when asked about his goals before the start of NBA Summer League play. “Go there and kill it all. I’m the kind of person that whatever I do, I just want to give 100 percent. That’s who I am.”

Nnaji has come a long way since working in the Makurdi markets and from a basketball standpoint, still has a lot of developing to do before becoming a rotational NBA player. But who knows? Maybe someday, a young Nigerian kid will learn all about basketball watching his highlights on YouTube.

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