Put on a pair of basketball shoes that are probably bigger than any, sit around your locker, and imagine for a moment that you are 18-year-old Emmanuel Ocurorafor.
She has traveled across the Atlantic to play for University of Louisville. The family, friends, and culture you grew up thousands of miles away in Lagos, Nigeria, and in NBA Academy Africa in Senegal. And the program in the community you now call home is struggling at a historic rate under first-year head coach Kenny Payne, who is tasked with returning his alma mater to national prominence.
“(Okoorafor) understands that this is something that will help him in his future,” he said. Frank TraoreThe NBA’s president of basketball operations told the Courier Journal on Tuesday. “He didn’t hesitate; he jumped on (the plane). He was so excited. He thought Louisville was right for him.”
The day after you get off that plane in Louisville, where you’re not quite sure who’s pronouncing the city’s name correctly, you take the court on your first practice with the Cardinals. You have to learn how to run the field alongside 14 new teammates in just 12 regular season games, and the coach who said the day before you arrived that he needed his players to “not be afraid to come to practice.”
As your first practice with your new team draws to a close, Payne approaches a suggestion: If you can sink two free throws, he’ll call it a day. If you don’t, everyone will run more. You step into the charity bar and look at your teammates standing along the baseline. You don’t fully understand what they’ve been through after losing 17 of their 19 games to this point – the last two by 21 points – but you don’t need to fully understand it to know that they’d prefer to avoid supplemental conditioning.
Can you do the shots? Okorafor did and was promptly assaulted by his teammates on the field at the U of L training facility last week.
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“It was amazing to see,” said Traore, who was able to witness the moment through a video. Share U of L on social media. “Even for the academy players who stayed in Senegal, they were very excited to see that. It motivates everyone even more to keep working hard so that they have the chance to play at the next level.”
Okorafor’s work ethic since his arrival in the country has also impressed his new coach.
“Emmanuel is the kind of player he wants to please; he’s a giver,” Payne said Monday morning, speaking to members of the media during a video conference. “His energy is incredible. His effort from day one – his first practice to his first practice to his second practice – I mean, you can see him bringing a fight and determination and focus to it.”
Payne said the freshman mentality is really starting to chip away at his new teammates.
“There was a huge change of energy in our practices,” said the coach during this match. Press conference on Tuesday afternoon. “He talks a lot – very loud, very lively – and plays hard. He gets through drills really hard. Sometimes it’s funny how hard he (plays) is and how he’s screaming and bouncing and screaming and doing the things he does. We need that kind of guy.” of energy.”
Here’s a look at how Okorafor got to the U of L, when he could see the action of the game and what the 6-foot-9 Nigerian brings to the Cardinals.
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Payne and assistant coach Nolan Smith got a chance in December to personally scout Okorafor when NBA Africa Academy traveled to Las Vegas for the NBA G League’s Tarkanian Classic and Winter Showcase.
Was there any thought in targeting a guard to add depth to the perimeter? Payne acknowledged the urgency but said Okorafor is “the available guy who can come in and do it.”
“We watched a bunch of movies about a bunch of different guys, and he came across as the best and as someone who could help us right away, someone who could come to the school right away and start his watch,” Payne said. “It was interesting, and I did a bunch of homework on it — I talked to a bunch of different people.”
Payne was not alone.
“A lot of schools were interested in the Emmanuel Program, but he wasn’t really focused on it,” Traore told The Courier Journal. “He was just focused on getting better and not being distracted. I can’t really name a lot of schools that were interested in him, but we know he has a lot of options on the table.”
So, what made Louisville stand out? Okorafor on January 20th ESPN’s Leonard Solms said He was inspired to follow in the footsteps of Jordan Nora, who hails from Buffalo, New York but is of Nigerian descent.
“He left a great legacy there at Louisville,” said Okorafor, who is the 17th NBA Academy All-Africa prospect to commit to a Division I program. “Being a Nigerian makes me realize I can do great things in Louisville.”
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Traore also credited Payne’s ability to sell Okorafor as it fits his vision of the program amid a difficult rebuild.
“I could see that they clicked and understood each other’s position,” Traoré said. “Once you have that, once you have a coach who believes in the player, once you have a player who believes in the head coach, it becomes normal. And Emmanuel.
If Okorafor succeeds at the U of L and tracks Nwora to the NBA, Payne may have a new recruiting pipeline. The Cardinals’ head coach said of his friendship with the Academy’s head coach, the former Division I assistant coach Roland Houstonspanning more than three decades. It is clear from speaking with Traore that Payne made a good impression on him and others associated with the programme.
Payne said the feeling is mutual.
“What the NBA does for young children across the continent is second to none,” he said. “I’m sure a lot of other universities do that, but more will try to target these kids, because they’re doing a great job of educating them – putting them in the education system to be eligible to go to college – do a great job of mentoring. They’re doing a great job of developing.”
When will Emmanuel Ocurafor make his college basketball debut?
There was one word Payne emphasized more than any other when discussing his schedule for Okorafor’s adaptation to the college game: comfortable.
Payne undecided Monday if the Nigerian will see the court during the home stretch of Louisville’s regular season, or if the best move to maximize his impact on the program is to keep him on the bench to save a year from eligibility. Even with sophomore Brandon Huntley Hatfield out with a foot injury, the Cardinals have a steady frontcourt rotation of Sidney Curry, Kamari Lands, JJ Traynor and Jay Lynn Weathers, though none of those players average more than nine points. Or six rebounds per game.
Payne said there are plenty of offensive and defensive combinations for Okorafor to learn, which depend on his ability to respond to a game unfolding around him – “playing without thinking” – making readings easier when he scores important minutes with his teammates. Okourafor also needs time to adjust his approach to the field to better align him with what his new coach demands of the senior players.
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“I never want him to second-guess who he is,” Payne said Monday night. His weekly radio show. “I want to take him out on the field when he’s comfortable.”
So, for now, Okorafor’s college debut on Wednesday at Boston College seems unlikely. Perhaps he will be called into action if an injury to Huntley-Hatfield results in a prolonged absence – Payne said on Tuesday it was “doubtful” he would return soon – or if another U of L member has to lose time. There is also the opportunity to complete his coach development plan at an accelerated pace.
“I don’t want to miss any of (his eligibility), but if he can come and help us and get more comfortable with college basketball, that’s an option for him,” Payne told the media Monday morning.