A lot of players would have coasted to the end, knowing they were going to leave college early for the NBA draft. Not Jordan Nwora. He did the opposite, taking on an unusually ambitious class load in his final season at Louisville.
“I was taking eight classes both semesters,” Nwora said early this week after a workout in West Seneca. “I knew I wouldn’t be coming back after my junior year, but it was something I wanted to do. I wanted to graduate.
“It’s tough, having to do all that work,” Nwora said with a big smile, “then you have to go out and play Duke.”
Nwora graduated in three years last May with a degree in exercise science. Rest assured, the Buffalo native does his homework, especially when it comes to studying the history of the draft. He’s well aware that you have to take these mock drafts with a grain of salt.
On Wednesday night, Nwora will almost surely become the first Buffalo-area native in a decade to get his name called in an NBA draft. Lazar Hayward, from old Traditional High in the city, went 30th overall in 2010 — with the last pick of the first round.
Nwora, a 6-7 forward with exquisite shooting skills, is projected in most mocks to go in the second round in Wednesday’s draft, which will be conducted virtually at ESPN studios due to COVID-19 restrictions
Almost all of the projections have Nwora falling anywhere from 34 to 48. The NBA Draft Room site has him going 34th to the Sixers. Sports Illustrated has him going 36th, also to the Sixers, a chic landing spot now that Daryl Morey, a big fan of deep shooters, is running the show.
The skeptics have questions about Nwora’s defense, ballhandling and quickness translating to the NBA level. “Average athlete” and “underwhelming speed” are among the knocks on his NBA draft profile.
But Nwora, who grew up watching his father, Alex, coach at Erie Community College and the Nigerian national team, is accustomed to being underestimated. Critics have sold him short every step of the way.
“Yeah, for sure,” he said. “Not a lot of people thought I’d be where I am today, or have the kind of career I had at Louisville.
“In high school, I never got player of the year in Buffalo. I got most improved player (at the Park School). At my prep school (Vermont Academy), I got most improved player. I got to the ACC and was most improved player. I was never MVP, maybe in Little League.
Nwora isn’t obsessed with going in the first round. But he’s done enough research to know that the predictions are often guesswork, that players can be tabbed for the second round and wind up in the first, or vice versa.
Last year, for example, Chuma Okeke was picked to go 31st in one mock draft and went 16th. Luka Samanic was projected in the 29-31 range. He went 19th overall. Jerome Poole was picked to go in the middle of the second round and went 28th. You never know in this game.
“If you look at all the mock drafts — I’m not going to lie, I’ve looked at a few of them — there’s a bunch of guys that are second-round picks that go in the first round every year,” Nwora said. “That’s why it’s a mock draft. Nobody knows what’s going to happen.
“There’s a lot of politics, people pushing certain kids. But my work speaks for itself. Not a lot of people have the resume I have in college basketball and basketball in general. I’m a proven player, so we’ll see what happens.”
All it takes is one team to trust that Nwora will improve again, that he’ll defy his perceived limitations and become a solid NBA player. His offensive game, which features a deadly shooting eye and quick release, is well-suited for the modern NBA game, which values perimeter shooting.
He has been working diligently to become a stronger, quicker, more decisive basketball player. For the last six months, Nwora has been working out with Darren Fenn, the former Canisius College star and long-time European pro who trains players at his hoop training facility — the X Gen Elite Sports Complex — on Mineral Springs Road in West Seneca.
“He can shoot the hell out of it,” Fenn said after working out Nwora on Monday. “But I think we’ve been able to add a lot of strength, a lot of quickness, a lot of explosivity, which has also helped his jump shot. His release has gotten faster. His depth has actually improved.
“As great a shooter as he was in college, he’s a much better shooter now. If he had another year in college, I don’t know what he would do.”
Fenn said Nwora’s ballhandling and decision-making, which have been criticized, are much-improved. He said they’ve worked on Nwora making decisions and creating offense under pressure. There’s no question he can score. Last season, he averaged 18.0 points and shot 40.2 percent from three-point range, often getting double-teamed by ACC opponents.
“I think he’s grown a lot as a basketball player,” Fenn said. “The true test of that will be to actually see him play some five-on-five, which we haven’t been able to do for so long.”
Nwora said he’s itching for a real game. Last March, Louisville was in Greensboro, N.C., getting ready to leave the hotel for an ACC Tournament quarterfinal against Syracuse — the team he grew up rooting for as a kid. Then the word came. Everything was shutting down because of COVID-19.
“It was tough,” he recalled, “but I see why it needed to happen, to keep everybody safe. I can’t wait. The draft is Wednesday and the season starts the 22nd next month. So we’ll see what happens. I’m sure I’ll be ready.
“I can’t wait to play a real game again,” Nwora said. “Once in awhile, you get some good runs. But mainly it’s getting in a gym one-on-one with Darren. I can’t wait to play five-on-five and really compete again. You can’t take it for granted. A lot of people’s worlds change in a day.”
He found that out from his 15-year-old sister, Caeli. (Nwora has two other sisters, Ronnie, who plays hoops for Georgia Tech, and Alexis). Early this. year, Caeli contracted Crohn’s Disease, which causes inflammation of the intestinal tract. She’s undergone two surgeries since Jordan got back from college.
“They had to take part of her colon out,” Nwora said. “I actually carried her. I got woken up at like 4 in the morning when she had to have her first surgery. She was in the bathroom and couldn’t move. My dad has a bad back and couldn’t carry her down the steps. I had to carry her down out to the car. It was killing her for me to even touch her.
“It’s been tough for her,” he said. “She can’t leave the house much at all. She’s high-risk for Covid. I try to be supportive. I try to get her out of the house when I can, whether it’s going for a walk, or when I go for food or to pick something up, I’ll take her for the car ride. At the house, just spend time watching TV shows. She’s into art. She did a big art piece for me.”
Family is big for Nwora. Last year, he and his father became the first father-son duo ever to represent Nigeria in the FIBA Basketball World Cup. Jordan was the team’s top scorer, and youngest player. Alex was head coach. Next summer, assuming there is an Olympics, they will be in Tokyo for the Games. Alex is now associate head coach for Mike Brown.
These are historic times for Nigerian hoops. Nwora is one of seven players of Nigerian descent who are expected to be drafted Wednesday. Onyeka Okongwu of USC is tabbed to go in the top five, Isaac Okoro of Auburn and Precious Achiiuwa of Memphis in the 10-20 range.
“Yeah, I’m super proud of that,” Nwora said. “I’ve been following Nigeria for a long time. There are guys in the draft that I’m really good friends with. Precious Achiuwa’s brother played for my dad. It’s just crazy to see the number of Nigerians who hare making names for themselves now.
“It’s putting Nigeria on the basketball map. Younger kids in that country
now can look up to people playing over here and see they can do that one day, if they put the work and time and effort into it. Hopefully, all of us get drafted and we make history for Nigeria.”
It should also be a historic hoop night for Buffalo, which Alex Nwora has called home since coming to America from his native Nigeria to play for Daemen, where he set school rebounding records and was an honorable mention Division II all-American in 1993.
Nwora, his wife Amy and their three girls will be together with Jordan at the XGen Elite complex to watch the draft. Regardless of when he’s drafted, Jordan will make his family and his underdog city proud.
“He’s always been the underdog,” Alex Nwora said, “and he has always proven people wrong. The people who take a chance on him always end up smelling like roses because they know how to evaluate talent.
“He’s been around the game all his life. His IQ is very high. He graduated college in three years. He was academic All-American and All-American on the court. I know he’s going to have a long career in the NBA, because of his skill set and his dedication to hard work.
“I’m happy for the area,” Alex said, “for all the people who believed in him since he was a young kid. Other kids from the area need someone to look up to, to know they can do it from Buffalo. We’re about to get on the map.”