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Louisville's Jordan Nwora is knocking on NBA's door

PITTSBURGH – Each time Jordan Nwora came off the court at Park School, he found the open seat on the bench closest to his coach and immediately started pleading his case as to why he belonged back on the court.

“He’d tell me, ‘Put me back in!’ ” said Mike Battaglia, Nwora’s coach at Park. “ ‘I won’t just shoot! I’ll rebound! I’ll pass the ball!’ He wouldn’t immediately go back in, but when he did, he would do exactly what he said he would do. He’d pass. He’d rebound. He had to prove he was a good teammate.”

Nwora’s actions weren’t out of selfishness. Battaglia believed it was an exhibit of how Nwora’s passion for the game fueled him to constantly improve as a player.

“Jordan was unique because he has that love for the sport, and it’s a true love,” Battaglia said. “Some kids may get turned off by it because of their parents or the pressure that’s put on them, and some kids may never have the chance to decide if they love the game. I don’t see that with Jordan.”

That zeal likely fueled a path that has put Nwora, now a 6-foot-8, 225-pound forward on the Louisville men’s basketball team, on the verge of the NBA.

An injury to his right calf last spring changed his plans to enter the NBA draft. He remains a prospective draft pick, but a constant dedication to basketball already has taken Nwora to lofty heights.

Nwora was the preseason Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year and began the weekend as the ACC’s leading scorer (20.4 points per game). He played for the Nigerian national team in the FIBA Basketball World Cup last summer in China, and he plans to play for the Nigerian Olympic team in the Summer Games in Tokyo.

“All of this, it means a lot, especially with all the work I’ve put in, and it means it's finally paying off,” Nwora said. “It’s crazy to see how far you can go, if you just put in that work.”

Buffalo basketball beginnings

Nwora joined the basketball team at Park in 2014 after two seasons at Amherst, where he was a professed “chubby kid who was just shooting the basketball."

“I didn’t play much,” Nwora said, with a chuckle.

If basketball was his elixir, then pop was his kryptonite. Once he gave up carbonated and sweetened beverages, and spent extra time in the gym after practice, he started seeing results of his work and his sugary sacrifice.

“From then to now, to see the transformation I’ve made, with my body and with my game, it’s been crazy to see,” Nwora said.

Nwora scored 1,016 points in two seasons at Park, and was a two-time All-Western New York first-team selection. He helped the Pioneers win the 2015 New York State Federation Tournament of Champions Class B title, the state Catholic High School Athletic Association championship and the Manhattan Cup Class B title. As a senior, he averaged 23.4 points and 10.1 rebounds and led Park to the Manhattan Cup Class A final.

Jordan Nwora is a former Park standout and two-time All-Western New York pick (Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News file photo)

He's a product of growing up in a basketball family. His father, Alex, is the head coach at Erie Community College and will coach the Nigerian Olympic team in Japan. His younger sister, Ronni, is a freshman on the women’s basketball team at Georgia Tech.

He also had talented teammates around him at Park, including Kyle Harris, Brandon Smith and Noah Hutchins.

“When you see so many good players, and Jordan didn’t totally dominate on a regular basis, you don’t think, ‘This guy is going to be so great,’ ” Battaglia said. “It wasn’t until after Jordan left Park and went to prep school and after a year or two in college that he really honed his craft. He worked hard at his game and he became better and more consistent. There were so many players that, at times, were playing at a higher level than Jordan. They didn’t end up at a higher level at the time it was happening.”

Nwora verbally committed to Louisville in October 2016, in his second month at Vermont Academy in Saxtons River, Vt.

Vermont Academy coach Alex Popp said the year Nwora spent at the prep school propelled him to becoming a major Division I prospect.

Nwora averaged 18.7 points and 5.3 rebounds in 30 games at Vermont Academy, but he learned how to be effective playing inside a complex system, rather than shoot in a freestyle manner. He got pickier with his shot selection and used his teammates. He woke up every morning to shoot baskets before breakfast, and made a point to meet with Popp to watch film and to go over plays.

“His motor improved here, and his confidence improved,” Popp said. “It just felt like every time you went to watch Jordan, he got better, every night, and that helped with his recruitment. People saw that improvement, and what became obvious, and what’s obvious to any scout, at any level, is that when there’s improvement, someone loves the game. You don’t get better by playing video games and staying at home. If you’re a gym rat and you put in the work to improve, people are going to see that.”

'It is hard to get drafted'

Niagara coach Greg Paulus worked with Nwora during his only season as an assistant at Louisville. Paulus watched Nwora transform  physically and in his conditioning during his freshman year.

Playing against Division I competition was a challenge, as it is for most freshmen.

“There were some games where he played really well and gave us a lift, and there were other games where he learned, whether it was through making mistakes or not having certain opportunities,” Paulus said. “But he was a guy who really liked the game of basketball, and continued to work at it. I saw growth in him that whole year.”

Nwora seemed destined for the NBA after the 2018-19 season. He led Louisville in scoring (17.0 points per game) and rebounding (7.6 per game). He was lauded for his ability to play inside and for his off-ball defense, as well as his knack for reading defenses. His athleticism, however, was a question, as were some of the choices he made when it came to shooting and protecting the ball.

Still, he was projected as first-round pick by nbadraft.net in March. Sports Illustrated projected Nwora as a second-round pick. He declared for the draft on March 28, 2019.

But there are only 60 picks each year in the NBA draft, and Nwora quickly discovered that he had to win the numbers game.

“I learned, from that whole process, that it is hard to get drafted,” Nwora said. “There’s a lot of uncertainties going into it, and you never know where you stand, really. A lot of mock drafts aren’t as accurate as you think they are, and that’s the case, every year. But there’s also so much work that goes into it. You have to really be locked in and dedicated to making that jump.”

Nwora sustained a calf injury in early May, which kept him out of workouts at the NBA combine and with NBA teams, otherwise the most immediate way for a prospect to make an impression.

“I wasn’t able to do anything,” Nwora said. “I was out that whole month of May, and there were a lot of uncertainties because of that. I wanted to be sure I was in the best position, before making that jump. And that wasn’t the case.”

Even as the most improved player in the ACC last season, Nwora needed to improve on several facets of his game if he wanted to be a first-round pick. His defense. His ball-handling. His decision-making on the court.

“I’ve got to continue to sharpen my game,” said Nwora, who withdrew from the draft on May 29, two hours before the deadline. “I had to work out a lot during the process, and I learned a lot of things. My work ethic, that’s something I learned during that process, especially because I was working so hard during that process.”

Working through adversity

On Tuesday in Pittsburgh, Steelers running back James Conner sat courtside. So did Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier, and Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle and Pitt alum Aaron Donald, inside a raucous Petersen Events Center.

The three NFL stars watched an uncharacteristic start for Louisville and for Nwora, who began the week as the Atlantic Coast Conference’s leading scorer, at 20.8 points per game. He was 0 for 4 from the floor and committed two turnovers in the first eight minutes, as he was primarily guarded by Au’Diese Toney and Trey McGowens.

Nwora made his first shot with 4:20 left in the half, a jumper that cut Pitt’s lead to 26-22. Less than two minutes later, Louisville's Lamarr Kimble blocked a shot and Nwora converted a layup to tie the game at 26-26 with 2:41 left in the half.

Nwora scored 10 of his team-high 14 points after halftime. He helped the Cardinals force overtime when he grabbed a rebound off McGowens’ 3-point attempt with six seconds left in regulation and found Dwayne Sutton for the outlet pass. Sutton’s long 3-point attempt bounced off the backboard at the buzzer.

“Every prolific scorer I’ve ever been around wants to score,” Louisville coach Chris Mack said. “He only took 13 shots. He didn’t fire bad ones up. He’s done that and he would admit that. You talk about Texas Tech and Kentucky, games that we lost, it wasn’t because of Jordan but he didn’t affect the game and help us win in other areas.

“Tonight, he did that. His defense. Keeping the ball in front. He’s still got to get better blocking out, making the extra pass, but just being an experienced player on the floor and a talented one, at that. He’s become a lot more mature than he was a year ago, when he was here.”

Offensively, Nwora wasn’t overly dominant in a 73-68 overtime win against the Panthers. Instead, he was effective in other ways, grabbing six rebounds and blocking two shots.

“He did a lot, and definitely, had two clutch rebounds at the end of the game that I can vividly remember,” Kimble said. “One before overtime and then one in overtime. Jordan’s a steady presence out there. They have to guard him, 24/7, and he knows that, so when his offense isn’t clicking, he does other things, like screen for us, get guys and he does a good job of communicating. And we need that from him, because we know a lot of teams are going to be keyed onto him.”

Still, his scoring output tied for his second-lowest of the season. Nwora scored a season-low eight points Dec. 28 in a 78-70 overtime loss at Kentucky, a game that turned controversial earlier this month when Nwora told reporters after a 74-58 win Jan. 7 against Miami that he’d received a death threat.

“I had somebody message me and say they wanted to kill me over a $15 bet,” Nwora told reporters in Louisville. “It’s a $15 bet. If that’s what you’re worried about, you’ve got more issues.”

At the time, Nwora shrugged off the incident, but Mack later told the Louisville Courier-Journal that it had been reported to authorities.

“I had a down game,” Nwora said. “I heard a lot of stuff about that, and that was probably one of the toughest moments this season. But I bounced back from that.”

The future's still bright

A recent NBA mock draft by Sports Illustrated projects Nwora as a low first-round draft pick, heading to the Los Angeles Clippers at No. 24. Bleacher Report has Nwora going to the Houston Rockets at No. 22. NBADraft.Net lists Nwora as the No. 22 player among its top 100 prospects.

“He made that decision to return to school, and he was betting on himself,” Popp said. “You look at the NBA draft in the last five years, and the numbers suggest you have to get in the draft early, but this has been Jordan’s story, throughout his career. He just keeps getting better.

“Knowing that and having really tasted it, at the grassroots levels of basketball and doing his post-graduate year, history tends to repeat itself. Jordan, being long-term greedy, it’s a combination of self-awareness, and the ability he has to believe in himself.”

As an NBA prospect, Nwora wants to think about the future. But for now, he has pushed his pursuit of the NBA aside.

“The only goal I have for this season is winning the ACC championship,” Nwora said. “This season’s been good, and we have a lot of room to grow, but we’re doing some really good things right now. I have high expectations for this team.

“But winning a championship, it’s one of the main reasons I came back. I haven’t met that goal yet, but there’s a lot of season still ahead of is. I’m really hopeful.”

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