05 October, 2021
15 May, 2022
32 Stratos Voulgaropoulos (LAVR), 33 Yannick Nzosa (UNIC)
31/01/2022
David Hein's Champions League Home Grown
to read

Nzosa trying to get back to last year's version of himself

MALAGA (Spain) - Yannick Nzosa hates even hearing the stats. The numbers he is producing in the Basketball Champions League aggravate him. The 18-year-old forward knows he should be doing more to help Unicaja Malaga, and he is desperately searching for last year's version of himself.

Nzosa came into the season as one of the favorites for the BCL Best Young Player award after an outstanding debut season with Unicaja's pro team in 2020-21. But the native of DR Congo can hardly be considered in the award discussion for what he's done in the BCL thus far.

"I think I'm doing so bad. Just hearing the stats is bad," Nzosa reacted when asked about averaging 1.7 points and 1.5 rebounds in six games in the Regular Season. "You can't change the reality. I don't think I have been playing good. That's the truth. I have to be more aggressive. I have to help my team more."

 
Nzosa's disappointment should not be a surprise considering what he accomplished last season. He averaged 4.3 points, 2.9 rebounds and 1.0 blocks over 23 games in the Spanish ACB as well as 4.4 points and 2.3 rebounds in 16 EuroCup games including games with 13 points vs Nanterre 92 and 16 points against AS Monaco. And he only turned 17 in mid-November 2020.

He scored 10 points in his first two games of the 2020-21 season against MoraBanc Andorra and BAXI Manresa. With that he joined Ricky Rubio and Luka Doncic as the only 16-year-old in the Spanish league’s history to score at least 10 points in a game.

In his third game, he swatted 4 blocks against Valencia to become the youngest player in ACB history with at least 4 blocks in a game, surpassing Kristaps Porzingis' previous mark.

"Being among those great, great players pushes me to work even more. I am not there at that level. I cannot compare myself to those great players," he said. "It was great to see that I am on the right way. And if I work a lot why not one day play at the level where those great players are playing now."

Nzosa's early performance in Spain was on par with greats like Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis

 

Nzosa would miss the final two-plus months of the season due to an adductors injury, but he had done enough to be named to the 2021 ACB All-Young Players Team.

"I was so sad," he said about the injury which robbed him of finishing the season with the team. "At that moment I was playing really well. I was like on fire. I was doing well for the team. After the injury I was feeling very bad. To stay out and not help my team was a tough moment."

The injury also cost Nzosa a chance to work on his game in the summer in the United States.

"I had a plan to be in the US and work, but it didn't work. I went there but just did rehab: massages and physios for a month. Then I went back to Spain," he said.

Nzosa says he is back to full health this season, but he thinks what might be missing is the ease with which he plays the game. The care-free feeling he had when he first discovered the game - or better said, when the game discovered him.

Leaving home at 13 years

Nzosa was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo and grew up playing football on the streets of the country's capital Kinshasa with his friends.

"I remember that was just a crazy time," Nzosa said looking to his beginning with the game. "It's good memories for sure. People growing up in Africa just played football, just like everywhere in the world. Every kid when they are 5 or 6 years old they play football. It was a good memory. At that time was I already tall."

One day when Nzosa was 13 years old, he was spotted by Joe Lolonga, who had a basketball team in the city which was part of his non-profit organization called New Generation.

"He's like my father," Nzosa said of Lolonga, who remains closely connected to him and serves as his advisor.

It was Lolonga who went to Nzosa's house and talked to his mother that Yannick had a chance to be a successful basketball player if he got the right training. And it would be best for Yannick to go to Italy.

"Joe went home with me and talked to my mom and said he needs to do this. My mother just said this is your life. If you are fortunate enough to do it, you have to go. Don't worry. Maybe we will talk on the phone and see how you are doing. After that I said: Okay, let's go."

Still prior to his 14th birthday, Nzosa landed a spot at the famed Stellazzurra Rome academy in the Italian capital. He was leaving behind his mother as well as five siblings, with him being the fourth born.

"When I was in Italy, the first month I was really sad. The basketball was good and when I was on the court practicing with my fiends it was good. When I would go to bed, I would start thinking about my family. I was sad," he remembered. "At Stella at that time they had some African players and guys from everywhere else: Asia, Americas. And with all of those players we started to build a great relationship on and off the court. After about two months I was good - even when I went to bed. I was happy. We created a family there."

 
Like many African basketball players before him, Nzosa played goalkeeper at football before choosing the hardcourt. And the freedom to run around in basketball was refreshing for the young Yannick.

"When I started with the team in Congo, I didn't know the game. In football I was the goalkeeper, but I was quick. At basketball practice when we started to run it made me happy because I like to run. I was so bad at the basketball," he says with a smile.

Nzosa praised the work that Stellazzurra did, teaching him the game of basketball.

"Stellazzurra did a great, great job with me. We worked so much and slowly I started to understand what to do. After some time  I started to do some good things. I started to think I could jump to a high level."

Shining at ANGT

Stellazzurra had a strong reputation of developing young players - also by playing many tournaments so the youngsters could see the levels of other players to judge where they stand.

One of the top youth tournaments in Europe is the ANGT. And Nzosa first got a taste of that competition in 2017-18, totalling 2 points, 4 rebounds, 1 steal and 3 blocks in 5 games.

But it was his breakout at the ANGT Kaunas in February 2019 that really first put his name out there on prospect evaluators' radars.

 
Having just turned 16 about three months earlier and having already debuted in the ACB, Nzosa was flying around the court in Kaunas. He averaged 13.3 points, 5.8 rebounds, 2.3 steals and 2.5 blocks. His top game was 19 points and 11 rebounds against DBA Copenhagen and he also collected 15 points, 6 rebounds and 5 blocks against Rytas Vilnius.

In addition to his long, slender frame which promised an excellent basketball body when he matured physically, another trait which enticed observers was his energy.

"It's natural for me to play with energy - to be around the ball, to compete, to fight for every ball. That's something natural for me. One of my characteristics as a player is to play with energy," Nzosa said.

All of the positivity and progress for Nzosa slowed in the 2019-20 season. Early on in the campaign, he said the relationship between Lolonga and Stellazzurra soured, and he wanted out of the team.

Nzosa and Lolonga had been in Malaga in the summer on holidays as the DC Congo national team was playing an exhibition tournament against Spain and Philippines. Nzosa said that during the trip Unicaja had expressed an interest in signing him, but he returned to Italy.

With unease at Stellazzurra, Nzosa decided to join Unicaja, a move which was disputed by the Italian club and had to go to a FIBA judiciary body, which eventually allowed the talent to move to Unicaja. But the ruling did not come until the end of March 2020.

 
He was not allowed to play for Unicaja that season save for the ANGT Valencia, where he dominated to the tune of 15.0 points, 9.5 rebounds, 1.8 steals and 3.8 blocks and earned a spot on the All-Tournament Team.

"It was just a bad, bad, bad time for me," he admitted. "I was in the middle and was trying to understand what was happening."

With the contract dispute behind him and finally freed to play, the 2020-21 season was great for Nzosa.

Early in the 2021-22 season, Nzosa was also able to lock up his future as he signed an extension with Unicaja through 2025-26. He is also expected to be selected in the 2022 NBA Draft - possibly even in the Lottery.

 
Despite all those positives, things just haven't worked out for him this season. Looking back, Nzosa believes he may have put too much pressure on himself to produce - especially after the strong rookie professional season in Spain and the EuroCup and the talk of the NBA Draft.

"Some games I was okay, but I was under a little pressure, thinking I should score, thinking I need to try to do the things I prepared. I was confused some times in the games," he said shaking his head. "When I started the season I was like: This year I want to go to the NBA and I was starting to think about other things - the statistics for example."

He said Unicaja are really trying their best to help to get him out of his funk.

"After games I talk to the assistant coach and the psychologist, and they are trying to help me. I understand it's my second year as a professional and when we started this season I didn't know how to react when you play so bad in so many games. I don't think I was ready for that. You cannot be very good every game. They try to keep me relaxed and tell me to only do the things I know I can do."

Nzosa just might be turning the corner now. In his last two appearances in the Spanish league, he collected 10 points in 15:30 minutes against Casademont Zaragoza and then he tallied 8 points, 4 rebounds and 1 steal in 21:05 minutes against Valencia Basket. He shot 7-of-12 from the field and 4-of-4 from the foul line.

Up until those two games, his highest point total was 6 points on two occasions but he also went scoreless in four of his previous 14 games.

"The first two games we played I was better," said Nzosa, who also picked up 2 points, 2 rebounds and 1 steal in 15 minutes in Unicaja's first Round of 16 game. "I tried to focus on the details. We have a lot of talented players on the team, and I told myself I am just going to do the things that I know. I am understanding now more that is the way to be there and to get better."

And to eventually be happy about hearing the stats he is producing.

David Hein

David Hein

Walk into the media tribune of any major basketball event and there's a good chance you will come across David Hein. Having covered dozens of FIBA events, including numerous women's and youth events, there are few players Dave doesn't know about, and few players who don't know him. His sporting curiosity means he is always looking to unearth something new and a little bit special. David Hein's Champions League Home Grown is a weekly column digging out the freshest basketball talent in the competition and assessing what the basketball landscape will look like a couple of years down the line.