On June 28th, 2012, Nigerian born Ifeanyi Festus Ezeli-Ndulue was drafted 30th overall by the Golden State Warriors. Ezeli, an aspiring physician, was born in Benin City, Nigeria. In 2004, Ezeli’s parents sent him to live with his uncle in California, hoping to further his education. Ezeli, prompted by his uncle, began playing basketball. In a 2011 interview with ESPN’s Andy Katz, Ezeli recalled his struggles with the foreign sport. “I didn’t know what I was doing. Imagine someone who is 14 or 15 years old, and you’re teaching them as if they’re a 6-year-old. It was tough. Everyone was getting frustrated with me. I was getting frustrated with it.”
Festus Ezeli followed a unique path to the NBA, where he entered a unique circumstance. The Warriors, awaiting the return of the injured Andrew Bogut, were forced to rely on the 30th pick as their starting center. Through the month of January, Ezeli started 38 of the Warriors 43 games, averaging a mere 16 minutes per game. And though the Warriors were winning, Ezeli was not making a strong push for increased responsibility. In the same Katz interview, Ezeli said, “The hardest thing to master for me was hand-eye coordination. It’s something that has been hard for me. Sometimes I just work on passing the ball, and I’m sure not a lot of people do that.” Through the beginning months of his career, it was evident that despite the work, Ezeli had not yet mastered many basic basketball skills. Plagued by an inability to catch passes on the move and a crippling habit of bringing the ball down in traffic, Ezeli committed 25 turnovers per 100 used plays through the end of January (nbawowy.com). Though these turnovers represent a small portion of the teams possessions, Ezeli’s inability to function offensively greatly inhibited the Warriors, who scored 7.4 points per 100 possessions more with Ezeli off the court than on. Opposing defenses would ignore Ezeli on rolls and leave him open anywhere on the floor knowing that he was nearly incapable of gathering and finishing against any recover (44.6% True Shooting Percentage), or passing to punish a defense out of position (0.9 Assist Rate).
Upon Bogut’s return, Ezeli was replaced by Andris Biedrins as backup center and lost nearly all his minutes. However, Ezeli’s recent play, necessitated by a Biedrins injury, has rekindled belief in Ezeli’s potential and suggested that his general ineptitude would serve the Warriors better than Biedrins’. Since the all star break the Warriors have outscored opponents by 3.1 points per 100 possessions, a drastic swing form the -3.5 net rating Ezeli posted in the months prior (nba.com). Though Ezeli’s offensive finishing abilities have shown no significant improvement (41.3% TS% post all star break and 45.2% prior), he has made noticeable leaps in his understanding of positioning defensively and in rebounding. Ezeli’s defensive rebound percentage has jumped from 13.9% prior to the all-star break to 21.3% after, and he has shown a better understanding of help defense rotation and the Warrior’s downing of pick and rolls. Also, Ezeli’s struggles offensively appear to trump Biedrins’ general disregard for that half of the court. After setting a screen, Biedrins will often simply stand at the elbow, where he is no threat to shoot, seemingly avoiding the embarrassing experience that is free throw shooting. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zXVp6aatWp0). Though Ezeli is generally not a threat to score, he typically rolls hard to the rim, clearing space for driving lanes and forcing hedging big men to rotate off the ball handler.
While Festus Ezeli may not have been immediately successful in the league, the 23-year-old center has shown improvements that foreshadow an impressive basketball future for a Nigerian physician.