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Louisville’s Nwora charging hard for March Madness and Tokyo Olympics

Jordan Nwora couldn’t get on the connecting flight just yet. By the time the plane landed in Buffalo, it would be too late. The deadline would pass.

So Nwora and his parents huddled up in Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport during a layover from Los Angeles and finalized whether Nwora was going to keep his name in the NBA draft or return to Louisville for his junior year.

The family had discussed the decision on the first leg of the flight and still hadn’t come to a conclusion. But due to the time difference between Chicago and Buffalo, they couldn’t wait until they arrived home in Western New York.

“We had to decide there,” Nwora said.

Nwora had a strong sophomore season at Louisville, but a calf injury kept him out of the NBA draft combine in May. He wasn’t able to work out for NBA teams until his pro day in Santa Barbara, California, right before the withdrawal deadline.

The family went back and forth all day, mulling the pros and cons. They spoke with Louisville coach Chris Mack and the Cardinals’ staff. They spoke with Nwora’s agent, Bill Duffy of BDA Sports Management. They prayed about the decision.

“We weren’t sure when we got on the flight,” Nwora’s father, Alex, said.

During that layover at O’Hare, Nwora made his final decision: He was returning to Louisville for another season.

“I got this good with Coach Mack; I can get better with him,” Nwora told his parents that day.

Nwora was right.

Eight months later, the 6-foot-8 forward is playing the best basketball of his career and carrying a Louisville team that has flirted with No. 1 ranking at times this season, with Nwora averaging 20.4 points and 7.4 rebounds per game. The Cardinals take on No. 3-ranked Duke on Saturday (6 p.m. ET on ESPN).

Nwora might be eyeing the NBA draft, but he also has his sights on the 2020 Tokyo Olympics as a member of the Nigeria national basketball team. For Nwora, there is a lot more on the horizon.

Over the years, however, there were multiple times that things looked bleak. Nwora could have very easily been playing somewhere else besides Louisville in 2020.

It started back in Nwora’s early high school years. Living in Buffalo, Nwora wasn’t highly touted when he first began playing at The Park School. He split his time between basketball and football before deciding to focus on the hardwood, and he was admittedly out of shape as a high schooler. Before his junior year at Park, Nwora went to his father — the longtime men’s head basketball coach for Erie Community College as well as the Nigeria national basketball team — and told him he wanted to work out with the junior college team.

Alex Nwora was hesitant. His son had done some weightlifting and conditioning with the Erie players in the past, but he hadn’t gone through a scrimmage or even a pickup game. Plus, the workouts started at 6 a.m. What high schooler wants to wake up so early to play against a bunch of players four or five years older than him?

Alex eventually gave in.

“I went to wake him up,” Alex said on the morning after his son’s plea. “He was downstairs waiting for me.”

So Jordan and his father went for a morning workout with the Erie players — and Alex also had brought some of the players he coached on the Nigeria national basketball team. He wasn’t going to make things easy for Jordan.

“They went at him really hard,” Alex said. “I wasn’t calling fouls. I didn’t stop. I said, ‘If you quit, you can’t come back.’ He fought through it all game. He started getting up in the morning every day. That’s when I knew he was serious. I told my players to play him as hard as you can, and he took it. That shows the resilience, how much he wanted it.”

Jordan became a staple at Erie workouts over the next two years of high school, going with his father to the 6 a.m. sessions and getting dropped off at high school a few hours later. He credits those pickup games — physical battles against players several years older — for the growth of his perimeter shot from a young age.

“I think that’s how I developed my shot,” Nwora said. “I could never drive into the lane. I had to shoot my way out of it … I know that I wouldn’t play how I do without it. It wouldn’t be the same if I didn’t grow up around that. But there were days I didn’t want to go. It ended up working out.”

While Nwora improved as a player and earned All-Western New York honors in back-to-back years, his recruitment wasn’t what he wanted it to be. He joined up with the New York Rens grassroots program on the Nike EYBL circuit in the spring of 2016 and established himself as one of the top shooters in the country. After Nwora graduated from Park in Buffalo, he went to Vermont Academy for a year, all the while with scholarships pouring in. Before the season at Vermont started, Nwora committed to coach Rick Pitino and Louisville.

Fast forward less than a year and everything changed.

“I remember being in study hall when everything came out about it,” Nwora said.

The FBI’s investigation into college basketball and corruption crashed into the sport in September 2017. Louisville was hit especially hard, with Pitino and two assistant coaches — including Kenny Johnson, who had been the lead recruiter on Nwora — getting let go as a result of the investigation’s findings. Assistant coach David Padgett took over as the interim head coach and an uneven freshman season for Nwora ensued.

He didn’t have a consistent role under Padgett, especially once ACC play began. Nwora followed up a two-game stretch in which he scored 29 points with a six-game period during which he played eight total minutes and didn’t score a point.

Rumors of Nwora transferring out of the program began to spread.

“We talked about it a bunch of times, on three occasions,” Cardinals junior guard Darius Perry said. “I kept reminding him to finish out the year.

“I could tell he was thinking about it strongly, he was considering it. It started out as jokes, then it started getting serious.”

Nwora admitted he thought about transferring, but his father said it went further than that. As far as he was concerned, his son was as good as gone as the 2017-18 season came to a close.

“I made up my mind that he was leaving,” Alex Nwora said. “We were already gone. It wasn’t a secret.”

One of Chris Mack’s biggest wins in his early months at Louisville came at the famous Anchor Bar in Buffalo — the restaurant known for inventing the original Buffalo wings back in the 1960s. For Mack, a noted chicken-wing enthusiast, eating at the restaurant might have been victory enough.

But he had more pressing matters for his trip to Buffalo that day in the spring of 2018.

Mack had taken over as Louisville’s permanent head coach in March and needed to keep the Cardinals’ roster together. Nwora was high on the priority list. Mack had recruited Nwora when Mack was head coach at Xavier and fondly recalled watching Nwora light up the scoreboard at an AAU tournament in Las Vegas. Mack spoke to Nwora and the other Louisville holdovers when he first arrived, and that helped put Nwora at ease.

“I could just tell how genuine he was, how truthful he was,” Nwora said. “I could tell he had everyone’s best interest.”

But Mack decided to fly up to Buffalo and recruit Nwora’s parents all over again to make sure everyone was on board.

“I talked about our plan for Jordan. Although they didn’t know me a ton, it would be no different than going somewhere else, learning a coach for the very first time,” Mack said. “In Louisville, he had teammates that he knew, an environment he was comfortable in. And at the same time, I knew who Jordan was coming out of high school.”

Alex Nwora was convinced.

“I trusted what he told me. I told Jordan not to run from anything,” Alex said. “It was coaching intuition. I’ve been in this game a long time. When somebody isn’t bulls—ing you, is honest with you — with me, my wife and Jordan — I trusted him.

“I’m glad that Jordan stayed. I wouldn’t want Jordan to play for anybody else.”

The decision has worked out for everyone involved. Jordan enjoyed a breakout sophomore campaign, moving into the Cardinals’ starting lineup after putting up prolific numbers off the bench for the first six games. His averages jumped from 5.7 points and 2.2 rebounds to 17.0 points and 7.6 rebounds, earning him third-team All-ACC honors. Louisville won 20 games and went to the NCAA tournament before losing in the first round to Minnesota.

Exceeding expectations and overcoming initial doubts is clearly not a new thing for Nwora. He did it in high school. He has done it in college. And he also has done it on the international scene.

As head coach of the Nigeria national basketball team that was heading into the 2019 FIBA World Cup African qualifiers in the summer of 2018, Nwora’s father needed to add a shooter to his roster. What better option than his son, a 40%-plus shooter at the college level?

Alex called Jordan up for the qualifiers, but there was immediate backlash, with detractors saying that Jordan was only brought onto the team because he was the coach’s son.

“He knew that was going to happen when he did it,” Jordan said.

“Because he’s the coach’s son, they don’t evaluate him for what he is,” Alex said. “They see ‘coach’s son’ and think that it’s favoritism. People who knew the game knew he was the real deal.”

Nwora answered the bell very quickly. Playing in a Nigerian setup that also includes NBA regulars Al-Farouq Aminu and Josh Okogie and the likes of former Arizona State star and overseas veteran Ike Diogu, Nwora established himself as a legitimate piece for D’Tigers.

In his third game with Nigeria, Nwora — who was 19 years old at the time — set a Nigeria record for most points scored in a game at a major tournament, while also putting up the most points scored at the 2019 African qualifiers. In that game, he scored 36 points against Mali, hitting five 3-pointers and filling up the stat sheet. Nwora averaged 21.7 points and 8.0 rebounds in the qualifiers.

Nwora followed that up last summer with back-to-back games of double-digit scoring for Nigeria at the FIBA World Cup.

“By the end of the tournament, people were saying I deserved to come,” Nwora said. “They had been saying stuff about my dad, stuff about me. We were about to quiet that up.”

Nigeria qualified for the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, and Nwora is hoping to be called up.

“It’s crazy,” he said. “I never thought I’d be in this position.”

With Louisville protecting a three-point lead in the final minute at Notre Dame last weekend, the Cardinals needed a final defensive stop. The Fighting Irish spent most of the possession on the perimeter looking for driving lanes. The 6-foot-8 Nwora got switched off 6-foot-10 Nate Laszewski early in the clock and ended up defending 6-foot-3 TJ Gibbs and 6-foot-3 Prentiss Hubb for most of the possession. He kept Gibbs out of the lane on two occasions and didn’t allow Hubb to get off a potential game-tying 3.

Earlier in his college career, Nwora would have had a tough time guarding Notre Dame’s guards late in the game.

“His ability to guard the ball is unquestionably better,” Mack said. “You’re talking about a 6-foot-8, 235-pound guy guarding two ACC point guards. He never let them get a clean look from 3. That possession is a microcosm [of his improvement] defensively.”

He still is scoring consistently, averaging 20.8 points and 7.5 rebounds and shooting 44.2% from 3-point range, but his development in other areas — including an improved motor — has made him a more valuable player for Mack and Louisville.

Named the preseason ACC Player of the Year, Nwora now has a target on his back. Against the Cardinals’ toughest opponents so far, defenses have adjusted and focused their game plans on Nwora. In Louisville’s loss to Kentucky on Dec. 28, Nwora scored eight points and didn’t attempt a shot in the second half.

Nwora entered the locker room after the loss to the Wildcats placing the blame for the defeat squarely on his subpar performance.

“I let the team down,” he said. “Everybody else played so good. I’m supposed to be so good. I was looking at it like it was my fault.

“If I did my job, we would’ve won. At the end of the day, I knew in my heart I let them down. It was a really bad feeling.”

Nwora bounced back, averaging 23.7 points and shooting 63.2% from 3-point range in the three games following the trip to Lexington. Correspondingly, Louisville is back up near the top 10 in the AP poll, and Nwora is among the top candidates for the Wooden Award.

“To be honest, I didn’t think I’d be in the position I’m in today,” Nwora said. “I’ve come a long way since high school; I didn’t think I’d be able to play at a level like Louisville.”

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