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Chasing a dream, far from home

Center Aziz N’Diaye has greatly improved his offense this season, averaging 11.1 points per game.

Photo by Sang Cho

In Senegal, a nation of nearly 13 million people that covers slightly less land than South Dakota, located on Africa’s western tip, where the average yearly per capita income is less than $2,000 and America is still the land of opportunity, basketball is an escape.

Each year, a handful of the best youth players in the country travel to the SEEDS Academy, a preparatory school in the city of Thies. The academy offers free schooling, free room and board, free basketball instruction, and three square meals a day. The best of its alumni earn scholarships and travel to attend prep school in the United States. The very best go even further — they earn scholarships to play basketball at American universities, putting them among the 5 percent of Senegalese citizens who attend college.

In the 67-year history of the NBA, only eight natives of Senegal have played so much as a single game at the sport’s highest level. Washington center Aziz N’Diaye wants to be the ninth.

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As a boy growing up in Dakar, Senegal, a port city located on a promontory that juts out from continental Africa into the Atlantic Ocean, N’Diaye was a soccer player like many of the country’s children. But N’Diaye’s body grew at a rate very unlike the other children. At 14, he made a choice.

“As soon as I started getting taller,” N’Diaye said, “I’ve been more focused on dribbling the ball than kicking a soccer ball.”

From then until the end of high school, N’Diaye dedicated himself to getting away from the country he called home. He attended the SEEDS Academy, where he grew into a defensive menace and a serious basketball prospect. In 2007, he left Dakar for a prep school in Lake Forest, Ill., some 4,500 miles away.

After a season in Lake Forest, N’Diaye enrolled at the College of Southern Idaho where he missed one season with an injury before finally taking the court as a college basketball player. After his freshman season in Idaho, and after drawing interest from schools such as Colorado and Oklahoma, N’Diaye transferred to the UW.

He was raw, his relatively short history of organized basketball often apparent. But even though N’Diaye was behind in terms of basketball skill, he was often able to make up for it with pure size and athleticism.

“We recruited him from a rebounding standpoint and kind of controlling the paint,” said Paul Fortier, currently the UW’s director of player personnel and formerly an assistant coach who worked closely with N’Diaye and the rest of the team’s post players. “But with the way he ran, when we were up-tempo … we [could] drop it off to him and he [could] finish with the dunk.”

He started 25 games as a sophomore but was still a role player, scoring 4.6 points and grabbing 5.7 rebounds in less than 18 minutes per outing. He blocked plenty of shots and intimidated plenty of opponents but often struggled to so much as catch an entry pass, turn, and get a shot off without losing the ball.

N’Diaye was a force at one end but nonexistent at the other.

In the meantime, he was also trying to acclimate to the UW’s rigorous academic curriculum. English is N’Diaye’s fourth language (his first was French), and the adjustment to speaking it full time was still in progress. In fact, Fortier, who played professionally in France, sometimes lapsed into that language to explain the finer points of a play or defensive rotation to N’Diaye.

“When I came here, in my transfer year, I just wanted to get used to the system, learning the defense, learning how the team needs you on the court and off the court,” N’Diaye said. “Off the court, in school, it was the same thing, just taking the right classes, being aware of keeping things in balance. But after I got comfortable, things became easier.”

That’s become apparent this season, when N’Diaye has achieved previously unimaginable levels of offensive efficiency and output. He’s the UW’s fourth-leading scorer, putting up 11.1 points per game and has shot a sky-high 63.6 percent to do it.

He’s scored most of those points with a move as old as basketball: the hook shot. From the time he arrived on Montlake, Fortier said it’s been a priority for N’Diaye to establish the shot as his go-to move.

“Him being a late player of basketball, we wanted to hone in on one move,” Fortier said. “Because with his height, once he gets the ball up there, it’s not going to get blocked.”

In addition to his increased offense, N’Diaye has maintained his usual prowess on the defensive end where he’s often played as the Huskies’ sole traditional post player and is averaging 9.4 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game.

Scouts think N’Diaye, who last spring completed his degree in American ethnic studies, could be a fringe second-round pick in next June’s NBA draft. 

“He’s close to being our most consistent player,” head coach Lorenzo Romar said. “I don’t know if he is, but he’s somewhere around the top.”

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Every four years, the NCAA permits a college basketball team to go on a foreign tour. It gives teams a chance to see the world, develop bonds, and play exhibition games against pros from other parts of the world. Last summer, the UW’s time to travel was due. After departing Seattle on Aug. 25 and making stops in France, Spain, and Monaco, the Huskies landed in Dakar.

Shortly thereafter, the Huskies witnessed something Fortier says he will remember forever.

“[N’Diaye] saw his family was there waiting at the hotel for him: his mom, his sister, his nephews, and family. He hadn’t seen them in like three years,” Fortier said. “And I think our guys take those things for granted. It brought a tear to my eye, just seeing the love they had among themselves.”

It was, of course, an equally powerful moment for N’Diaye.

“Obviously, my favorite part was going back home and seeing my family,” he said. “That was a great feeling, seeing them and hanging out and spending extra time at home catching up with family; that was a blessing to have.”

N’Diaye showed his teammates his hometown, the streets where he grew up, the house where he was raised. He even stayed an extra 10 days in Dakar after the rest of the Huskies returned stateside before making the return flight himself.

“It’s always hard to leave home,” N’Diaye said. “But at the same time, you think, you have another life here. You have to go take care of business.”

N’Diaye spent much of his life trying to get out of Senegal, to come to America and chase his dreams of prosperity and professional basketball. Now, with those dreams so close to becoming a reality, it feels so good to be back home.

Reach Sports Editor Kevin Dowd at sports@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @KevinDowd

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