How last-minute suggestion got Rick Pitino to recruit Iona star

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Six years ago, Nelly Junior Joseph’s life took a new direction. He was tall for his age, so a local basketball coach in Benin City, Nigeria, suggested he give the sport a try. At first, he resisted.

“I don’t know what basketball is,” Junior Joseph told the coach. “I want to play soccer.”

Eventually, he gave it a shot. Within two weeks, he could dunk. Now, at 19 years old, the freshman is preparing to play on college basketball’s biggest stage, as No. 15 Iona’s starting center in the NCAA Tournament.

“He came into the [NBA Academy Africa] just a kid that wanted to grow and develop, and it’s just been a terrific story to see him evolve to where he is today,” said Roland Houston, the academy’s director.

It didn’t happen right away. Junior Joseph spent a year attending high school in Japan, then two years at the NBA Academy Africa in Senegal before finding his way to New Rochelle and Iona this past fall.

His motivation came from a close friend, Western Kentucky star sophomore Charles Bassey. The two grew up together, and once Bassey came to America and developed into a top high school prospect, Junior Joseph was convinced the sport was worth a real shot.

“I realized basketball can really take me far,” the 6-foot-9, 230-pound forward said this week over Zoom from Indianapolis, as Iona prepared to meet second-seeded Alabama in an East Region opening-round game Saturday afternoon. “I started working harder every day.”

Former NBA center Olumide Oyedeji of Nigeria, who has worked with the league on various initiatives in Africa, told Houston about Junior Joseph. He impressed Houston enough at a tryout to be invited to the academy.

When Rick Pitino took over at Iona last spring, Grizzlies center Gorgui Dieng, who played for him at Louisville, told him Junior Joseph was the best player at the academy. Dieng played with the kids at the academy from time to time, and Junior Joseph made a point of playing his hardest against him.

“I wanted to show I’m really good,” he said.

Junior Joseph was getting ready to commit to Wichita State when he heard from Pitino. He ended up choosing Iona instead, because of the opportunity he believed he would have to learn from a Hall of Fame coach, and he liked the idea of attending a small school.

“I want you to play on my team,” Junior Joseph recalled Pitino saying.

“I’m playing for you,” he responded.

“I can’t say no to him,” he added.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, embassies in Africa were closed. So Junior Joseph had trouble getting his visa to travel to the United States. For three months, he waited back home in Nigeria unsure of what would happen.

“I was really concerned I wasn’t going to get to Iona,” Junior Joseph said. “I was really scared to lose my opportunity.”

Eventually, the embassy in Nigeria opened, and he finally arrived on campus on Oct. 29. After quarantining, Junior Joseph quickly adapted. Just a month later, he scored 13 points in his first game — on the road against Big East foe Seton Hall. A week later, he tasted victory for the first time, producing his first double-double with 14 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks at Hofstra.

It was a sign of things to come. Junior Joseph was named the MAAC Rookie of the Year though Iona only played nine conference games due to the virus. He averaged 11.4 points, team-highs of 7.6 rebounds and 1.5 blocks, and shot a robust 59.5 percent from the field.

He did all that despite arriving late, dealing with several COVID-19 pauses and immersing himself in a new country with new teammates and new coaches. Pitino was always impressed by Junior Joseph’s body after coming out of quarantine. Unlike his teammates, he never put on extra weight. He spent the down time doing pushups and riding a bike.

“It was the damndest thing,” Pitino said. “We all joked about it.”

That’s just one of the reasons Pitino thinks this is only the start for him. He’s gifted, but also a very hard worker, determined to create a nice life for himself. He’s come so far without having much time to get settled.

“The best part about him: He’s nowhere near close to where he can get,” Pitino said.

Keys to victory

1. Control pace

Iona has no shot to pull off the shocker if the game is uptempo. The Gaels have to slow down Alabama, which plays at the ninth-fastest tempo in the country, and make it a half-court game. They don’t have the offensive firepower or athleticism to stay close if the score is in the 70s or 80s.

2. Ride Isaiah

Iona has to hope senior Isaiah Ross is on. Ross, the team’s leading scorer at 18.4 points per game, is capable of offensive outbursts, producing three 30-point games. A fourth would go a long way to a potential stunner.

3. Protect the paint

Alabama will either fire away from deep or attack the basket. The SEC Tournament champions avoid the mid-range game. Iona has to take away the paint as best it can and hope the Crimson Tide is off from deep. You can’t eliminate everything, especially against a superior opponent.

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