Foreign Exchange: Arsalan Kazemi and Festus Ezeli Fight For Position

By: Gus Elvin / @gpelvin

Our first two trips have taken us through Canada and Germany, then Australia and  Senegal. In the latest Foreign Exchange, we hit Iran and Nigeria, by way of Houston and Nashville.

Arsalan Kazemi, Rice Owls (Iran)
6’7″ (2.01 m ) |  220 lbs (100 kg) | Forward

One of the best kept secrets in college basketball, Arsalan Kazemi of Rice is one of the nation’s top rebounders and one of the highest ranked mid-major NBA prospects. Kazemi, a junior, is the first Iranian-born to earn a scholarship to play Division I basketball (former Northern Iowa guard Ali Farokhmanesh, whose father is Iranian, was born in the States)  and leads the Rice Owls in both scoring (13.9 ppg) and rebounding (11.7 rpg).

If you haven’t heard of Kazemi, you are not alone.

The forward does not receive nearly the notoriety that some of the other top forwards receive, largely due to the fact that he plays at Rice and not at a more well-known basketball factory.

Kazemi has led the Owls to a 11-9 record this season as they look to challenge in C-USA behind Memphis and Marshall. Kazemi is a very versatile big man as he can cover a few different positions.

On the other end, he’s both an efficient interior scorer and elite rebounder who brings consistent energy to the floor.

While Kazemi does his work almost exclusively around the rim, he has made strides as a midrange shooter. He will need to add a perimeter jump shot if he wants to become a complete player at the next level, but for now Rice is plenty happy that hios dedication to the paint has left him with a sky high 63.3 percent field goal percentage.

Despite his lack of offensive versatility, someone will take a chance on Kazemi in the NBA because he already possesses elite rebounding ability and a soft touch, in addition to having one of the better motors of any big man in college basketball.

It’s tough to compare Kazemi to anyone because of his frame and unique game. At 6’7″ and 220 lbs, Kazemi has the ideal frame for a small forward mixed up with the skills and approach of a power forward.

Natural rebounder. Undersized. Motor. Rebounding. Reminds me a little of Paul Millsap (albeit a lighter version). While Millsap is bigger than Kazemi, the rebounding and defensive elements of their games are very similar as their rebounding fundamentals and defense line up. If Kazemi can add a perimeter game like Millsap has done over the last few seasons it will help him shed that “tweener” label and would help his stock as a pro prospect.

Arsalan has already shown he has some NBA talent and still has a lot of room for improvement. With no disrespect to Memphis Grizzlies center Hamed Haddadi, Arsalan Kazemi will soon become the new poster boy for Iranian basketball.

Festus Ezeli, Vanderbilt Commodores (Nigeria)
6’11″ (2.11 m)  |  255 lbs (116 kg)  |   Center

Like fellow African center Gorgui Dieng, Festus Ezeli arrived as a raw but talented prospect who was known originally for his defense. Last season as a junior Ezeli had his breakout as he increased his scoring average from 3.8 points to 13 points per game and his rebounding from 3 rebounds to 6 per contest. Ezeli also averaged 2.6 blocks per game, an average which ranked him 18th nationally.fes

These statistics are even more amazing when you consider that Ezeli only averaged 23 minutes a game, making him one of the more efficient and productive players in the nation. This season Ezeli has not had the greatest start as he already has served a 6 game suspension after reportedly accepting a meal and a hotel room from a Vanderbilt alumnus and missed time with MCL and PCL injuries that continue to limit his minutes and productivity.

That being said, Ezeli remains one of the top international players in the country and as he continues to get healthy expect him to start to play like the Festus Ezeli of last season, the Festus Ezeli that was selected as a Second Team All-SEC player.

As for right now, the averages of 7.6 points, 6.7 rebounds and 2 blocks in nine games played aren’t any fun to look at, but the Nigerian center remains one of the best big men in the SEC and his size, quickness and defensive tenacity make him an interesting prospect at the next level.

Vanderbilt, who are currently 14-5 on the season, have some high expectations, but those lofty expectations likely hinge on the play of Ezeli, who’s a difference maker on both ends of the floor for the Commodores. When Ezeli is healthy he is a rugged rebounder and defender who has really improved as a finisher on the offensive end in addition to being a guy capable of getting up and down the floor in transition.

Ezeli already has an NBA body and NBA athleticism but just needs to continue to prove himself offensively and work on passing and free throw shooting, two of his major weaknesses.

His biggest weakness at this point other than the woefully obvious free throw shooting numbers is his tendency to get in foul trouble early in games. Ezeli goes after every shot in his vicinity, which can land him in foul trouble early and limit his impact on a game. If Ezeli can play more under control and stay on the floor he will undoubtedly be more productive and most likely make Vanderbilt a much more complete team.

In terms of NBA comparisons I look at Al Horford of the Atlanta Hawks as a comparable player. Yes, Horford is much more polished offensively at this point than Ezeli, but Ezeli’s size and athleticism are comparable to the Hawks center.

I am not saying Ezeli will ever be the player Al Horford is—an All Star—but there are similar facets of their games, and I do see Ezeli as a guy who will have a successful career in the NBA as a center. Like the former Florida Gator, Festus Ezeli is a relentless rebounder, an efficient finisher around the bucket and can also can get up and down the floor because of his very underrated athleticism.

Ezeli is still a bit raw but his size, athleticism and physical tools should give him a very good chance to be a good player at the next level. Coming into the season Ezeli was getting first round buzz but with his suspension, injuries and early struggles, his stock has slipped a bit, and now he is rated by many scouting services as a late first round/early second round selection.

Ezeli’s injury-slowed start has kept him from getting comfortable with the Commodores this year, but if he can get back where he was just a season ago, the SEC and the rest of the nation is in serious trouble.