By Rob Scott / @robscott33
The number of British players in top level basketball is pretty small, but the nation’s professional diaspora is about to get a big addition, and a damn good one. Gabriel Olaseni found his way from London to Kansas for high school ball then played all four years of college for Iowa Hawkeyes.
Having finished his senior season as the Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year, Olaseni’s pro career is already looking pretty promising. He measured in at the Portsmouth Invitational at 2.05m (6’8.5″) barefoot but more importantly he has a 2.22m (7’3.5″) wingspan.
It’s not surprising that NBA teams are intrigued by the combination of length, energy and shot blocking, and Olaseni has worked out for virtually half the league, pre-draft, more than most players on the draft bubble. Not bad for someone who only swapped goalkeepers’ gloves for high-tops aged 14 and shot up seven inches in his late teens.
Olaseni is the archetypal modern centre - a springy, athletic rim protector who gets up and down the floor quicker than most players his size and outworks everyone. In European terms think Stephane Lasme or Shane Lawal as good style comps - Lasme needs no introduction and the Lawal is allegedly on the brink of signing a huge deal with Barcelona. NBA-wise, a guy like John Henson has shown someone with the same slim body type can succeed, even though it’s been reported that Olaseni is looking to add about five kilograms (12 pounds) to his current 102kg (223 pounds) by the time the season starts.
He racked up 1.6 blocks per game in his senior season in 18.6 mins per game. His long arms mean he can disrupt many more shots than show up in the stats. The ability to stick with perimeter players on the switch is one of the most fundamentally important elements of big man defense in the modern game and he is more ready than most college bigs to fill this role.
It’s true that his offensive game needs polish, but the transition from college to the pros should be helpful - a quicker, more floor-spaced offense with a quality point guard should be able to get him those dump-offs and lobs out of pick and roll that guys like Marcus Slaughter survive on offensively. He’s also a real nuisance to keep off the offensive glass, with a nose for angles and the long arms to reach for the ball even if it’s out of his immediate area.
He looks certain to end up on a Summer League roster and the opportunities should end up presenting themselves, particularly now he’ll be freed from the constraints of the glacial pace of college basketball.
We caught up with Gabe through email as he continues to prepare for his first professional season:
Euroleague Adventures: Starting at the beginning, just take us through how you got recruited. How did a kid from London make it to high school in Kansas and then to Iowa to play college ball?
Gabriel Olaseni: “I was lucky enough that one of my first Coaches Mike Speranza knew several high school coaches in America. I chose to attend Sunrise Christian Academy for a year because of what they offered on and off the court in terms of spiritual and academic development. Iowa was the first team to recruit me heavily and watch me play so I felt very comfortable with the coaching staff.”
ELA: We understand you were a lot smaller until you were around 17, then you shot up around five inches to 6’10”. Was it tough to adapt, to learn to play against other bigs who were more experienced playing that position?
“Initially it wasn’t because I was still playing in London where there aren’t a lot of big guys. I think once I came to America it was difficult to adapt but only for a short time.”
ELA: We heard a few teams in England even passed on you before you had the growth spurt. Did that motivate you, to prove yourself?
“I think when anyone doubts your abilities it makes you work harder to prove yourself. So definitely not being picked for opportunities that others were getting was motivational.”
ELA: Who do you model your game around? What players would you like to be compared to as you look for your first pro contract?
“My favourite player is Serge Ibaka. I really like the way he’s improved every year that he’s been in the NBA his shooting ability and his impact on the defensive end is something I admire.”
ELA: You’re known primarily as a really strong defensive player in college: blocking shots, being mobile across the paint, rebounding… What do you see as your strengths as a player? How do you see yourself helping a pro team?
“I think my energy level overall. I think playing hard all the time is a skill that I have whether that’s running the floor every time or showing on every ball-screen. Energy is something I bring to every practice and game.”
ELA: What can you improve on going from college ball to the pros?
“My offensive skill set. In college I scored by running the floor, offensive rebounds and plays from my teammates. I’ve been working hard to polish my offensive game and add new moves.”
ELA: How was your experience at the Portsmouth Invitational? It’s an event packed with NBA personnel as well as a lot of execs from European teams. Do you think playing there helped your chances of landing somewhere good next season?
“I really think it did. Playing well against high level competition really helped me get my name out there amongst pro teams. It was a great experience.”
ELA: What has been the process since you played your final college game? Tell us how you go from playing in the NCAA Tourney to signing with an agent, going to workouts, getting your name out there? I guess you’ve been pretty busy since March?
“Yeah I signed with Pensack Sports after I met the group in Portsmouth and following that I’ve been either at my school, or Impact in Las Vegas working out. Between these two places I’ve been travelling to different NBA teams and doing workouts so I’ve been very busy.”
ELA: Finally, what’s your main goal over the summer, looking ahead to your pro career?
“The main goal is to get drafted, if this isn’t possible I definitely want to play in one of the NBA Summer Leagues and get invited to a training camp.”