Note: The following appears in the December issue of Orange: The Experience. For full access to all of the publication’s content, join IPTAY today by calling 864-656-2115.
By Kelly Gramlich // Athletic Communications
In the most recent global count, it was determined that 265 million people play soccer worldwide. Africa, as a region, has the most soccer players in the world according to FIFA.
In the African country of Cameroon, where senior Landry Nnoko was born and raised, soccer is a way of life, while basketball is simply an afterthought.
Nnoko, much like most young boys in Cameroon, began playing soccer at an early age. He owned a pair of Jordan shoes and knew about the man whose logo he wore on his feet, but that was the extent of his basketball knowledge. However, Nnoko’s neighbor had a basketball hoop, and one day, he got the urge to go shoot.
“I just started shooting a little and then it became a habit,” remembered Nnoko. “I began playing for a club team, and I kept getting better and better.”
It did not take long for the tall and athletic Nnoko to begin to turn some heads on basketball courts in his native country. He was invited to an NBA camp in Senegal, where he played well. Following his performance at camp, Nnoko and others began to realize that he had a knack for the game.
“When I returned home from camp, my dad thought that I should go to the United States to study and play basketball. So I moved to the United States when I was 15 to attend Montverde Academy.”
Montverde Academy in Orlando, Fla., is known as a breeding ground for college athletes. The boarding school has produced basketball players that have attended numerous Division I schools.
As Nnoko honed his skills at Montverde, head coach Brad Brownell and the rest of the Clemson coaching staff began to take notice and were the first school to offer him a full scholarship.
“Coach Brownell and (then assistant) coach (Rick) Ray were at my high school practices and were always in the gym,” recalled Nnoko. “When I visited Clemson, the campus was pretty, the people were really nice and I knew wanted to play in the ACC.”
It did not take long for the 6’10” Nnoko to make an impact for the Tigers. As a freshman during the 2012-13 season, he appeared in all 31 games as a backup for then senior forward Devin Booker.
“When I first got to Clemson, I needed to learn how to be physical and really play the post,” admitted Nnoko. “Devin guided me through that. He was a good leader and a good guy to follow.”
As Nnoko developed and grew as a player, his ability to block shots became apparent to every Tiger fan, coach and opponent. As a sophomore in 2013-14, he totaled 69 blocks in 35 games, an average of nearly two blocks per game. He was a pivotal part of a team that reached the Final Four of the NIT that season, starting 34 of 35 games and averaging 6.5 points per game and 6.2 rebounds per game to go along with his shot-blocking presence.
“That year was the most fun I ever had playing basketball, so far,” stated Nnoko. “Playing with those guys, we were so confident going into games. We knew we were a really good team and could win any game.”
As a junior in 2014-15, Nnoko picked up right where he left off, blocking 63 shots in 31 games for the Tigers, again posting an average of two blocks per game, good for third best in the ACC. When asked about his shot-blocking prowess, Nnoko attributed it to his competitive nature and his instincts.
“I’m so competitive,” stated Nnoko. “I would rather a team get a three than come in the paint and make a layup. It makes me upset when a team scores in the paint. A lot of it is instinct. Blocking shots comes naturally to me.”
Not only does Nnoko have a knack for swatting basketballs into bleachers, it is also his favorite part of the sport. Most basketball players would cite an offensive action like dunking or hitting a pivotal shot as their favorite thing to do on the court, but for Nnoko, nothing brings him more joy than sending someone else’s shot attempt away from the basket.
“Getting a big block is my favorite things to do on the court. It gets me going and gets everyone else going, too.”
So far this season, Nnoko has continued his high pace of block shots. He has well over 150 career blocks to place him in the top 10 on Clemson’s all-time career list.
Nnoko also brings a plethora of experience to this year’s team, as he is a veteran of more than 100 career games and has logged over 2,000 minutes in a Tiger uniform. He brings an established inside presence to this year’s team, who is poised to climb up the ACC ladder.
“I think Landry is in a good place as a senior who wants to go out the right way,” said Brownell. “He’s worked extremely hard and he had a great approach this fall. He’s certainly been one of the leaders on the team right now. Defensively, he’s very good. He can block shots, hedge ball screens and he understands our system and how to help other guys.”
Experience almost always produces maturity, growth and knowledge. Nnoko will be the first person to say he has learned a lot in his time in Tigertown.
“I learned about hard work,” explained Nnoko. “During my three years, there are a lot of people who have come and gone and given up. Coach Brownell has pushed me every possession of my career. There’s no easy way in life, both on the court and in the classroom. And on the court, I think I’ve gotten smarter.”
In the classroom, Nnoko is set to graduate with a degree in economics in May. Earning a degree from a top-20 public university while simultaneously playing basketball at a high level in the ACC is no easy feat. Nnoko has every right to be proud of his accomplishments.
“When I graduate, it’s going to feel really good. That degree will mean a lot to me. To earn an economics degree from Clemson is a big deal.”
However, Nnoko’s success matters in more ways than the average fan would realize. More and more African basketball players are beginning to venture to the United States to play college basketball. Two of Nnoko’s childhood friends from Cameroon, Michel Enanga (Coastal Carolina) and Roger Moute a Bidias (California), are also finding basketball and educational success in the United States. Joel Embiid, also a native of Cameroon, played basketball at Kansas and was the top overall pick in the 2014 NBA draft.
African countries are producing excellent college basketball players who either go on to play professionally in the NBA or pursue other careers with the degrees they earn from American universities. When a continent that is fixated with soccer produces the NBA’s top draft pick, that is a sign that the future of basketball in Africa is bright, and Nnoko is an example of that future.
Tiger fans are happy that Nnoko decided to defy the Cameroon status quo by putting down the soccer ball and picking up a basketball, and he is happy he did, too.
“At Clemson, you can tell the coaches really care about you. It’s not just about basketball. They are always asking about my family and how I’m doing in the classroom. The relationships I’ve made with my teammates and coaches will last a long time.”
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