At 14 years old, Yannick Nzosa found himself boarding an airplane alone, saying goodbye to his family in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and en route to Rome, Italy. He was embarking on a journey in 2017 that was about more than basketball. With the weight of his family and country on his shoulders, Nzosa headed north to The Eternal City to join Stella Azzurra, an amateur basketball club in the country’s Serie B league.
“It was really difficult for me to leave my family. My mom encouraged me to go to Italy to follow my path. She knew it would be difficult at first, alone on a new continent, but she told me, You need to go there and work hard! It was difficult when I first arrived in Italy, getting used to the cold weather was complicated but I finally managed to deal with it,” says Nzosa, in his native French, through a translator.
“Sometimes, after a tough practice, I felt homesick. I was thinking about my family and I needed to hear their voices. I was lucky enough to have some good people taking care of me, helping me.”
“When he left for Italy, he was very emotional. He cried when I joined him one day after his arrival, because he told me it was something big for him to leave his country to go to Italy,” adds Joe Lolonga, a mentor from back home and now his manager, who is also communicating in French through a translator. “It’s a big opportunity for him to help his family and I told him, The way you can make us all proud is by playing really well and defend the culture and the color of Congo by staying self-disciplined, by working hard, by staying focused [and] by listening.”
Soccer is the main sport in the Congo and Nzosa grew up playing goalkeeper. As he got taller and taller, friends began suggesting that he give basketball a try. But he didn’t really have any interest. One day an elder from his neighborhood in Kinshasa offered to introduce him to a gentleman who runs a local basketball program. He suggested that Nzosa, 13 years old at the time, just give it a try. The teenager finally agreed. The hoops team was operated by Lolonga as part of his non-profit organization called New Generation, which serves over 100 kids.
“In my neighborhood, everybody was telling me how easy it would be for me to play basketball. You are so tall, you will just have to go under the basket and score…And that very first month, it was a struggle. I was stressed because I didn’t know how to play the game. I was on the bench all the time, just watching my teammates. I tried to do things but technically I was too limited. I was frustrated, really frustrated. People had told me basketball would come easily for me and I told myself, I have to train hard,” says Nzosa.
“I wanted to emulate what [Serge] Ibaka is doing in Congo and help my people. When I was young, since I’m tall, people were calling me Mutombo Dikembe. If you are tall in Congo, they call you Mutombo Dikembe,” says Nzosa while laughing. “It’s not an easy thing to be tall in my neighborhood. People were making fun of me. But then playing basketball made me feel good about myself so I didn’t mind being tall anymore.”
Among the biggest challenges for kids looking to pursue the game in the Congo is access to courts. Lolonga has begun implementing a long-term strategy that he hopes will ensure that future generations are able to train—or just play—on quality courts across the country.
“We have no indoor basketball court in the [whole] country and most outdoor playgrounds are not safe and regulated. Their layouts aren’t proper. I’m the vice president of the Congolese basketball federation and we want to popularize basketball all over Congo,” says Lolonga. “The main focus is on the national basketball team—we need to win in order to gain followers. We are getting there slowly, and if everything goes according to our plans, we want to develop a pro league to keep our young players from having to go overseas. That way we will be able to get more sport grants, attract more sponsorship to build basketball courts all over Congo. That’s the vision we have at the federation and we are committed to growing our sport.”
Adds Nzosa, “I was lucky enough to play for Joe’s team; we have a court where we can practice. But playing basketball in Congo is difficult. There are many soccer fields and it’s easy to play soccer. Basketball is another story. You can’t really practice and play pickup games. It’s difficult to find basketball shoes, so we had to practice in our everyday shoes. It was a struggle to find a playground.”
After a couple of years in Italy, Nzosa relocated to Spain for the opportunity to play in the best hoops league in Europe, Liga ACB, joining Unicaja Málaga. Nzosa made his debut with the senior team in September of 2020 at the age of 16. After getting some minutes during the preseason, the 6-10 forward didn’t see the court until his third game of the regular season.
It didn’t take long before he was tying or setting new records, though. In his debut, he finished with 10 points after going a perfect 5-5 from the floor, to go along with three rebounds and a couple of blocks. He joined Ricky Rubio and Luka Doncic as the only 16-year-olds in the Spanish league’s history to score at least 10 points in a game. A couple of weeks later he became the youngest player in the prestigious league’s history to finish with at least 4 blocks in a game, surpassing Kristaps Porzingis’ previous record.
“To be honest, I never really thought about breaking those records when I started to play this season. I didn’t even think I was good enough to play. When I see the names on that list, it makes me want to work harder because it’s an honor to be mentioned side by side with those great players who are way better than me,” says Nzosa. “I don’t really like it when people try to compare me to those guys. The only thing I know is that I’m working the right way and I need to keep on working to get to where they are—that dream of playing in the NBA.”
Two months later, what once felt like the wildest of dreams when he boarded that flight to Italy now began to look like a very attainable goal. ESPN dropped its first mock draft for the 2022 NBA Draft in late December. And there, listed at No. 5, was Yannick Nzosa. ESPN updated its list in April of this year and this time Yannick had moved up one spot to No. 4. Of course, those are just ever-evolving opinions. There’s still a long way to go between now and then. Nonetheless, it was a strong validation that all the sacrifices, relocations and countless hours were indeed paying off. Except, if you ask Nzosa about it, he’d tell you it’s one subject he isn’t invested in spending too much energy on at the moment.
“To tell you the truth, I don’t really pay any attention to this. It’s great but I’m not really focused on that. They are just predictions. For me, not only do I want to go to the NBA, but I want to play in the League for a long time,” he says. “I want to work as much as I can so that when I go to the NBA, I can really show what I can do. A lot of friends keep on mentioning those mock drafts, and they tell me, Don’t forget about me when you are in the League. I don’t like to talk about this; the goal is to be ready when my name is called.”
Leaving home at such a young age has exposed Nzosa to so many cultures and languages. Only 17 years old, he speaks five different languages already. And he’s learning English, so it’s bound to be six very soon. He studied French back home, since it’s regarded as the official language in the DRC, but also grew up speaking Lingala, the native Bantu language. His parents also spoke to him in Portuguese growing up and therefore he understands it, although he says he’s gotten rusty at speaking it since it’s been a while. Then there’s Italian and Spanish, which he learned over the past 3+ years while kick starting his professional career in Europe. Not only does he have as much upside as anyone in that 2022 class, you also won’t find a prospect with as much of a well-rounded résumé away from the court either.
Some of the international players in the NBA have begun to take notice of Nzosa. Pau Gasol called him one day and they ended up spending a good amount of time on the phone. The two-time NBA champ offered some advice and answered questions from Yannick, who was eager to learn more about him and his journey. Clippers forward Serge Ibaka, a native of the Congo himself, has sent messages of encouragement through Nzosa’s Málaga teammate and captain Carlos Suarez—Ibaka and Suarez were teammates when Ibaka played a few games for Real Madrid during the 2011 NBA lockout.
Nzosa is already giving back to the kids of the same program he was once a part of as well. Lolonga points out that Yannick has been sending the basketball gear he’s gotten in Italy and Spain back home to the kids in the New Generation program—sending basketball sneakers, tees and shorts. He’s already a role model in the Congo to those closely examining his ascension while looking to one day follow in his footsteps.
“Ibaka is the reference for me. He is Congolese [and] in Congo he helps people. He is an example to follow. I see a little bit of myself in him, in the way he plays defense [and] how he excels as a pick and roll finisher,” says Nzosa. “[I’m] a player who is fast and gives 100 percent. I’m good on pick and roll plays. I can defend the 1, the 2 and the 3. Physically, I’m not that great—I really need to build up my body, get stronger. I play with a lot of energy [though]. I leave everything on the court.”
Photos via Getty.
Additional Reporting by Pascal Giberne.