Kicking a ball around as a thirteen year-old under the hot sun in his native Cameroon, Grand Rapids Drive center Landry Nnoko returned home and was presented with a clear order from his mother: stop playing soccer.
While many of his friends enjoyed to play the game -- by far the most popular sport in the country, with nearly every village having a field -- Nnoko’s mother did not like the company he was keeping, nor did she like the fact that it would have kept him out of the house most of the day, and didn’t want to see him go down a bad path.
Around a year after that decision was made, Nnoko found a new love in the game of basketball. His cousin, current Houston Rockets forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, was well underway into a storied career at UCLA, and it inspired him to give it a try of his own.
“We had a basketball hoop go up in our neighborhood and I just started shooting. One year my cousin came back and he took me to the club where he had played. He was doing a camp and from that camp in South Africa I made it my goal to play basketball for a living,” Nnoko said.
His ability to pick up the game so quickly, paired with his size and familial connection, made him appealing as a potential high school prospect. After some consideration, he decided to come to the United States to pursue basketball and an education which led him to Montverde Academy, where Mbah a Moute and fellow NBA’ers Ben Simmons, D’Angelo Russell and Joel Embiid have called home.
Nnoko was excited for the opportunity that the United States offered and kept himself positive despite moving thousands of miles away from his home.
“It was a really great opportunity to come to the States because the country as far as the culture and the economy is way better over here,” Nnoko said. “I knew that coming into a new culture at such a young age was going to be tough, but I knew that I just had to keep my eyes on my goals and it would all work out.”
His commitment to the game and succeeding in the United States was unwavering, but that doesn’t mean the jump came without challenges.
“Some of the biggest challenges that I faced were just getting adjusted to the coaching and pop culture and all of that. The language was the first thing that I wanted to learn because I wanted to be able to understand what people were saying around me, so I invested a ton of time into that early on to make sure I learned as quickly as possible.”
He continued, “Another shock was the food; there were so many different flavors and it was such a change from what I was used to. As far as the people, it’s so diverse and there’s so many people with so many different ways of doing things, so after I learned the language things just started coming along with it.”
Nnoko was able to take the adjustments to the culture and to basketball in stride and by the time his senior year rolled around he was a three-star recruit with offers to Florida, Louisville and UCF among others.
He wound up landing in Clemson, South Carolina to play for Clemson University, where he would go on to start for three years and was named to the ACC All-Defensive team for his prowess as a shot blocker.
Though he was undrafted, he was able to start his professional career with Victoria Libertas Pesaro in Italy, an experience that benefited him both as a basketball player and as a person in general.
“I loved playing in Italy. A lot of guys aren’t used to seeing something different, but I know some of the living conditions and knew my way around things. Having the chance to play the game that I love and get paid for it, I would go back if I had to.”
Nnoko was able to play just over 23 minutes per game in Italy, scoring six points and grabbing seven rebounds per night. After averaging eight and five in his senior year at Clemson, he knew there was another gear to be unleashed and he has done just that this season in the G-League.
Scoring 15 points and pulling down nearly 11 rebounds, while blocking almost two shots per game, Nnoko has taken a big step forward to say the least and NBA rumors have swirled around him as the season has progressed.
“I would say that just being able to put it all together has been the reason for my production this year. The last few years were a work in progress where I would do one thing well but others would fall behind; I would block shots but not be able to stay on the court long, or I would start doing more on offense and my defense would fall behind. I worked on my game all summer and had the year in Italy under my belt and I’ve just been able to put it all together.”
Now on the precipice of his lifetime goal after first picking up a basketball in Cameroon, Nnoko knows that the opportunity is his for the taking.
“Making it to the NBA has been the biggest thing for me from day one, it’s been the plan. A bunch of people have been talking about it, my cousin was able to make it and seeing other guys like Joel [Embiid] making it, it’s within reach and I don’t want to be that guy that was almost there. I want to get there.”
Though the effort of coming to an entirely different culture and country was his and required large sacrifices along the way, Nnoko already has plans of how he can use gifts to help others.
“Making it to the NBA and then going back to help Cameroon definitely has been the plan all along. I went back to my neighborhood last summer and introduced some kids to the game and I’ve spoken with some of the people there about getting more kids involved in basketball. Going forward I’m going to have little camps and clinics and I want to make more people aware of the country I’m from in any way I can.”