Tennessee brought in six newcomers this past offseason, including four recruits in the 2019 signing class and two transfers. In our four-part series, we’re giving Vol fans a chance to get to know Tennessee’s freshmen players better.
In Part I, we took a look at the Vols’ longest-standing committed player in their 2019 class, small forward Davonte Gaines. In Part II, we looked at local standout Drew Pember from Bearden High School in Knoxville. Now, we take a look at a potential steal in Tennessee’s 2019 class, forward Olivier Nkamhoua.
When Tennessee first targeted Olivier Nkamhoua, he wasn’t a household name in the recruiting world. Coaches at high-major programs had started to catch wind of him, but he was far from a highly-coveted and highly-ranked prospect in the 2019 class.
That changed in a hurry.
Nkamhoua was born in Helsinki, Finland and didn’t move to the United States till the summer of 2017. Not long after that move, he ended up breaking his foot and had to sit out for a long time. Because of that, he was off the radar for quite some time and didn’t get to show off his skills in the States in front of scouts.
The 6-foot-8, 210-pound forward played at Bishop Walsh High School in Cumberland, Maryland and started to grab the attention of high-major schools in the summer of 2018. Teams like Tennessee, Pittsburgh, Illinois, Maryland, and Minnesota all took an interest in Nkamhoua, and he was suddenly a very heavily-recruited prospect.
I spoke with Dan Prete, Nkamhoua’s head coach at Bishop Walsh, about Nkamhoua’s recruitment, the kind of player Nkamhoua is, and what Vols fans should expect from the Finnish forward.
According to Prete, he knew from the start that Nkamhoua was really good. The problem was that teams just hadn’t seen him play enough because of his broken foot.
“We all knew that he was going to be pretty good, but not enough people had seen him because of that injury,” Prete said. “We knew this was going to be a hectic senior year. Sometime around mid-January, when we played Oak Hill and he had a really good game against (four-star center and Illinois signee) Kofi Cockburn, that’s kinda where the national scene started to get involved with him. He had proved he could play at that level.
“From there, it got kinda crazy.”
Nkamhoua went on a whirlwind tour in his final semester at Bishop Walsh, getting contacted from coaches left and right and planning visits to see different teams.
In the end, Tennessee won out, and that was due in large part because of the relationship Tennessee associate head coach — then just an assistant coach — Michael Schwartz founded with Nkamhoua.
“Mike Schwartz did a wonderful job of building the relationship and not being overbearing with it, but at the same time we knew he was there,” Prete explained. “Coach Barnes did a great job of stepping in once Coach Schwartz established that relationship. They did a really good job. They were very understanding that he was a senior in the spring trying to finish his season, and they didn’t want to overwhelm him. But at the same time, they wanted to get their points through.
“I was very impressed with how professional they acted.”
So what drew Tennessee’s coaches to Nkamhoua on the court? His versatility and ability to not only guard multiple positions, but also the potential he has to play several positions offensively as well.
“His versatility is pretty good. He’s pretty strong for a kid,” Prete stated. “He can not only defend multiple positions, but he’s close to being able to play multiple positions. He’s not far away from being able to get a defensive rebound and bring the ball down the court almost as a point forward. It may take him a little time at the college level because it’s full of bigger, faster, stronger kids, but that’s coming quick. He can post up, he can knock down a three, so his versatility is the biggest asset of his game.”
Back in Helsinki, Nkamhoua was taller than the average basketball player, but he wasn’t the 6-foot-8 post player he is now. He filled in as more of a bigger guard, and he was asked to handle the ball more over in Finland.
Then, he hit a growth spurt.
Nkamhoua not only had to adjust to his newfound height in the US, but he had to adjust to a different style of play in the States. The speed and just overall design of the US style of basketball is different than the European style, but Nkamhoua was a quick learner.
“He was explosive with us. He was a sponge. He wanted more, and he always questioning ‘Why am I doing this? How am I doing this? What am I doing this for?'” Prete stated. “He always had that student mentality, and I don’t expect anything different. He’s got that built in ‘I have to work’ type of attitude.”
Prete believes one of the biggest adjustments for Nkamhoua will be the speed of the SEC. Even though Bishop Walsh played an “elite schedule” — as he put it — for a high school team, the speed of the SEC in basketball is still much higher.
But once the talented forward makes that adjustment and gets used to the strength program at UT, Prete believes big things are on the horizon.
“I think once Olivier starts working with a college strength coach, he’s going to blow up,” he said. “I think it’s just a matter of time. When it’ll happen, I can’t tell you. But it’ll happen pretty soon.”
The opportunity for Nkamhoua to “blow up” may happen sooner rather than later. The talented freshman was already going to be counted on to contribute this season, but with the recent news that Arizona State transfer Uros Plavsic’s immediate eligibility waiver has been denied by the NCAA, Nkamhoua may be counted on even more in UT’s frontcourt.
That chance to play early appealed to Nkamhoua, but he was also aware early on his recruitment to Tennessee that two-time SEC Player of the Year Grant Williams might still be on the roster when he signed.
Ultimately, Williams declared for the 2019 NBA Draft and was taken in the first round by the Boston Celtics. But Nkamhoua saw the development Williams received at Tennessee, and that only further solidified his decision to sign on with the Vols.
“The good thing is, he’s got a chance to go in and play some minutes and take some lumps early. The bad thing is, you know, he’s going to have to take some lumps,” Prete said of Nkamhoua playing significant minutes as a freshman. “Luckily, in my opinion, the staff at Tennessee does such a great job of developing players that they’re going to be competitive even with a young group, and I think they have some good building blocks for the future.
“That’s one of the reasons Olivier chose Tennessee. The developmental side of it, whether he was going to get to play behind Grant Williams and those guys or play in place of them, he kinda looked at is as a win-win situation. If he got to play behind them and learn from them, great. If he didn’t, well, he gets to learn from the guys that taught them.”
Prete calls Nkamhoua “strong and athletic” for his age, but he says the young forward would benefit greatly from the strength and conditioning program at Tennessee. That’s already looking like it’s paying dividends for the freshman, as he’s already added a few pounds of muscle in his first few months on campus and is up to 224 pounds.
But Nkamhoua’s maturity goes beyond just his physical appearance and strength. Just like with Grant Williams several years ago, Nkamhoua is very mature off the court, too.
“It doesn’t feel like you’re talking to a teenager,” Prete said when describing Nkamhoua outside of basketball. “You can have a conversation with him about different things, and he’s open to new things. He might talk about what’s going on in the world, and he can hold a conversation about that, which you can’t say about a lot of kids his age.”
For coaches, comparing their current or former players to other players they’ve coached or current or former professional players is always a fine line. Giving a comparison is a good way of providing a baseline of knowledge for fans about the new player. On the other hand, comparing a current player to someone in the NBA or a former professional standout is dangerous because it could come across as putting astronomical expectations on a player who has yet to prove himself.
Dan Prete doesn’t want to do that with Nkamhoua, but he couldn’t help to point to one of the NBA’s rising stars when looking for a comparison to the type of player Nkamhoua can be.
“I would never tell him this because I didn’t want him to feel that good, but I really think he’s a Giannis (Antetokounmpo) type of player,” Prete said. “(Giannis) probably started handling the ball a little bit, then they put him in the post. Now you watch him, and he’s able to bring the ball down the court a little bit, and he’s able to shoot and do more things. At the same time, you still see some of his flaws where you go, ‘He’s gotta work on that.’
“That type of guy, to me, that style of a new hybrid of a three-four-five guy or whatever we’re gonna call it now, I think that’s pretty close to what (Nkamhoua) is. He can play a lot of different positions, and he’s going to get better at all of them soon.”
Antetokounmpo was a first-round draft pick by the Milwaukee Bucks in the 2013 NBA Draft. Antetokounmpo’s early NBA career showed promise, but it was clear he had a long way to go. He averaged 6.8 points and 4.4 rebounds as a rookie, 12.7 points and 6.7 rebounds in his second year, and 16.9 points and 7.7 rebounds in his third season. He was averaging 4.3 assists by this third season in the league as well.
But by his fourth year in the NBA, Antetokounmpo was starting to make waves.
The “Greek Freak” was named an NBA All-Star in his fourth year in the league, averaging 22.9 points, 8.8 rebounds, and 5.4 assists. The last two years prior to this season, Antetokounmpo has averaged a double-double throughout the entire season, and he was voted the league MVP for the 2018-19 season, averaging 27.7 points, 12.5 rebounds, 5.9 assists, and 1.5 blocks a game in 32.8 minutes.
Prete isn’t saying that Nkamhoua will be the next Giannis, nor is he saying Tennessee will get the same type of production from him as the Bucks have gotten from the Greek Freak. But the way Nkamhoua plays and the type of versatility he brings is reminiscent to what scouts and analysts saw from Antetokounmpo overseas before he came to the NBA.
It remains to be seen what type of impact Nkamhoua will have for the Vols as a freshman, but he has a great deal of potential and versatility. Tennessee will need him to contribute this season, and UT’s coaches were high on him over the summer.
Nkamhoua has the ability to surprise people in his first year on UT’s campus, and Tennessee will need him to be a contributor this season in order to reach their goals.