NBA DRAFT 2021

Who is Usman Garuba, the 2021 NBA Draft's 23rd pick?

We profile 19-year-old Real Madrid and Spain power forward Usman Garuba, who has been chosen by the Houston Rockets as the 23rd pick in the 2021 NBA Draft.

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Who is Usman Garuba
Angel Martinez Euroleague Basketball via Getty

A good summary of where 19-year-old power forward Usman Garuba is at right now was provided by Sergio Scariolo, the Spain head coach and, until the end of last season, an assistant at NBA franchise the Toronto Raptors: “He’s still got to get a handle on the mechanisms of the game, but at the same time he possesses a capacity to pull off plays that not everyone has in their locker.” It’s the first time Scariolo has coached Garuba with Spain, but he had already got to know him from another viewpoint, that of team-mate, courtesy of his son, Alessandro. Scariolo Jr played with Garuba in the Spain team that won the Under-18 European Championship in summer 2019, together with Santi Aldama. “The experience of going to the Games will stand Usman in very good stead, because the need to adapt to another world is basically what awaits him when he makes the move to the NBA,” Scariolo added. However, having been selected by the Houston Rockets as the 23rd pick in the first round of the 2021 draft, Garuba will likely have to negotiate his exit conditions with Madrid, although he is still very keen to play in the US.

In many ways, comparisons between the NBA-bound Garuba and the Giannis Antetokounmpo that landed in the US in 2013 don’t stand up to scrutiny. There are clear differences in terms of their development and competitive experience - the Spaniard is far further along than the Greek was - and the course of their lives up to that point. However, what unites them is an iron will to repay their parents for the sacrifices they made as migrants seeking to improve the fortunes of their family, setting off on a tough, uncertain adventure from Africa which, finally, has opened up new doorways of opportunity for them - including one leading to the world of professional basketball. For the parents of Garuba and Antetokounmpo, that journey started in Nigeria, motivated by a desire to escape inequality and a lack of opportunities; motivated by dreams of a better life.

A hoops hero who initially dreamed of soccer stardom

Usman’s father, Mustapha, and his mother, Betty, arrived in Spain at the end of the 90s, via Belgium, having travelled from Benin City, in the south of Nigeria. In Madrid, where Usman was born on 9 March 2002, they set up home in Villaverde, to the south of the capital, before work took them to Azuqueca de Henares, in the neighbouring Guadalajara province. Mustapha began working at a factory belonging to the breadmakers Bimbo, while Betty took up a position in the town council’s employment office. In 2004, Betty gave birth to a second son, Sediq, who today is a physical, 17-year-old small forward who in June played a key role in Real Madrid’s win over Barcelona in the final of the EuroLeague Next Generation Tournament. He possesses a degree of character and energy that clearly comes with the family name. Their third child is a daughter, 11-year-old Uki Garuba, who plays basketball too. As is also the case with Antetokounmpo, it’s a sport that won over Usman at the expense of soccer. He wanted to be a goalkeeper, but there were no spaces left when he went to sign up and, in 2011, he opted to shoot hoops at the Azuqueca Municipal School, where the man who discovered him, basketball coordinator David Serrano, played a crucial role in his first steps in the game.

Garuba added to Real Madrid under-13s at age of just 11

Just two years later, in October 2013, Real Madrid chose him, as Garuba tends to put it. Los Blancos’ youth set-up only has teams starting at the under-13s level, but although he was still just 11, that didn’t prevent Madrid’s doors from opening to him. An exceptional case. It was the beginning of a career in which his lightning-fast development has seen him break several age records. He still has plenty of room to grow out on the court, but psychologically he has an advantage over most of the players who have been picked in this draft: he has been competing, and making his mark, at the elite level. His experience of the Games in Tokyo, of finals in the Liga ACB and Copa del Rey in Spain and of a knife-edge EuroLeague playoffs series against Anadolu Efes, places him in another competitive stratosphere. Although one hesitates to compare him with the unparalleled Luka Doncic, it’s reminiscent of where the Slovenian was when he moved to the NBA. The path taken and methodology followed in a Real Madrid youth system run by ex-international Alberto Angulo have been the same. A successful model that works and attracts potential new stars every season.

Garuba dreams of visiting Nigeria, the land of his parents and of his family, a trip he has not yet been able to embark on because of his busy summers, always spent with age-group Spain teams and now, for the first time, with the senior side at the Olympics, at just 19. An early highlight in a career that has consistently been ahead of schedule. At 14 he was already pretty much as tall as he is now, seven foot. He has always imposed his physique, his athletic capacity and his energy on the game, but since he was a kid he has also developed outstanding coordination in his long arms and legs, exceptional ball handling and passing ability, and a knack for being in position to grab hold of rebounds, before carrying the ball from one end of the court to another and plunging it into the opposition hoop. His intelligence stood out from a young age - something which helped him to understand the game more quickly than some of his team-mates.

Garuba a player always in search of ways to improve

More than just a youth-basketball flat-track bully, Garuba quickly showed a passion for the game that sees him watch matches obsessively in search of ways to improve, in search of a movement to imitate, a skill to add to his repertoire. He places demands on himself that have affected him when he has missed and which, in recent months, he has begun to manage better with outside help. So many times he has been seen on the Real Madrid bench berating himself for a bad period in a game. “At times we’ve tried to squeeze too much out of him because we’ve needed him,” his Madrid coach, Pablo Laso, admitted when Garuba was still only 18. He almost always responded, however.

Deal with your mistakes and move on. That’s the message as he seeks to continue what has been a constant process of taking new territory in his stride. Now, the NBA; previously, meteoric leaps in age category which, for example, saw him win the Under-16 European Championship as tournament MVP at just 14 - a feat unheard of in European basketball. In the final of that competition, he pulled off a triple-double (15 points, 11 rebounds and 10 blocks), something managed only by Dario Saric and Ricky Rubio in the previous decade. It’s been a career path characterised by the breaking of moulds, such as when he registered 32 points in the final of the ACB Minicopa or made his debut for the Madrid first team in October 2018 at just 16 years and seven months old, very close to Doncic’s 16 years and two months. Or when he won the European title with Spain Under-18s despite being a year younger, or when he was the youngest player, ahead of Doncic and Rubio, to manage a double-double in the Liga ACB. That year, 2019, he also won the EuroLeague Next Generation Tournament.

Despite his evident shyness when it comes to dealing with the media, Garuba takes on the challenge without blinking, one interview after the other. It’s reminiscent of the way manages to keep on going and going out on the court, at a pace most of his adversaries wouldn’t even dream of. That, rather than his size, is his great physical advantage. Intensity and energy, an engine that propels him forward and allows him to change the momentum of almost any game with the ferocity of his rebounding. Or by defending against a point guard like EuroLeague MVP Vasilije Micic throughout the court. Or by matching up against any of the five opposition players. Or by blocking shots left, right and centre. Or…

Garuba is a high-octane player with huge competitive hunger who is only getting better and better, as he focuses on expressing himself eloquently on the court, on reading the game and the spaces and, above all, on improving his three-point shooting. It’s an area where he has come on leaps and bounds in his technique and speed of execution, and this gives him another dimension as a power forward, within just two seasons (one interrupted by covid-19) of fully establishing himself as a member of Madrid’s first team.

Garuba is pressured by Avi Koki Schafer during Spain's Tokyo 2020 clash with Japan.

The 'rising star' of the Liga ACB and the EuroLeague

The EuroLeague is the world’s second greatest club competition and the Liga ACB is the best domestic league outside the NBA. Garuba has just been named the ‘rising star’ in both, and although his impact doesn’t only translate to pure numbers, his 24 points, 12 rebounds and points index rating of 30 against the European champions, Anadolu Efes, in a key EuroLeague playoffs game, do serve to sum him up pretty well. That night we witnessed the howling of a wolf marking his territory at a time when his team were under threat and when his colleagues needed him the most.

In the Liga ACB, he has averaged 5.8 points and 5.3 rebounds in 18 minutes, bettering that in the playoffs: 6.7 (37% on three pointers) and 5.6. And in the EuroLeague he’s registered 3.9 points and four rebounds in 16:17 minutes on the court (and hit 34% of his three-point attempts), with that ability of his to make the opponents seem smaller in defensive areas and, in attack, to first withstand the impact and then attack the rim. They are qualities that make him a good pick-and-roll player and, given he’s a lad who’s constantly improving, a very good one in the future. He’s also strong in his movement from the weak side of the court to help the ball carrier to find a final pass, something he watched his former Madrid team-mate Gabriel Deck, now with Oklahoma City Thunder, do very well. Garuba has racked up impressive figures that promise to multiply in seasons to come… but it seems we won’t be watching that happen in Europe. Garuba will now, though, have to negotiate with Madrid, at least a five-year deferred payment of his exit clause, - estimated to be three million euros - but he is determined to continue his mission in America.