Always a Warrior: Festus Ezeli Has Battled His Way into Golden State's Future

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistSeptember 25, 2015

HOUSTON, TX - MAY 25:  Festus Ezeli #31 of the Golden State Warriors dunks against the Houston Rockets in the third quarter during Game Four of the Western Conference Finals of the 2015 NBA Playoffs at Toyota Center on May 25, 2015 in Houston, Texas.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Golden State Warriors center Festus Ezeli had dreams when he left his native Nigeria for the United States in July 2004—but they weren't of the hoops variety.

Already a high school graduate at the age of 14, his preferred path started in the classroom and would ideally end in the medical field.

"The plan was to come here to get a better education," Ezeli told Bleacher Report. "When I went to school, I wanted to be a doctor."

But the teenager's 6'5" frame, which has since swollen to 6'11" and 265 pounds, appeared built for the hardwood. A nudge from his uncle, Dr. Chuk Ndulue, pushed the young Ezeli onto the court, and what transpired next was a crash course in Basketball 101 that elevated him to the highest level of the sport.

With three NBA seasons under his belt, a world title to his name and a potentially lucrative contract coming his way shortly, he's now living the dream he never knew he had.

Planting a Seed

NASHVILLE, TN - DECEMBER 29:  Festus Ezeli #3 of the Vanderbilt Commodores handles the ball against the Marquette Golden Eagles at Memorial Gym on December 29, 2010 in Nashville, Tennessee. Vanderbilt defeated Marquette 77-76.  (Photo by Grant Halverson/G
Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Education is a tool, a transportation device that can take you wherever your heart desires. That's the message Ezeli received early and often from his parents—Festus Ezeli Sr., a businessman, and Patricia, a lawyer and school owner.

Ezeli raced through school like a track star, first skipping kindergarten and later jumping from fourth to seventh grade. It seemed natural at the time—"I always felt I was more advanced and more mature for my age," he said—but the further he's removed from it, the more remarkable it feels.

"I'm a 14-year-old with 17- and 18-year-olds in my classroom," he said. "It was a maturing experience."

Ezeli occasionally dabbled in sports, but basketball never cracked his activity list. His athletic palate didn't extend far beyond soccer, save for sporadic rounds of pingpong and badminton with friends.

But that changed once he joined his uncle in Yuba City, California. Ndulue saw Ezeli as a basketball natural, so much so that he mentioned the possibility of an NBA career to the youngster. Ezeli wasn't buying that pipe dream; "When he said that to me, it was like me telling you that you could go to the moon."

Ndulue, however, knew the right chord to strike. If education was Ezeli's key in life, basketball could unlock the possibility of a full-ride scholarship.

But if graduating early was maturing, arriving late to basketball was humbling—and frustrating. Fundamentals that had been ingrained in other teenage hoopers were foreign to him.

"Here I am as a 15-year-old kid, and I can't shoot a layup," he said. "Or I'm scoring a basket in my own goal."

Players pummeled him with verbal assaults. Even trainers would let loose when his snail-paced development broke their patience.

But two things helped him find his footing.

An AAU coach saw potential in the towering teen and took him to camps, trainers and tournaments. Ezeli also enrolled at Yuba College, where he took basketball classes and served as the hoops team's videographer.

Exposure, experience and an insatiable work ethic all helped him establish an identity.

"I started coming into my own as an athlete," he said. "I still couldn't really play; I could block shots and dunk the ball. But it was like, 'OK, people are starting to see the picture here.'"

He was still a mystery at the national level, but an intriguing enough one to land an invitation to the 2007 Reebok All-American camp. That's where his newly formed basketball dream started to deliver tangible rewards.

Finding Bigfoot

NASHVILLE, TN - FEBRUARY 17: Festus Ezeli #3 of the Vanderbilt Commodores looks on against the Kentucky Wildcats at Memorial Gymnasium on February 17, 2009 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

There are few surprises in the Internet age of recruiting. If a coach wants to sift through the rankings of second-grade ballers, there's a website for that.

But Ezeli was different. He didn't have a trail of mix tapes, press clippings and lofty player rankings behind him, nor a single high school box score to his name.

There was an almost mythical nature about him. The Reebok camp effectively pulled back the curtains.

"It was almost like people were waiting to see Bigfoot," Ezeli said. "People had heard about me—this big kid from Africa—but they had never seen me. So all these coaches were excited to see me. The gyms were packed."

Apparently, Ezeli didn't disappoint. He left the camp with more than two dozen scholarship offers.

"I went from kind of zero to 100," he said.

One of those offers came from Vanderbilt University. Head coach Kevin Stallings had no clue what the future held for Ezeli—"We were just hoping we could make him into a serviceable college player," Stallings said—but the combination of size, strength and athleticism was hard to overlook.

What sealed the deal for Stallings, though, was getting to know Ezeli the person.

"He's an absolutely beautiful human being, and you only have to be around him for about five minutes to figure it out," Stallings said. "If he never becomes a player...he'll always be an asset to your program because of the kind of person that he is."

Ezeli also held an offer from Harvard, which was his parents' preference. But he saw the right blend of academics and athletics at Vanderbilt, along with a rising Commodores basketball program and a coach who could match his passion and intensity.

Vanderbilt sat atop Ezeli's list, but he'd only join the program on one condition: that Stallings promised to redshirt him.

"He said, 'Coach, I don't even know how to be on a team,'" Stallings recalled. "I said, 'Festus, we'll show you how to be on a team.'"

Starting From Scratch

ALBUQUERQUE, NM - MARCH 17:  Festus Ezeli #3 of the Vanderbilt Commodores reacts in the second half of the game against the Wisconsin Badgers during the third round of the 2012 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at The Pit on March 17, 2012 in Albuquerque,
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Ezeli arrived in Nashville as a blank canvas. He was still learning the game he'd received a scholarship to play.

His training started at the most basic levels. He wasn't even comfortable—nor effective—catching the basketball.

But Stallings let Ezeli learn at his own pace. He indeed redshirted his first season, a process he credits with helping him understand the game. By his second year, he showed some signs of progress.

Prior to the 2008-09 season, Stallings organized a scrimmage with his mentor Roy Williams' North Carolina Tar Heels. UNC's roster was littered with future NBA players (including Ty Lawson, Tyler Hansbrough and Danny Green), and the group would eventually roll to the NCAA title. But Ezeli's play left an imprint on Williams, who singled him out during a post-scrimmage chat with Stallings.

Eight days later, Ezeli and the Commodores played an exhibition with the University of Alabama-Hunstville in front of a few thousand fans. The same player who had just held his own with the country's best now wilted under the dim lights.

"The first time I put him in the game, I thought he was going to hyperventilate," Stallings said. "...He was so new to the game that just a few thousand people made him very, very nervous."

So in addition to building a basketball arsenal on the fly, Ezeli had to battle stage fright. And he had to find his way from out behind All-SEC center A.J. Ogilvy, which basically meant waiting for the big man to test the professional waters.

That moment finally came in 2010, and Ezeli, then a redshirt junior, pounced on his opportunity like a loose ball. He had 14 points, six rebounds and three blocks in the season opener and essentially maintained those marks over the entire campaign: 13.0, 6.3 and 2.6, respectively.

He missed the first 10 games of his senior year to a knee injury and didn't make the same statistical impact (10.1, 5.9 and 2.0). But he was officially on the NBA radar, and he'd join the exclusive fraternity shortly thereafter.

Going Gold

OAKLAND, CA - JULY 2: Festus Ezeli (#31) of the Golden State Warriors poses for a photo at the Warriors draft pick press conference on July 2, 2012 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or us
Rocky Widner/Getty Images

Ezeli gathered with his family in Sacramento for the 2012 draft. He knew he would be selected; he just wasn't sure when. He watched then-commissioner David Stern announce 29 selections before becoming the second of four Golden State picks.

"When my name was called, being there with my parents, that's a feeling you can't replace," he said.

With starting center Andrew Bogut making regular appearances on the injury report, the Warriors had to throw Ezeli into the fire. His first NBA start came just three games into his career, and he opened another 40 contests over the course of the year.

He looked predictably raw. He shot just 43.8 percent from the field, racked up 5.0 personal fouls per 36 minutes and turned the ball over on 23.5 percent of his offensive possessions. (Pass-catching remained an issue.)

But his natural athleticism and ravenous work ethic were evident too. He ranked fourth among rookies with 74 blocks and 10th with 313 boards. He also appeared in all 12 of the Warriors' playoff games, once blocking three shots, twice scoring at least seven points and thrice corralling five-plus boards.

Adversity awaited him at season's end, though, as he went under the knife during June 2013 to reinforce the MCL and PCL in his right knee. His initial recovery window was set at six to nine months, but a painfully slow recovery process kept him shelved for the entire 2013-14 season.

Rehab was an agonizing experience, but he found a silver lining in his setback. Much like his redshirt year in college, he used his NBA sophomore season to step back, study his craft, cram in as many film sessions as possible and continue expanding his knowledge of the game.

"That's kind of been my staple," Ezeli said. "I work hard, so I continue to improve every year."

The Dubs reaped the full rewards of those improvements during last season's championship run, and they may have to pay a heavy premium to keep watching them in the coming years.

A Ring and a Blank Check

OAKLAND, CA - JUNE 17:  Festus Ezeli #31 of the Golden State Warriors holds the trophy on the plane as the team travels home from Cleveland after winning the 2015 NBA Finals on June 17, 2015 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledge
Noah Graham/Getty Images

Ezeli missed 36 games of the 2014-15 campaign to both injury (namely, a nagging ankle ailment) and an inconsistent spot in coach Steve Kerr's rotation.

But save for those obstacles, he couldn't have scripted a better season. He lost some volume from his rookie performance, as his average playing time fell from 14.4 minutes to 11.0. But the efficiency behind his numbers grew exponentially.

Even with limited action, Ezeli cemented himself as a top-shelf rim protector.

His 6.2 block percentage tied All-Star Anthony Davis for sixth among players who made at least 41 appearances. Ezeli's 44.1 opponent's field-goal percentage at the rim also checked in sixth out of the 122 players who faced at least four such shots per game.

He sliced his turnover percentage down to 15.6, showing a hint of softness in his problematic stone hands.

That growth proved vital during Golden State's playoff run. Ezeli served as an energizer, flashing an uncanny knack to deliver when it was needed most.

He tallied 12 points, nine boards and a block during the Warriors' close-out victory over the Houston Rockets in the Western Conference Finals. He piled up 10 points, four rebounds and a block in less than 11 minutes of Golden State's NBA Finals-clinching Game 6 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers.

"The championship still doesn't seem real," he said. "This whole summer I've been on a high."

One glance at his offseason itinerary suggests as much.

He kicked things off with the championship parade in Oakland, an experience he shared with his family. He played in the NBA's first exhibition game in Africa, where he suited up alongside his idols, Hakeem Olajuwon and Dikembe Mutombo. Ezeli returned to Nashville as a champion and gave his new friend, Larry, a tour of the Vanderbilt campus.

"Those memories will last a lifetime," he said. "It was a really amazing summer."

It's too early to tell where his story will turn next. He's eligible to receive a contract extension between now and Oct. 31, and negotiations "are under way," according to CSN Bay Area's Monte Poole.

Ezeli wants to stay with the Warriors, but he's trying to block out thoughts of his next pact as best he can.

"I hear people talk and I see articles and things like that, but that's not my focus," he said. "I realize that winners get taken care of in this league. I figure that if I focus on the right things, I will be well-compensated."

His combination of size and mobility, along with the league's skyrocketing salary cap, could produce a lottery-level payday. Grantland's Zach Lowe speculated that Ezeli could fetch something in the four-year, $40 million range.

That might sound steep given his present as a part-time player, but it could prove valuable in the future.

"Honestly, he's still learning the game," Warriors assistant coach Jarron Collins said, per Bay Area News Group's Jeff Faraudo. "But he's got so much talent and potential. He's got a terrific ceiling."

Ezeli isn't looking that far ahead. He knows that doing so would be an exercise in futility.

If his journey has taught him one thing, it's this: expect the unexpected.

"It's a story that I don't know that I could have written myself," he said. "It's so many weird turns and things that have happened and so many strange coincidences. But I'm lucky to say that I'm here today in the NBA and an NBA champion—strangely enough."

All quotes obtained firsthand, unless otherwise noted. Statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.

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