Nico Mannion Can't Avoid Stardom Anymore

He may not look like one of the country's best players, but the Arizona star has been playing like one for years, and it won't be long before everybody knows why even KD has taken notice of his game.
photo of David GardnerDavid Gardner@@byDavidGardnerStaff WriterDecember 3, 2019

Nico Mannion gets noticed a lot. This past summer, a couple of months before he left for college, he and his parents went to Hawaii for vacation. One afternoon, he and his mother were strolling along the shoreline, talking about how life was changing, when they noticed something unusual. A 10-year-old boy sprang out of the ocean, snagged his phone off his towel and sprinted toward them to ask for a picture with Nico. The next day, two children made their parents wait in the hotel lobby—in Hawaii, with the beach thisclose—for three hours so they could ask for his autograph.

Nico says yes to almost every request. His parents were both professional athletes, and they taught him that he had two choices as his fame grew: Be the kind of player kids feel comfortable approaching, or be an ass. But even they couldn't have anticipated the kind of attention their son would receive.

It's not just that Nico is the star of Arizona's strong freshman class, or that he's already averaging 15.3 points and 5.8 assists for the undefeated No. 12 Wildcats, or even that he's a potential top-10 pick in the 2020 NBA draft.

It's that he really doesn't look like he could be any of those things. He's "shouldn't you be wearing some more sunscreen?" pale and "shouldn't you be drinking another protein shake?" skinny. And his signature red hair springs from the top of his head like a well-watered Chia Pet. The fact that he stands out, even among elite basketball prospects, has made him an internet obsession, with 400,000 Instagram followers and counting.

His fame is only going to grow from here. A few weeks after he got back from Hawaii, he was walking around the mall with some friends. They weren't shopping. They just wanted to spend time together before scattering to schools across the country. So when Nico saw a group of kids coming for him, he decided to duck them. He bolted behind a support beam and then squatted behind a table. But he still heard: "Hey Nico! What's up?"

To his horror, he turned and saw a group of eight police officers eating lunch. One of them wanted a picture. "I was like, 'Dang, that's not good,'" Nico says now. "They know exactly who I am. If I do anything wrong, I'm screwed. It was an eye-opener. It wasn't just kids that knew who I was. It was the general public. And it won't be long before even more people know who I am."

Before Nico Mannion was a viral sensation, before he was born or his parents had even met, his father was making the Mannion name known. As a senior in 1983, Pace Mannion led the 10th-seeded Utah Utes to an unlikely Sweet 16 run out of a regional in Boise, Idaho. Eighteen hundred miles to the southeast, a group of Rice students crowded around the television in their Texas dorm to watch the NCAA tournament. They became fixated on a 6'7" guard with floppy red hair. That day, they formed the Pace Mannion Fan Club.

When Pace turned pro, the club's members would come to watch him play whenever his teams were in town to face the Houston Rockets. Pace played for six seasons in the NBA and primarily came off the bench, but that never slowed the students' enthusiasm. They would chant, "Pace! Pace! He's our Mannion!" and wear green T-shirts with his face on them. The group began with just a dozen or so students but swelled into more than 100 within a couple of years.

"We weren't spoofing him," says Neil Liss, the president of the long-since-disbanded fan club. "We were authentic. He was this super-skilled guy, but he was an underdog who came off the bench. And he was kind of gawky and odd. There's no logical explanation for it, but we genuinely loved him and were excited to watch him play."

People have been excited to watch Pace's son play since he was in eighth grade. Before then, Nico says, "I wasn't very good, if I'm being honest. I was scoring on the wrong hoop." Indeed, in one of his first competitive basketball games, Nico checked in off the bench, caught a pass and heard the parents cheering, "Go, Nico, go!" as he sprinted toward the rim for a layup. It was only after he scored that realized they were actually yelling, "No, Nico, no!" He'd run to the wrong basket.

After gaining fame for guiding Utah into the Sweet 16 in the 1983 NCAA tournament, Pace Mannion bounced around the NBA with six different teams over six seasons in the mid-1980s.
After gaining fame for guiding Utah into the Sweet 16 in the 1983 NCAA tournament, Pace Mannion bounced around the NBA with six different teams over six seasons in the mid-1980s.Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

But he grew up around the game and learned from its greats. Nico was born in Italy because Pace played there professionally and stayed there when he met and married professional volleyball player Gaia Bianchi. When the family returned to the United States, Pace got a gig doing pre- and postgame analysis for Utah Jazz broadcasts. Nico would shoot around on the studio set hoop and single out Jazz players to talk to before games. After games, even though Pace worked for the home team, Nico would have no problem approaching an opponent and asking for an autograph.

In 2008, when Nico was seven, he made Pace wait an hour after the Jazz lost Game 6 of the Western Conference Semifinals to the Lakers so that he could meet Kobe Bryant. Pace had played with Bryant's dad in Italy, and he told Nico to get his attention by talking to him in Italian. "Kobe took time out of his day to come talk to a little kid," Nico says. "He took 10 minutes, and he made my year." To this day, Nico has signed and framed jerseys from Bryant, Steve Nash, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James on the wall above his bed.

Pace was Nico's coach when they lived in Utah, but he retired from that title when they moved to Arizona. Nico was 12 at the time, and Pace says he "wanted to be Nico's dad and not his coach." Pace used to tell Nico that, because of the way he looked, he had five minutes to surprise opponents. Nico would smile when he saw the opposing team's worst player ask his coach to defend him. In Arizona, it wasn't long before he stopped surprising people.

In his first viral highlight, Nico, then a rising ninth grader, dunked for the first time in a live game, going over a kid who was about half a foot taller than him. The clip prompted Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott to follow Nico on Instagram—along with a few thousand others. Later, Kevin Durant was recorded watching a Nico mixtape. "Oh yeah, I done seen players like him before, having long careers," Durant said as he watched Nico drain a three. And then, a moment later, when Nico assaulted the rim with a slam: "Oh! I ain't seen that, though."

It's the incongruity between the way Nico, who's 6'3" and 190 pounds, looks and the way he plays that never ceases to surprise newcomers to his game. "He's white and he's got red hair," Pace says. "… There aren't too many guys like that with his skill set. Not even in the NBA. … That's what's drawn people to Nico."

When Nico's Pinnacle High School team would visit rivals, fans would hold up signs that read "Nico Mannion listens to Nickelback" or "Nico Mannion sleeps with a nightlight." Once, the entire student section brought carrots with them to taunt their redheaded foe. "Not like baby carrots," Nico says. "Real big ones." But Nico had a double-double by the end of the third quarter, and the carrots ended up on the floor beneath the bleachers. By the age of 15, he had been featured in a lengthy profile by Sports Illustrated and had received countless college scholarship offers—including from Arizona.

But before he could jump to the next level, he had to return home.

The hardest moment of Nico Mannion's young basketball life happened in Colorado Springs. He had just finished his freshman season at Pinnacle, averaging 20.2 points a game and being named a MaxPreps first-team freshman All-American. His next goal was to qualify for the 2017 FIBA Under-16 Americas Championship with Team USA. For all attention that AAU offers, USA Basketball is a much more serious operation, and its camps are a chance for prospects to put themselves ahead of their peers. Nico thought it might be his last chance to surprise people.

For the first couple of days at the camp, Nico got to show off the skills that were making him a coveted college prospect. He is a strong finisher at the rim, given his slight frame, and he has the kind of basketball IQ you'd expect to see from the son of a pro. He's flashy but still a facilitator, and he can change speeds with ease. But after the first couple of rounds of cuts, Team USA coaches switched him off the ball. He didn't feel like he played his best basketball, but he still felt confident he would make the team.

That night, USA Basketball Assistant Director Samson Kayode called the kids into a recreation room where he would announce the final cut. Crowded onto a couch with teammates, Nico heard Samson say the first name. He was safe. The second. He was still safe. The third. He felt sure he'd made the team. And then he heard the fourth cut: "Nico Mannion."

Nico Mannion has never wavered in his commitment to Arizona despite the recruiting scandals that have engulfed the basketball program.
Nico Mannion has never wavered in his commitment to Arizona despite the recruiting scandals that have engulfed the basketball program.Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

He hustled back to his dorm room and threw his gear in his bag. He called his parents, pissed. He asked them to come pick him up. And then he called his trainer and told him to meet him at the gym in Arizona as soon as possible. Two days later, they were back at work. "It was probably the toughest thing Nico went through in basketball," Pace says. "Someone told him he wasn't good enough to play. It was also probably the best thing to happen to him. It lit a fire under him."

When he returned home, Nico heard from the Italian Basketball Federation. They knew he was a dual citizen, and they wanted to know: Would he come play for Italy at the FIBA U16 European Championship instead? He would. And in seven games that summer, Mannion averaged a tournament-high 19.9 points, to go along with 4.0 assists and 3.0 steals per game. Two summers later, after leading Pinnacle to an Arizona 6A state championship, he turned down a chance to return to Team USA and instead made his debut for the Italian national team at age 17.

A couple of months later, in September 2018, Nico surprised people with another commitment. Although he held offers from Duke and Villanova and just about every other college in the country, Nico only held one in-home visit in the fall before making his decision. Sean Miller and then-assistant coach Mark Phelps drove to Phoenix and showed Nico a slideshow with Arizona greats and then told him how he could be the Wildcats' next star freshman. The next day, Nico drove his parents to the airport for a vacation in Mexico. By the time Pace and Gaia landed and got to baggage claim, Nico had called to tell them he was ready to commit.

Even as scandals swirled around Arizona—the firing of Phelps or the release of the transcripts from the trial of former assistant coach Emanuel "Book" Richardson in the college basketball recruiting scandal—Nico didn't waver. When bad news stories were about to break, an Arizona coach would call the Mannions and explain their side. Nico's friends would pester him with questions, but he felt at home—literally—in Arizona.

"Everyone was like, 'Why don't you go to Duke? Why don't you go to Villanova?' Nico says. "Duke was the main one. But everything I wanted was in Arizona. There's no reason to go all the way across the country when I have everything I need and want two hours away."

It helped that one of his AAU teammates, Australian wing Josh Green, committed to being part of Arizona's class. They were among the most lethal backcourts in grassroots basketball over the past three seasons, and that connection has proved fruitful so far this season too. Mannion and Green are Arizona's second- and third-leading scorers, respectively, behind fellow freshman Zeke Nnaji. "There's no other college backcourt where the 1- and the 2-guards have played with each other for four years," he says.

In April, the pair teamed up again for the Nike Hoop Summit. Because Nico had chosen to play with Italy, he was a member of the World Team, facing off against the U.S. team that had cut him a few years before. He finished with five assists, five rebounds and 28 points on 12 shots.

"I saw the coach that cut me sitting on the bench," he says. "That was definitely part of the motivation. I really believed I should have made that team. The fact that I didn't shocked me. I thought to myself, I guess I have to do more. It still motivates me. All those kids on the team, they're still succeeding. I won't stop till I've proven to myself that I belong with them."

On an early October afternoon, Nico Mannion walked to the McKale Center to get taped for practice. Outside the arena, high school swimmers scurried around him, dripping wet and dancing to Lizzo. They were in town for a competition that could help them become college athletes, and they were a little too absorbed in their own world to notice Nico. Already, it's hard for him to cut across campus without being stopped, but on this day he smiled as he reached the mirrored glass door without interruption. He paused for a second to check his hair and then walked inside.

"People used to call me Red," he says, "but that wasn't too creative. I don't feel strongly about any of the nicknames. I'd rather people call me Nico. The people close to me all call me Nico. The nicknames are all social media. I don't really care for them. They're not a big deal to me."

But Miller knows the nicknames and the attention can add weight to what can already be a challenging transition to college. "He's not like the other star freshmen we've had," Miller says, "but he could be as good—or better—than them. Some of the players we've had who have had great freshman years didn't really look like freshmen physically. Stanley Johnson was 240 pounds when he showed up. Deandre Ayton could bench 185 pounds 19 times. Aaron Gordon was Superman. That's not why Nico is good. Nico is good because of how he understands the game and because of the number of ways he can affect it. He could go down as one of the great point guards in Arizona history."

Through November, Nico and the Wildcats have cruised. After failing to make the NCAA tournament for the first time in six years last season, Arizona is pummeling opponents by an average of 22.3 points. Nico boasts an offensive rating of 126.6 while shooting 52.2 percent from the field, 43.2 percent from three and 77.8 percent from the free-throw line. And he is still throwing down brutal dunks.

Arizona in the NBA 😼 @ArizonaNBA

NICO MANNION 💥💥 https://t.co/2wDeL1CfWR

Although he is still seen as the second or third point guard in the 2020 draft class, behind LaMelo Ball and North Carolina's Cole Anthony, Mannion isn't far behind. That's part of why he chose the Wildcats—to learn under one of the best point guard teachers in the college game, someone who starred at the position himself.

Back on that early October day, Miller spent more time instructing Nico in practice than any other player. And when Nico would sub out of a drill, he'd stand behind Miller, like a shadow, as the coach described what he saw as plays unfolded. Near the end of practice, Miller kneeled on the baseline and watched Nico bring the ball up the floor. When Nico crossed half court but failed to signal the play, Miller blew his whistle. He stood and took two steps toward his star freshman.

"Nico!" he shouted. "You're the point guard! Everyone is looking to you! You've got to step up!"