Utah Jazz fans know that center Rudy Gobert is spending this offseason competing for his native France for the coming Olympic Summer Games, while forward Joe Ingles is once again part of the Australian national team.
It’s perhaps not quite as widely known that a third Jazz player, Miye Oni, also has a chance to go compete in Tokyo.
The Los Angeles-born wing who just completed his second season in Utah just made exhibition appearances for the Nigerian national team, and is hopeful to earn a spot on the final 12-man roster.
“My mom was born there — both my parents are Nigerian, but my mom was born there — and this is something that I’ve wanted to do for a while,” Oni told The Salt Lake Tribune.
He said he’d had periodic conversations with the Nigerian basketball federation about participating this summer, but it ultimately was “predicated on the [NBA] season ending and the timing of that.” As an example, Team USA players Devin Booker, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday have yet to play for the Americans because the Phoenix Suns and Milwaukee Bucks are still competing in the NBA Finals.
So when the Jazz were upset in the Western Conference semifinals by the L.A. Clippers, Oni was disappointed to see his professional season cut short, but also recognized the international opportunity it opened up.
Just like that, he was on the training camp squad for D’Tigers.
And his mom (Opeyemi) and dad (Oludotun) were on Cloud Nine.
“My parents were elated when they found out about the opportunity,” Oni said. “It brought them great pride.”
Oni, meanwhile, has brought some hustle, rugged defense, and even some 3-point shooting off the bench in D’Tigers’ two impressive victories thus far.
In their opener this past Saturday night, Nigeria shocked the star-studded Team USA — and the world, for that matter — with a 90-87 victory in Las Vegas. Oni contributed six points, three rebounds, two assists, and a block, while hitting 2 of 4 tries from 3-point range in 11 minutes, 20 seconds of court time. Nigeria went 20 of 42 from beyond the arc as a team, and flustered the Americans into 41.3% shooting overall thanks to their high-pressure defense.
That result yielded international headlines, partly because of the surprising result, but also because of the controversial commentary that followed.
ESPN personality Stephen A. Smith earned rebukes for butchering the pronunciation of several Nigerian players’ names, and for outright mocking one (Miami Heat big man Precious Achiuwa) while slamming the result.
Meanwhile, former NFL player turned FS1 talking head Shannon Sharpe berated the Americans for their performance, hyperbolically declaring on his “Undisputed” show that “Me, Chris [Broussard], Skip [Bayless], Jenny [Taft], and the cameraman could beat Nigeria.”
Several Nigerian players have clapped back at the insult that they could be bested by television personalities.
But mostly the Utah Jazz wing just wants to keep the focus on his team’s historic accomplishment — the first time a squad from Africa has bested Team USA.
“It was definitely fun and definitely a great experience, but it’s not something we didn’t expect because of how hard we practice and how well-prepared we felt we were,” Oni said. “We came out there to win the game, we didn’t come just to play against Team USA.”
On Sunday night, Nigeria proved that first victory was no fluke, as they rolled to a 94-71 blowout against Argentina, the fourth-ranked team in the world. Oni this time posted five points and five rebounds, hitting 1 of 3 from deep, but turning the ball over four times in 10:58.
He was in the starting lineup for Tuesday night’s exhibition wrap-up against Australia — a 108-69 win for the Boomers that saw both teams take it easy on account of not wanting to give anything away prior to their Olympic group-play matchup coming in two weeks. Oni played for 18:49, but totaled just three points, two rebounds, a block and a steal, while shooting 1 of 4 overall (and 1 for 3 from deep).
The Yale product acknowledged that he’s still acclimating to the rules and nuances of the international game, but he’s also a big believer in Nigeria’s chances to make some noise, given that they boast eight current NBA players (Oni, Achiuwa, KZ Okpala, Gabe Vincent, Josh Okogie, Chimezie Metu, Jahlil Okafor, and Jordan Nwora) and two former NBA players (Michael Gbinije and ex-Jazz center Ekpe Udoh), who have quickly coalesced into a defensive force.
“We have guys that can guard every position — all [over] the court, all throughout the roster,” Oni said. “No matter who coach [Mike Brown] puts in, everyone can guard.”
Oni said he had “no clue” if Brown would ultimately select him for Nigeria’s 12-man group to play in Tokyo, though he’s hopeful. In the meantime, he’s just trying to heed the advice of his Jazz teammates with international experience — Gobert, Ingles, Donovan Mitchell — who’ve counseled him to really dig in and appreciate the experience.
“[They told me], ‘Just enjoy it,’” Oni said. “Rudy, when I told him that I might have this opportunity, told me that it’s a really big deal, and that I shouldn’t take it lightly, and it’s a big honor.”