Ike Nwamu scored 11.4 points per game as a senior at UNLV in 2015-16 while making a respectable 34.6 percent of his 3-pointers and producing athletic, highlight dunks on a regular basis. And at a chiseled 6-foot-5, he possessed the kind of body designed to play basketball for a living.
And yet when his lone season as a Runnin’ Rebel came to an end, his phone didn’t ring. Not only did Nwamu go undrafted, he didn’t generate any interest at all from the NBA — no calls, no pre-draft workouts, no invitations to summer league, nothing. But he didn’t give up. Two years later, Nwamu is still grinding away, playing for the Miami Heat in the Las Vegas summer league and closer than ever to getting his foot in the door with the NBA.
It has been an uphill battle, and one that has taken Nwamu to some distant locations. He hooked on with the Sioux Falls G-League affiliate for part of the 2016-17 season, then split parts of the 2017-18 season between Sioux Falls, a Greek professional league and the Nigerian national team.
Nwamu appeared to be in his element on Tuesday, as he scored 18 points on 7-of-14 shooting in Miami’s 98-90 win over the Utah Jazz. He knocked down 3-of-9 from 3-point range and also slammed home a pair of impressive dunks.
After the game, Nwamu said fighting and scrapping for every opportunity has been exhausting, but that he never thought about giving up on his basketball dreams.
“Coming out of school, I didn’t have any pre-draft workouts,” he said. “I wasn’t able to play summer league the past two years, so that was discouraging. But you’ve just got to wake up every day and continue to work and trust the process and trust hard work and believe things will fall into place eventually.”
Nwamu began to draw attention during the last G-League campaign, when he scored 14.5 points in 29.7 minutes per game while making 36.4 percent of his 3-pointers. That was enough to earn a summer-league invite from the Heat, and through three games in Las Vegas, he is averaging 11.3 points per game on 45.8-percent shooting.
Nwamu said he his goal coming into summer league was to prove to NBA teams that he is capable of being a consistent, reliable role player.
“I think it’s just showing that you belong,” Nwamu said. “Finding your niche and showing teams that you’re able to do that night-in and night-out. Not trying to do too much, not trying to show things that people may not necessarily know you for. Just sticking to what’s gotten you there and what’s going to get you to the next level and not trying to do too much.”
Instead of trying to take over games and potentially exposing his weaknesses, Nwamu is focusing on showcasing his strengths and demonstrating his ability to fit into a team concept at the NBA level.
Nwamu said it took him some time to develop that “less is more” mentality.
“It definitely takes time,” he said. “It takes some humbling as well. You’ve just got to look at yourself in the mirror and think, ‘All right, what are you going to do to get to the next level?’ You’ve got to get in there somehow. You’re not going to get in there being a superstar, because [NBA execs] already know who those guys are and those guys are making $100 million dollars. So you’ve got to find your way to fit in.”
Even if the Heat eventually decide not to offer Nwamu a contract for the upcoming season, he knows that summer league still presents an opportunity for the other 29 NBA teams to watch him compete against other hungry young players. For an overlooked player like Nwamu, who couldn’t even get a summer league call two years ago, that’s a pretty big stage.
He plans to make the most of it.
“It’s really a big thing for me,” Nwamu said. “I feel really validated that all my hard work the past few years is finally coming to fruition and people are starting to take notice of the work I’ve put in. I think it’s a great honor and also a great opportunity.”