■ Fresh­man for­ward Joel Ntambwe has emerged for UNLV’s bas­ket­ball team.

UNLV’s Ntambwe could be MW’s top fresh­man

Las Vegas Review-Journal (Sunday) - - FRONT PAGE - By Mark An­der­son •

JOEL NTAMBWE grew up in Bel­gium play­ing bas­ket­ball and soc­cer, his deep in­ter­est in the NBA be­gin­ning when he would watch high­lights. He es­pe­cially loved see­ing Kobe Bryant play, ad­mir­ing his grit and de­ter­mi­na­tion and how he al­most willed the Los An­ge­les Lak­ers to vic­tory.

As a 10- or 11-year-old, Ntambwe found his love for bas­ket­ball deepen as he went from watch­ing NBA high­lights to see­ing com­plete games and imag­in­ing a fu­ture in the sport.

But what turned the tide from play­ing soc­cer to bas­ket­ball was much sim­pler.

He was taller than ev­ery­one else. And so the matchup prob­lems that Ntambwe cre­ated as a young­ster in Bel­gium and later in the Congo, he still cre­ates today, a 6-foot-9-inch player who can play both for­ward po­si­tions and shoot like a guard.

“That’s the way bas­ket­ball is go­ing now,” UNLV coach Marvin Men­zies said. “It’s po­si­tion­less bas­ket­ball. Ev­ery­body is talk­ing about that lately as far as guys be­ing able to play mul­ti­ple po­si­tions with size and have a high-level skill set. So he’s a guy who’s de­vel­oped that.”

Fresh­man of the Year?

Ntambwe en­ters UNLV’s bye week­end — the Rebels (9-6, 3-0 Moun­tain West) play at Air Force on Wed­nes­day — hav­ing scored in dou­ble fig­ures in the past eight games. He av­er­ages 12.4 points and 6.0 re­bounds and is shoot­ing a team-high 39.2 per­cent (20 of 51) from 3-point range.

His emer­gence has been quite a sur­prise, at least to those out­side the Rebels’ locker room.

Ntambwe wasn’t on many, if any, Moun­tain West pre­sea­son lists for fresh­men to watch. UNR’s Jordan Brown was cho­sen pre­sea­son Fresh­man of the Year, but the McDon­ald’s All-Amer­i­can has strug­gled to find a role in the Wolf Pack’s vet­eran lineup, aver­ag­ing 4.2 points and 2.8 re­bounds over 11.4 min­utes per game en­ter­ing Satur­day’s game at Fresno State.

Wyoming’s Hunter Thomp­son (12.2-point av­er­age) and Utah State’s Neemias Queta (10.2 points, 8.2 re­bounds) are the other early com­peti­tors for top fresh­man, which UNLV’s Bran­don McCoy won last sea­son.

Ad­just­ing to col­lege ball in gen­eral and the Moun­tain West specif­i­cally came fairly easy for Ntambwe, some­one ac­cus­tomed to tran­si­tions.

He spent his first 10 years in Bel­gium be­fore mov­ing to his dad’s na­tive Congo. French is spo­ken in both coun­tries, and Ntambwe eas­ily made friends in each place.

“I’m a nice per­son, I’m a great kid, so I al­ways get along with pretty much ev­ery­body,” he said.

His dream was to come to the United States, and bas­ket­ball was his ticket when it came time to en­ter high school. Ntambwe played at three prep schools, most re­cently the As­pire Academy in Louisville, Ken­tucky. He also at­tended schools in Fer­nan­d­ina Beach, Florida, and Kern­ersville, North Carolina.

Be­cause he lived in a dorm with other play­ers, the as­sim­i­la­tion into a new coun­try wasn’t dif­fi­cult, he said. His sis­ter lives in Dal­las and an un­cle in Hous­ton, giv­ing him fam­ily to visit.

When UNLV came into the picture for Ntambwe, he didn’t have to travel across an ocean to see if he wanted to play for the Rebels.

UNLV as­sis­tant coach An­dre LaFleur was im­pressed with Ntambwe from the be­gin­ning, and soon so was Men­zies.

“We had great chem­istry right away and got it done pretty quickly,” Men­zies said. “I knew I wanted him, and he knew he wanted to be here al­most spon­ta­neously.”

Ntambwe chose the Rebels over UCLA, Wi­chita State and Ten­nessee.

“Some other schools would call me and ask, ‘How many points did you score? How did you do tonight? Who were you play­ing?’” he said. “Coach Men­zies, Coach Dre, Coach (Eric) Brown, they weren’t re­ally ask­ing me, ‘How many points did you score?’ They were like, ‘How is ev­ery­thing go­ing? How is school? How is your fam­ily?’ It wasn’t all about bas­ket­ball. That made me re­ally want to come out here.

“Coach Men­zies talked to me like his son.”

Over­com­ing a slow start

Ntambwe might be play­ing well now, but he had a rough start, tear­ing left an­kle lig­a­ments on the first day of practice.

Even though he missed a week of practice and needed two months for a com­plete re­cov­ery, Ntambwe did what he al­ways does when given the chance — go as hard as he could. Men­zies and his coaches no­ticed that hus­tle, and be­fore long they were mak­ing plans to put Ntambwe in the start­ing lineup, where he has been all sea­son.

“His en­ergy and his ag­gres­sive­ness to get bet­ter in practice sep­a­rated him from some of the other guys,” Men­zies said. “He would talk, and he had great re­sponses to coach­ing. An­ten­nas went up, and then watch­ing him closer, I re­al­ized how long he was and how ef­fi­cient he was at re­bound­ing and could make the tough shots. I said, ‘Let’s put him in there, and then we’ll see where it goes.’”

Men­zies told Ntambwe to keep play­ing hard and fo­cus on de­fense and re­bound­ing. With of­fense not his fo­cus, Ntambwe failed to reach dou­ble fig­ures in is first seven games.

“As soon as I would get a stop or get a re­bound, that’s when my con­fi­dence started build­ing to go play of­fense,” he said.

There were signs that his of­fen­sive game was be­gin­ning to come along. Ntambwe took only six 3-point­ers in the three games leading up to the Dec. 8 trip to Illi­nois, but he made four. Then against the Illini, he made 5 of 9 shots and both 3s to score 18 points.

That be­gan his cur­rent streak of dou­ble-digit games, though the shoot­ing hasn’t al­ways been here. Ntambwe made 11 of 17 shots in a 31-point, 10-re­bound ef­fort Jan. 5 against Wyoming and followed by go­ing 4 of 15 with 12 points and five re­bounds Tues­day at New Mex­ico.

“He’s still learn­ing shot se­lec­tion, and he’s still learn­ing de­fen­sive schemes,” Men­zies said. “He’s got a lot of room for im­prove­ment, but for­tu­nately for us, his ef­fi­ciency has been pretty good in a short amount of time.”

Las Ve­gas Review-Jour­nal

Ben­jamin Hager Las Ve­gas Review-Jour­nal

UNLV fresh­man for­ward Joel Ntambwe is aver­ag­ing 12.4 points and 6.0 re­bounds per game while shoot­ing a team-high 39.2 per­cent (20 of 51) from 3-point range.

Richard Brian Las Ve­gas Review-Jour­nal

“I’m a nice per­son, I’m a great kid, so I al­ways get along with pretty much ev­ery­body.” — UNLV fresh­man for­ward Joel Ntambwe

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