Friday, July 20, 2018 | 2 a.m.
As recently as this spring, Joel Ntambwe was not a well-known name on the recruiting trail.
Though the 6-foot-8 forward from Aspire Academy (Louisville, Ky.) was being courted by schools such as UCLA and Wichita State, there just wasn’t a lot of available information on Ntambwe, a native of the Congo who was raised in Belgium. Rivals and ESPN rated him as a modest 3-star prospect, while Scout and 247Sports didn’t bother to rank him at all.
So what did UNLV coaches see in Ntambwe that made them jump into his recruitment?
Ntambwe is not a flashy player, but he is smooth and polished on the offensive end, and he has the potential to develop into a good playmaker at the Division I level.
Though he has the size of a frontcourt player, Ntambwe was the primary ball-handler for a talented Aspire Academy team. He has a strong handle, and while he doesn’t show off with highlight dribble moves, he knows how to use his long stride to beat defenders with his first step. And once he gets past the initial defender, he gets creative.
Ntambwe showed excellent vision as a passer last year. He doesn’t just make the obvious pass — he picks out open teammates all over the court and delivers passes from all angles. He throws passes off the dribble, righty or lefty, bounce passes and swing passes, and he usually puts it on target:
Ntambwe is strong enough on the ball and a good enough facilitator that it’s possible to envision him fitting in nicely next to a score-first point guard like Amauri Hardy.
Ntambwe is especially good in the open court, as all of his physical traits combine to make him a fast-break threat. He can push the ball confidently, he covers ground in a hurry (he can get from end to end with four dribbles), and he’s comfortable finishing at full speed with either hand around the rim.
He also understands spacing and angles. Aspire Academy was a fast-break team, and Ntambwe got a lot of reps running the floor; he doesn’t muck up odd-man breaks by filling the lane poorly or bunching up the spacing. He’s equally comfortable being a passer or finisher on the break:
The quirk in Ntambwe’s game that stood out the most was his love for starting fast breaks. He simply loves throwing quick home-run passes. When he gets his hands on a defensive rebound or loose ball, he looks to fire a long pass down the court for an easy basket. He will try it every time. He cannot help himself — he attempts the 90-foot pass even if the chances of completing it are low.
He’s quite good at it. He aggressively throws touchdown passes with both hands, and when the ball is on target (and the player on the receiving end is actually open), Ntambwe gets his teammates a lot of easy baskets. But he will fire away even in low-percentage situations, and in the games I watched, that led to just as many wasted possessions:
If Ntambwe can learn a bit of discretion when it comes to the long ball and cut out some of the more dangerous (and downright impossible) attempts, his ability to throw touchdown passes will be useful and pump some excitement into UNLV’s transition attack.
As a scorer, Ntambwe did most of his work in the open court. In Aspire’s half-court offense, he didn’t look to score the ball himself unless the situation dictated it. For the season, he put up 13.3 points per game, which is not a crazy scoring average for a sought-after Division-I recruit.
The biggest deficiency in his offensive arsenal is the lack of a jump shot. Ntambwe avoided spot-up situations and turned down shooting opportunities in favor of driving or moving the ball to a teammate. Ntambwe attempted just one true jump shot in the games I watched, and one other mid-range shot off the dribble:
The mechanics look like they will need to be tweaked. Ntambe doesn’t fully extend his shooting arm when he releases the ball, instead keeping his elbow bent, and players with that type of hitch have a hard time developing consistency.
Ntambwe doesn’t profile as a floor-spacer right away, but when he sets his mind to scoring, he can put the ball in the basket. As covered earlier, he is a heady, instinctive offensive player, so he understands spacing and how to move without the ball. In the Aspire games I saw, he didn't take on the role of a go-to scorer, but he chipped in with a little bit of everything: posting up, mid-range, backdoor cuts, dribble drives, jump-stops, etc. He appears to have a soft touch, and when he drives to the basket he uses his length not only with long strides, but with good extension to help him finish at the rim:
He is not a volume scorer the way that fellow incoming freshman Bryce Hamilton is. Ntambwe picks his spots, breaks down the defense when he can, and looks to score only if the passing lanes are defended. But when Ntambwe sets his sights on the rim, he is capable of getting a bucket.
Defensively, Ntambwe is more potential than proven product at this point. His high school team played a 2-3 zone and stuck Ntambwe on the baseline most of the time, and his job was to funnel opponents toward the middle, where 5-star center Charles Bassey was waiting to block their shots.
That scheme was effective, but it didn’t ask a lot of Ntambwe. With his superior length and his understanding of the game, he can probably create deflections and smother secondary ball-handlers, but at Aspire he was too stationary. There were too many plays where he stood close to the action just watching, instead of challenging shots or going for rebounds:
It remains to be seen how Ntambwe will adapt to a man-to-man scheme, but if he can rev up his motor more consistently, he should be able to make a difference as a defender.
Ntambwe wasn’t a heralded recruit when he committed to UNLV in February, but after watching just a few of his high-school game tapes, it’s easy to see why the Rebels wanted him. He’s long, smart, instinctive and team-oriented, and his mature offensive game (and occasional long passes) will make the UNLV offense more dynamic.
If he ever develops a reliable jump shot, Ntambwe can be an excellent program player at UNLV. Even without it, he still profiles as a solid wing who should thrive in an up-tempo system, using his ball-handling, vision and passing ability to create scoring chances for his teammates.
Editor’s Note: The Sun’s Mike Grimala will break down each new incoming recruit from UNLV's 2018 class.