Tuesday, May 8, 2018 | 2 a.m.
Like every young boy who grows up in Cameroon, Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua’s first love was soccer.
Unfortunately for Tchamwa Tchatchoua, by the time he reached his teens he was too tall and gangly to be of much use on the pitch.
He wasn’t cut out for the sport, and his friends and family weren’t shy about letting him know.
“In my country, the only sport is soccer,” Tchamwa Tchatchoua says. “I dreamed to be a professional soccer player like all the kids. But I was really not good at it. Compared to the average kid of my age in Cameroon, I was not good. My friends and everyone told me to try something else.”
Tchamwa Tchatchoua has made the most of that advice. Now standing 6-foot-8 and with just three years of basketball experience under his belt, he signed a letter of intent with UNLV on Friday, and he’ll join the Runnin’ Rebels as a freshman for the 2018-19 season.
How did Tchamwa Tchatchoua make the leap from newcomer to Division-I prospect in such a short amount of time? His story is a combination of opportunity, physical gifts, and a desire to learn.
His older brother had tinkered with basketball growing up, and the two would sometimes shoot around on the little-used courts of their home city of Yaoundé (using a soccer ball, of course). Tchamwa Tchatchoua was 15 years old and brand-new to the game when inspiration struck in the form of internet highlights of LeBron James.
Armed with footage of King James to replicate, Tchamwa Tchatchoua set out to make himself a basketball player. And unlike most kids who dream of being the next LeBron, Tchamwa Tchatchoua could actually elevate above the rim for spectacular dunks from the first time he stepped on the court.
Within a year, he had made enough progress to be invited to a local basketball camp put on by NBA player and Cameroon native Luc Mbah a Moute in 2015. The same camp had earlier produced Philadelphia 76ers superstar Joel Embiid, as well as future NBA first-round draft pick Pascal Siakam. Like the famous Cameroonians before him, Tchamwa Tchatchoua used the Mbah a Moute camp as a springboard.
After performing well at the event, Tchamwa Tchatchoua was invited to the more prestigious Basketball Without Borders showcase in Johannesburg, South Africa, in August of 2015. The BWB camp is a joint production of the NBA and FIBA and is attended by scouts and NBA team personnel, and though Tchamwa Tchatchoua’s skills were still raw, his length and freakish athleticism intrigued those in attendance.
He won the event’s slam-dunk contest, and when the NBA opened its first Global Basketball Academy in Australia in 2017, Tchamwa Tchatchoua was invited to be a member of the inaugural class.
Leaving Cameroon for Australia was not easy. Tchamwa Tchatchoua had to learn a new language while assimilating to college prep studies, and that was on top of his athletic duties.
But Tchamwa Tchatchoua’s desire on the court made the transition work.
“I was real excited to go, because kids weren’t playing basketball at home,” he says. “Going overseas was the first part of the dream. When I went there I was still starting to play. Mostly I learned. Everything was really different, from the culture to school. Then the basketball aspect was different as well. I was learning basketball. I learned all my basketball skills here, my basketball IQ and everything. How to move on the court, how to shoot the ball, training. It’s like a high school here, but it’s also learning how to be an athlete — how to take care of your body, what we’re eating, weights, testing, everything. It’s to make us ready for college basketball. I also worked really hard the first six months due to the language barrier. My first language is French, so I still had to learn English.”
That’s how Tchamwa Tchatchoua has spent the last two years, honing his skills on the court and learning how to study at a collegiate level. A strong showing at an Adidas Nations AAU event in August drew more college recruiters. Tchamwa Tchatchoua took an official visit to UNLV last month, and when it was time to make a decision, the Rebels were a natural choice.
Though he had strong interest from Gonzaga and St. John’s, Tchamwa Tchatchoua was drawn to UNLV. He developed a strong relationship with assistant coach Preston Laird, and he liked Menzies’ track record of developing African players — including Siakam, who became a star under Menzies at New Mexico State.
“Coach Menzies treats players like family,” Tchamwa Tchatchoua says. “He really likes African players. He’s used to coaching them, and I feel like he’s a great coach.”
According to Laird, the Rebels expect Tchamwa Tchatchoua to play as a freshman and make an impact, especially on the defensive end.
“Physically, when you look at him, he’s 6-foot-8 and he’s got like a 7-foot-2, 7-foot-3 wingspan,” Laird says. “With his motor and athleticism, when you look at the league and how the league is shaping up and everyone is going small and you have to guard multiple positions, we think Jonathan will eventually be able to do some of those things.”
Tchamwa Tchatchoua also made strong connections with the current Rebels during his visit. And while sophomore Mbacke Diong and junior Cheickna Dembele are not from Cameroon (Senegal and Mali, respectively), they should be able to help Tchamwa acclimate to college life in the United States.
Now, three years after picking up the game, Tchamwa Tchatchoua will soon be packing his bags again and heading to UNLV. He’ll be traveling alone, but the worldly young man is looking forward to his experience in Las Vegas.
“I’m really excited to go to the college level,” Tchamwa Tchatchoua says. “UNLV has really good guys, talented guys. And it will be really good to be around the staff.
“I cannot wait to get there.”
Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that Tchamwa Tchatchoua attended the Basketball Without Borders camp in August of 2015, not February of 2016.