Playing defense is an aspect of basketball that doesn’t necessarily come easily. And it definitely doesn’t come naturally. It’s not glamorous or fun, not like scoring baskets. It takes effort and dedication. Generally speaking, coaches have to extract defense from players who would much rather be dunking or launching 3-pointers.
Generally speaking. But every now and then, an anomaly like former Kansas State star Wesley Iwundu takes up the game, sizes up his natural physical gifts, talents and inclinations, and decides he’s going to establish a different calling card than everybody else. Anybody can shoot jumpers. Not everyone can be a defensive stopper.
If Iwundu—and his name has been rising up certain mock NBA Draft boards since he began working out for teams—finds his way onto a roster next year, it’s because he’s got a built-in role and the tools to perform it well, with his size (nearly 6-foot-7 in shoes), wingspan (an impressive 7-1) and athleticism.
Just as important, Iwundu has the want to.
For all those teams looking for an antidote for a big guard like Klay Thompson wreaking havoc and raining in 3-pointers from impossible angles and distances, Iwundu could be that guy.
“That’s why the NBA guys like him,” Kansas State coach Bruce Weber said. “He’s got the length, the vertical leap, the size. His first couple of years here, before he became an offensive player too, he just wanted to be on the court. His whole focus was rebounding and guarding people.
“And over the years, he’s become a versatile guy that can guard a lot of positions by using his length, using his athletic ability. In the NBA, it’s so important now with all the switching and all the action going on to have players who can guard multiple positions. Wesley can do that.”
Iwundu’s proclivity for defense developed organically. As a junior in high school, he was a 5-11 point guard. As a senior, he was a gangly 6-6 wing looking for a place to fit in. He soon discovered how to put his long limbs to good use.
“My mindset of playing defense goes all the way back to my high school and AAU days,” said Iwundu, a native of Houston. “I played on the same AAU team with the Harrison twins [of eventual University of Kentucky fame]. When it came time for offense and scoring the ball, the ball wasn’t in my hands a lot. So my mindset was to showcase my ability on the defensive end. I wanted to guard the best backcourt player on the other team. And that mindset carried over into college.”
Given Weber’s lineage—he served 19 years as an assistant for defensive guru Gene Keady at Western Kentucky and Purdue—it’s easy to see why Iwundu was a priority recruit. And though Iwundu wasn’t the best shooter in the world, in addition to his defensive prowess, he was also intelligent, a good rebounder and able to handle a few minutes at point guard. Many times, Weber used Iwundu in a Draymond Green, point forward role and ran offense through him.
He’s become a versatile guy that can guard a lot of positions by using his length, using his athletic ability. In the NBA, it’s so important now with all the switching.
Iwundu found playing time from the beginning, starting 32 times as a freshman. He started less but played more minutes as a sophomore. But the Wildcats suffered through a 15-17 record, prompting a rash of transfers. Iwundu might have followed some of his classmates out the door, but he felt loyalty to Weber. He wanted to stay and help turn things around.
In 2016-17, K-State jumped back over the .500 mark at 17-16, but its 5-13 Big 12 Conference record, some critics believed, put Weber’s job in jeopardy. Iwundu helped change that in 2016-17, leading the Wildcats to a 21-14 record and a return to the NCAA tournament after a two-year absence.
“Coach Weber’s my guy,” Iwundu said. “He showed confidence in me when I was a freshman, gave me a chance to showcase my skills. I wanted to stay around and finish what we’d started together. Nobody believed Kansas State could get back to the NCAA tournament. But we did it.
“I wanted to do that for the K-State community, for my teammates, and for coach Weber. I can’t thank him enough for what he’s done for me.”
Weber did more than just give Iwundu playing time and responsibility. College coaches are sometimes reluctant to tamper with a player’s jump shot mechanics. Some aren’t qualified to do so. Others just try to work around that particular weakness, or regard it as a lost cause. Not so Weber and his staff, which includes former Southern Illinois head coach Chris Lowery.
The feedback from NBA scouts after Iwundu’s junior year was that his jump shot suffered from too much wasted motion. Iwundu, a right-handed shooter, would swing the ball in front of his left eye before letting his shot go. In addition to giving a defender too much time to close out, that extra move put some funky action on the ball.
“There are little things you tweak with kids in their careers,” Weber said. “This was a total reconstruction. I’m not even kidding. When he first got here, we had to paint a ball with a line, so Wes could see the rotation. It was either a knuckleball, or it spun sideways like a globe. The first step to fixing his shot was he had to be able to see what his ball was doing.”
A stress reaction suffered Iwundu suffered during his junior season limited him to light practice and games only, so Weber asked him to go to an auxiliary gym and launch shots.
Besides his own paint-enhanced ball, Iwundu was given numerous other practice aids, including a heavier-than-regulation ball, a sling that forced his right elbow closer to his right side, a brightly colored net upon which he could focus his aim, and even an eye patch over his left eye.
“He was very left-eye dominant, so we put a patch on it,” Weber said, laughing at the recollection. “Wes had to learn to release the ball off his right eye so he could see it. To his credit, he bought into it. He really focused and continued to put the time in.”
Iwundu lost track of the hours he spent and the number of shots he put up in pursuit of a sounder stroke.
“Countless hours,” he said. “And every trick in the book, every gadget. It was kind of funny to wear eye patches and other stuff, but all that really did help. We’d also record my shot and watch it over and over again. Coach Weber and coach Lowery, they really hung in there with me.”
The results were dramatic. In his final season, Iwundu made more 3-pointers (32) than he did in his first three seasons combined (19). He shot a combined .244 from behind the arc as a sophomore and junior. As a senior, he shot almost 38 percent.
Iwundu vows to continue his shooting work, which, coupled with his already overflowing toolbox, has enhanced his chances of getting drafted as a “3 and D” man.
“NBA guys worry if a kid can’t shoot at all,” Weber said. “Now you can stick Wesley in the corner, on ball-screen actions and stuff, and he can make a shot. Add that to the fact he’s the first player in K-State history to have at least 1,000 points, 5,00 rebounds, 300 assists and 100 steals. He’s versatile. He’s got skills an NBA team can use.”
Iwundu has gained confidence from his workout tour.
“The main thing in these workouts is me trying to stay without my boundaries and don’t try to do anything other than what got me here,” he said. “I’m feeling great about the workouts, and I’ve gotten great feedback from the teams. I’m excited. But my work’s not done.”
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.