Every year in NBA.com’s series of NBA Draft profiles, we like to identify and write about a sleeper, a player who might not turn up in mock drafts, get invited to the Portsmouth Invitational, or otherwise be considered to have a chance at making a roster.
This year that guy is Baylor’s Nuni Omot.
It’s open for debate as to what constitutes a sleeper. But in our definition of the term, a player must possess the following qualities:
• At least one NBA-level skill.
• High character.
• Work ethic.
We’ll start with the obvious.
Omot can shoot the rock. And at 6-foot-9 with a 7-foot wingspan and above-average athleticism, he can shoot it over pretty much anybody.
Consider the numbers. In the 2017-18 season, Omot shot 43.3% from behind the 3-point arc, fifth in the Big 12 Conference. Perhaps more impressive in a league where coaches are sticklers for defense, Omot shot 48.1% during league play. That led the conference.
“He can shoot,” Baylor assistant coach John Jakus says. “He can really, really shoot. Our [director of basketball operations] Bill Peterson was in the NBA for 12 years and has been working him out pre-draft. Nuni’s hitting numbers from three that very few guys can hit. Guys that are all stars.”
Peterson, who was a Milwaukee Bucks assistant for six seasons, a player development coach for the Dallas Mavericks and a head coach in the G-League, was impressed with Omot’s tools.
“At the end of the year, Nuni came to me and said ‘coach, I know you’ve been in the league,’ ” Peterson says. “ ‘You know me, and you know what’s expected. What do I need to do?’ ”
Peterson and Omot went to work. The first order of business was to forget the college 3-point line ever existed and move back a few steps to the NBA line. Omot mastered the deeper range fairly quickly. Then his workouts became more refined.
“I’ve treated him like an NBA player,” Peterson says. “Fundamentally, there were things we could help him do to get his shot off quicker. If you think about Ray Allen, Rip Hamilton, Kyle Korver, guys like that, they come off a pin down [screen] and get it off right away. We’ve worked on that with Nuni, and he’s gotten better and better and better.”
Peterson has also encouraged Omot to incorporate a shot fake with a couple of dribbles.
“Then he can put his body into [his defender] and lean back and score the ball,” Peterson said. “He’s learning to get it down and up quickly into the shot pocket.”
Omot isn’t afraid of hard work. As a junior, he played sparingly. Omot knew that in order to get on the floor more, he’d have to improve his shooting.
“I could shoot it a little bit,” Omot said. “But last summer, I worked on my shot like crazy. I lost count of how many shots I put up, but I worked and worked, just trying to become more consistent.”
Omot shot 31% from three as a junior and averaged 11.2 minutes a game. In his final season, Omot’s playing time (23.8 mpg) shot up as drastically as his 3-point percentage did.
A journey to America
On to character, which in Omot’s case must be analyzed concurrent with his perseverance. It comes from his family members, who nearly 22 years ago were forced to leave their native Ethiopia, then engulfed in civil war. Omot’s father, mother and brother trekked more than 400 miles to Kenya, on foot mostly and finding rides when they could, often at night so they wouldn’t be spotted.
The Omots had some family in Sioux Falls, S.D. and hoped to quickly receive visas to move to the United States. But they spent three years in a Kenyan refugee camp, where conditions were poor, disease rampant and food scarce. That’s where, in 1994, Omot was born.
In 1996, Omot, his mother, Pillow, and brother Aba were allowed into the U.S. But his father, Kwot, was forced to stay behind for medical reasons. Omot’s mother worked hard to ensure her sons could establish a life in their new home. He’s never forgotten that.
“Her desire, and her passion for me and my brother,” Omot says. “When we got to the U.S., she started working. What she had to go through was unbelievable, something you would see in a movie. All the thousands of miles she had to travel to find a home for her family.”
Omot’s first love was football, even though he was thin. He was fast and had good hands, which made him a good receiver. But then came a growth spurt, and it became apparent Omot was going to have to make basketball his primary sport.
By his own admission, Omot was so clumsy at first, he nearly gave up the game.
“I couldn’t run without tripping over my feet,” he says, laughing at the recollection. “I couldn’t make a move without falling over. I wanted to quit so badly. I was just terrible. But somehow, I continued to trust in the process.”
The family settled in Minnesota, where Omot attended Mahtomedi High School. He played well in his senior season, but didn’t receive an NCAA Division I scholarship offer, so he began his college career at Division II Concordia University in St. Paul, Minn. Omot redshirted his first season, then averaged 12.4 points and 5.5 rebounds as a freshman in 2014-15, shooting 58 percent from the field and 42 percent from 3.
Still thinking he could play Division I, Omot transferred to Indian Hills (Iowa) Community College, a junior college powerhouse.
After averaged 12.2 points and 5.4 rebounds and starting 33 games, Baylor offered a scholarship. Forced to sit out the fall semester of 2016 because of academic reasons, he saw action in 25 games the rest of the season. His stats were modest, prompting the hard work he put in during the summer of 2017.
Omot’s senior season didn’t play out exactly as he’d hoped, but he was able to prove beyond a doubt he could play college basketball at its highest level. And there was a surprise at the end.
Since leaving Kenya as an infant, Omot hadn’t seen his father, nor did he have any recollection of him. Kwot Omot was stranded in Africa, unable to make the transition to the U.S. one day, Omot’s brother surprised him with some news.
“He told me my father was going to come to America, but he didn’t know when,” Omot says. “The night before my senior night at Baylor, my brother said, ‘let’s go to the gym, I’ve got to pick something up.’ I walked into the gym, and my dad was at center court. He just broke down. It was very emotional. I’d never seen him before, and I didn’t think I’d ever see him.”
Omot’s father attended Baylor’s senior night and is now working in South Dakota. Now Omot, wants to find his way onto an NBA roster, in part because he knows he’s good enough, but in part because of his family that battled through seemingly insurmountable obstacles to be together.
“I’d love to make it to where my mom doesn’t have to work anymore,” Omot said.
Is his dream possible? Is this ultimate sleeper really NBA material?
“If you look at him, he’s what the NBA is trending to,” Jakus said. “If they can figure out what position he guards, and he does that at a high level, then you know what he can do at the other end. He’s going to space the floor with his shooting and drive closeouts and get to the rim. He’s got the three-part of the three and D down now. And I think the rest will come.”
Peterson would have loved to have coached Omot in the G League.
“He’s a prototype guy for me,” Peterson said. “He’s got great length, he’s athletic, and he can shoot the ball so well. Let me have this guy for a year, get him a ton of reps, and you’ve got something.”
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.