Historic Debut Is Just the Beginning for Neemias Queta

The NBA’s first Portuguese player has come a long way since shelving soccer cleats for high-tops in his early teens.
by Alex Kramers

The clock on the Golden 1 Center Jumbotron read 8:07 p.m., when Neemias Queta, the NBA’s first Portuguese player, arrived at the scorers’ table to make his historic debut during Sacramento’s Dec. 17 matchup against the Memphis Grizzlies. Half a world away, in his hometown of Vale da Amoreira, Portugal, it was a few minutes past 4 o'clock in the morning, but innumerable euphoric, sleepy-eyed fans were up late to celebrate the rookie big man’s first official NBA action and revel in his instant block party.

In his six minutes of floor time, Queta finished with five rebounds, one block, one assist, and one childhood dream fulfilled, proud to represent and inspire his native country, yet eager to be more than an answer to a trivia question.

“It’s a big honor,” he said. “Nothing comes given to you; you have to go get it. I feel like it’s something that I’ve been trying to get since I’ve been playing basketball and it’s a great accomplishment. I’m happy with it, but I’m just trying to go as far as [my career] can go.”

The 7-foot center comes far, far away from the lights, the cameras, the celebrity of NBA basketball, in a land where children practice bouncing soccer balls on grassy fields the way their American counterparts dribble basketballs on concrete driveways and city playgrounds.

So Queta spent his early years doing way more kicking than dunking, idolizing Cristiano Ronaldo instead of LeBron James. The NBA was seldom televised and aired at odd hours, so he wouldn’t watch games with any regularity until his mid-teens.

In elementary school, a teacher invited Queta’s older sister to try out for the basketball team, and Neemias tagged along out of curiosity. The 10-year-old towered so high above his classmates, that Barreirense, a men’s professional basketball team that was training in the same gym, persuaded him to join their workout.

He was soon transfixed by the game. Even though he wasn’t nearly as skilled, much less so experienced, as most of his teammates at first, Queta says, competing against players nearly twice his age sped up his development and spurred his journey to the big leagues.

“It was actually fun,” Queta said. “Being able to be in an environment where everybody is older than you … it just helped me grow up a little bit earlier than I needed to. But at the same time, it was challenging. You’re not going to have the same level of comfort as playing against guys your age. It just helped me mature a lot.”

With his height and arm reach, it might be natural to presume shot-blocking would’ve been his special weapon from the onset, but Queta didn’t view himself as a master of the rejection at first. It wasn’t until he recognized how his wingspan and defensive instincts could transform a game and effect an opponent’s psyche.

“I really wasn’t a rim protector, so to speak,” he said. “ [I needed to] develop my body, just get stronger, and be able to move better on the court. But with time, I just started understanding that with all the length and intangibles I have, I could be able to protect the rim at a high level. I feel like that was the thing I wanted to develop the most. 

After a few years of interspersing weight work with nightly training sessions and scrimmages, Queta had both the game and the confidence to ditch his soccer cleats for high-top sneakers exclusively.

By then, his sights were set on testing himself against the highest level of competition in the sport. 

“[Before age] 16, 17, I was just playing basketball as a hobby; [it was] nothing that I actually thought I could make a living out of,” he said. “But with the help of my coaches, with the influence they’ve had on me, it just flipped the switch in my mind. That was the time when I decided to shift my attention to basketball 100 percent.”

In 2017-18, Queta played a handful of games on the secondary and main teams for SL Benfica, Portugal’s most accomplished basketball club. He began drawing early buzz from ESPN and Draft Express during that year’s U18 European Championships, in which the rising big man averaged 10.2 points, 8.6 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game.

That buzz escalated into a fervor from several Division I programs after Queta’s performance with the   Portuguese U-20 national team in the 2018 European Championships, where he led the entire tournament with 2.9 blocks, along with 14.3 points and a team-best 10.3 rebounds per game. In a win against the Netherlands, he came one swat short of a rare triple-double, finishing with 20 points, 14 rebounds and nine blocked shots.

“That was when teams started reaching out to me,” Queta said. “I considered a lot of schools. I honestly wanted to commit to Texas Tech or Creighton, but I ended up not doing it. Utah State didn’t reach out to me until late March, I believe. At the time, I didn’t feel it was a guarantee [I would commit to Utah State] at all.” 

The Aggies had a strong advantage that no other school could offer: Diogo Brito, a junior guard on the roster, was a fellow Portugal native who happened to be a former classmate of Queta’s older sister. But Queta was still on the fence about his basketball future, until Eric Peterson, an assistant coach at Utah State, flew to Portugal to personally recruit him, meet with his family and answer all of their questions. That, combined with reassuring text messages from Brito, set Utah State apart from other schools on his trail.

The adjustment from sunny Barreiro, a stone’s throw from golden stretches of sand, to Logan, a bus ride away from some of the most popular skiing and snowboarding destinations, was difficult, Queta admits. In his free time, he buried himself in journalism textbooks and binged TV shows, including “Prison Break,” in his dorm room.

There were times when Queta missed his old life at home, but the support and encouragement of his teammates and family members helped lessen the culture shock imposed by traversing the Atlantic Ocean on his own.

“It was hard, but at the end of the day, it’s something I knew I was going to have to go through,” Queta said. “Whenever I decided, ‘Ok, I want to make basketball a living,’ I was aware that could be a possibility. I could’ve been in a place way worse than that … I just tried to [tell myself], I have a lot to do.”

On the court, the transition was much smoother. Nothing was lost in translation, as Queta was fluent in English after taking reading and writing classes since third grade and played alongside American teammates in Portugal.

Like many European imports, Queta recognized he needed to bulk up to hold his own in a more physical U.S. game, and the quicker pace took him by surprise. But at the end of the day, basketball is basketball, and the talented freshman soon emerged into one of the premier young big men in the nation. 

With averages of 11.8 points, 8.9 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game — a single-season school record 84 total denials — he took home Freshman of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year honors, and was named Second Team All-Mountain West. 

Queta declared for the NBA Draft that spring, but decided to withdraw his name after meeting with 11 teams at the combine and gauging feedback from league personnel.

“Honestly, I just felt like I wasn’t ready,” he said. “I felt like I needed a couple of more years in college, just to get accustomed to what the American basketball scene looks like. Just understand more of what I was getting into and [to develop] my game to the level where I’m at today.”

He returned to Utah State on a mission, checking off boxes, one by one, on a list of shortcomings identified by NBA scouts.

“They told me to work on my body, just try to get stronger,” he said. “I feel I’ve been doing that for the last two years. I’ve gained a lot [of weight]. And then I just developed my shooting, because my freshman year, I shot literally 50 percent from the free throw line. Last year, I finished with 70 percent.”

As a junior, Queta led the Mountain West Conference in rebounds (10.1), blocks (3.3) and field-goal percentage (.559), repeating as Defensive Player of the Year and earning All-MWC First Team honors.

Relentless in his pursuit of a rejection, Queta, the third-leading shot-blocker in the nation, partially credits footwork and coordination he learned in soccer for his defensive technique. Queta leaves his feet a split second after the shooter does, he says, synchronizing his arm’s extension with the apex of his opponent’s jump shot.

“It’s being relentless, knowing where you are all the time, knowing where the ball is, knowing when to jump; timing, that's a big key for that,” he said. “You have to know what guys like to do, but at the same time, a lot of it just turns into last-second adjustments on [opponents’] shots.”

His game will always be predicated on defense, but the 20-year-old prospect showed he’s more than just an excellent rim-runner and paint-protector. With a nice array of moves around the basket and an effective perimeter jump shot, he increased his scoring average for the third straight season (14.9).

“Being able to space the floor is something that’s becoming more required out of bigs nowadays in the league,” he said. “I’ve always been a good shooter in my life, so I don’t see why I shouldn’t be taking those shots.”

When opposing teams double-teamed him in the post, Queta, who lists Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid and Bam Adebayo among his favorite players to watch, also impressed by kicking the ball out to open shooters or finding cutters inside the paint. His 77 assists led the Aggies, no small feat for a center, and his 18.6 assist rate was the 10th-highest at his position in the last five years, according to sports-reference.com.

At the 2021 combine, Queta was a far superior player to the one who underperformed two years prior.  This time, he raised his draft profile with not only his defensive awareness, but his ability to pick and pop and toss nifty dump-offs to open teammates.

Ranked as a low-second rounder in early mock drafts, he climbed as high as the end of the first round in many final roundups. Queta, who met with the Kings at the combine and worked out for the team in Sacramento, was one of general manager Monte McNair’s top targets leading into the draft. When the Utah State product was still on the board at No. 39, McNair was thrilled to welcome him to Northern California.

“Neemy is someone we’ve been looking at for a while,” McNair said. “We were really excited when he was there at 39 and we were ready to call it in.”

Queta watched the draft in California with his mother and closest friends, calling the night a “dream come true,” and more emotional than he expected.

“[Sacramento] pretty much felt like home from the beginning,” said Queta, who signed a two-way contract that allows him to split time between the G League and NBA.

In Summer League, Queta was a major contributor as the defensive anchor on a team that captured the championship, chipping in with averages of five points, 4.6 rebounds and one block in 19.7 minutes across his five appearances. In his second game, he notched nine points on 4-of-5 shooting, six rebounds and a massive block; a perfectly-timed rejection that negated two points for the Hornets and ignited a fastbreak opportunity for the Kings.

Queta has been even more exceptional in the G League, where he’s the only player currently averaging at least 15 points (15.3), nine rebounds (9.1) and two blocks (2.3; third in the league). With Queta on the court, the Stockton Kings defense has held opponents to just 91.8 points per 100 possessions, tied for the eighth-lowest rating among all players, per NBA.com. Overall, the team is outscoring its opposition by a staggering 25.4 points per 100 possessions when its prized big man has been on the floor.

Those nightly reps gave him consistent playing time and a nice head start on his pro career. So when Sacramento, shorthanded due to several players in health and safety protocols, recalled him from the G League, Queta was ready for the opportunity he’d craved since that day he followed his sister to basketball tryouts.

“I still [get] chills [thinking about it] because I haven’t fully experienced the NBA debut,” he said, one day prior to checking into his first game. “I’m really hungry for it.”

It’s an experience he and all of Portugal will forever cherish, but one that Queta hopes ultimately is a footnote in a lengthy, productive NBA career.

“Just to be on that NBA court … you know how many people want to be on that NBA court?” he said. “That just makes me really grateful. At the same time, I’m looking forward to what the future has for me … I’m enjoying it as much as I can, and I’m just trying to make the most out of it.”

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