Wes Iwundu Excited to Play in Front of Family and Friends
By John Denton
Jan. 29, 2018
HOUSTON – On Sunday, Orlando Magic forward Wes Iwundu spent his first night back in his hometown of Houston in months by taking his family out to dinner and picking up the check.
On Tuesday, when the Magic face the Rockets at Toyota Center – a place where Iwundu used to come for games and dream of playing in the NBA – the proverbial dessert to that meal will come. For the 23-year-old Iwundu, parents Marilyn Williams and Larry Williams and older siblings Chris Moore and Kimberly Moore, the night will be a family celebration of sorts.
``This is a day-one dream for me and it’s exciting, especially for my family. Particularly, for my mom, brother, sister and my dad, it means a lot to them for me to come back home and play a NBA game in front of them,’’ said Iwundu, who attended Westfield High School about 40 minutes away from Houston’s Toyota Center. ``This is something that I’ve always been striving for – all the way back to when my mom was driving me to AAU practices and getting up early in the morning for AAU games. This (playing Houston) is what all of that led to, so it’s a big-time accomplishment for me and the family.’’
Whereas parents often get overlooked when an athlete makes it all the way to pro sports, Iwundu has made sure to shine a light back on his family for helping him along his basketball journey. Marilyn was a registered nurse, while Larry was a railroad worker and their one major rule for Iwundu was that he had to stop playing basketball in the driveway and be in the house when the street lights came on. Iwundu, who starred collegiately at Kansas State before being a second-round draft pick by the Magic last June, knows he likely wouldn’t be in the NBA today without the help of those around him.
``A lot was sacrificed. My mom was so big in this process. She might not know too much about basketball, but when it came to getting me to practice, getting me to games and anywhere I needed to be for basketball, she was there for me,’’ said Iwundu, who has gotten 10 tickets for his family and friends already and he’s continues to be inundated by other neighborhood friends and high school buddies. ``A mother always knows best and in many situations that was my mom being there for me. On my bad days or worst days, she was always there and keeping me up. That’s just the love and support that I got. I owe a lot of this to her and my family.’’
Because of that reason, Iwundu said that not long after running on the floor for the Magic (14-34) and before facing the Rockets (35-13), he will do everything in his power to soak it all in and savor the moment. After all, nothing has been easy about Iwundu journey getting here to the NBA and he wants to enjoy every second of the ride.
As a second-round draft choice, Iwundu had no contractual guarantees coming into this season, but he scratched and clawed in Summer League and training camp to make the Magic’s Opening Night roster.
Thus far, Iwundu has played in 30 games and has made three starts with his biggest moment coming on Jan. 6 when he got a gritty defensive stop against LeBron James and scored 12 points against the Cavaliers. The 6-foot-7, 195-pounder has averaged just 3.4 points and 1.9 rebounds in 13 minutes a game, but he has convinced Magic head coach Frank Vogel that he can be trusted for a bigger role in the future.
``I think Wes is going to be in this league for a long time,’’ Vogel said with conviction. ``With a second-round pick, you can usually see early on whether a guy has a chance or he doesn’t. Not only does he have a chance, but I really think he’s going to be in this league for a long time. He’s going to have a good career here and I think it was a heck of a good pick getting him in the second round.’’
Iwundu has had a perfect example to follow in teammate and fellow Houstonian Jonathon Simmons, someone who made it to the NBA despite being undrafted when he came out of college. Simmons reached the NBA via a $150 minor-league workout and he’s tried to advise the rookie on the improvements he needs to make in his game.
``He’s coming along and he’s adapting very well,’’ said Simmons, who is in his first season with the Magic after thriving as a reserve for two seasons with the San Antonio Spurs. ``He’s trying to understand better how to be a pro and I’ve tried to help give him as much knowledge as I can. I think he’s developed very well at what he does, but he just has to continue to grow.’’
While Iwundu likely hasn’t gotten as much playing time as he hoped for this NBA season, there was a moment early in his college days that taught him a valuable lesson.
After a stellar high school career in Houston, Iwundu had scholarship offers from 15 colleges, and he ultimately chose Kansas State over SMU. At K-State, he didn’t start his first college game, but he played well enough off the bench that he moved into the starting lineup by the second game. Ultimately, he would go on to set a new record for career starts in Kansas State history with 124. He got to K-State as part of a highly decorated recruiting class, but he was the only player in the group to stick around campus past the second-year mark.
It was during Iwundu’s time at K-State – when he was twice a third-team All-Big 12 selection – when he said the dreams of reaching the NBA seemed feasible. He grew up in a football state deep in the heart of Texas, but he tried that sport just once as an eighth grader and hated it. Instead, basketball was always his passion and he wanted to go as far as his dedication to the sport would take him.
Making it to college was a big milestone for him and the family, but it also left him wanting more out of the sport he’s loved his whole life.
``When I got to college, that was big for me, playing Division I basketball,’’ said Iwundu, who was considered one of college basketball’s best one-on-one defenders last season. ``Ever since I got to that point, my whole mindset has been on doing this for the rest of my life and making money doing it.’’
At the NBA level, he’s shown a willingness to do anything and everything to improve his game. Four different times, Iwundu was sent to Orlando’s G League affiliate, the Lakeland Magic, and he happily accepted those assignments with the purpose of working to better his game.
``He has good instincts and good defensive talent,’’ Vogel said. ``Offensively, he knows how to play the game at this level, which is very, very important.’’
One of his favorite moments of the season came on Jan. 3 when the Magic hosted the Rockets in Orlando and defensively he got switched onto all-star point guard Chris Paul. That was one of the many times that Iwundu realized he was going up against players he idolized much of his life while dreaming about playing in the NBA.
``That was one of those `I-made-it’ type of moments, guarding Chris Paul out there,’’ he said with a laugh. ``It was big time to guard him after always watching him and seeing him as someone who could do so much stuff on the court. To finally be out there on the same court with him, that was a crazy moment for me. There have been, maybe, 100 more of those moments for me since I’ve gotten to the NBA and they will always be big for me.’’
Growing up around Houston, Iwundu closely followed the Rockets’ teams led by Steve Francis and Cuttino Mobley and later Hall of Famer Tracy McGrady – now an advisor for the Magic – was his favorite player. Iwundu once attended a basketball camp where Mobley was the featured instructor and he got to shake the hand of 7-foot-6 Rockets center Yao Ming at a basketball function.
Those moments only made the dreams of reaching the NBA more vivid. Like with most small boys who dream of reaching basketball’s biggest stage, Iwundu fueled his passion for the sport in some rather rugged games in the driveway of his parents’ home.
``We had a basketball goal in my driveway and me and my friends from my neighborhood played every day. Every day after our school, we did our homework and were straight out there playing ball,’’ he said. ``We’d get bruises and cuts on our legs and arms from falling on the concrete, but it was all good. It’s just so exciting now to be in the NBA and live the dream that we all had back then when we were playing in the driveway.’’
On Tuesday, when Iwundu plays his first NBA game back in Houston, the dream will become a reality. Making the moment even more special is the fact that many of the people who made it possible will be on hand to witness it.
``I went to a few Rockets games here and there as a kid and that’s what’s crazy about this whole thing. I was watching the Rockets play as a little kid and now I’m getting to play on the court against them as a professional,’’ he said with amazement. ``This is going to be big for me, being in Houston – where I was born and raised – and coming back to play here.’’
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