Joel Ntambwe grew up in Belgium playing basketball and soccer, his deep interest in the NBA beginning when he would watch highlights.
He especially loved seeing Kobe Bryant play, admiring his grit and determination and how he almost willed the Los Angeles Lakers to victory.
As a 10- or 11-year-old, Ntambwe found his love for basketball deepen as he went from watching NBA highlights to seeing complete games and imagining a future in the sport.
But what turned the tide from playing soccer to basketball was much simpler.
He was taller than everyone else.
And so the matchup problems that Ntambwe created as a youngster in Belgium and later in the Congo, he still creates today, a 6-foot-9-inch player who can play both forward positions and shoot like a guard.
“That’s the way basketball is going now,” UNLV coach Marvin Menzies said. “It’s positionless basketball. Everybody is talking about that lately as far as guys being able to play multiple positions with size and have a high-level skill set. So he’s a guy who’s developed that.”
Freshman of the Year?
Ntambwe enters UNLV’s bye weekend — the Rebels (9-6, 3-0 Mountain West) play at Air Force on Wednesday — having scored in double figures in the past eight games. He averages 12.4 points and 6.0 rebounds and is shooting a team-high 39.2 percent (20 of 51) from 3-point range.
His emergence has been quite a surprise, at least to those outside the Rebels’ locker room.
Ntambwe wasn’t on many, if any, Mountain West preseason lists for freshmen to watch. UNR’s Jordan Brown was chosen preseason Freshman of the Year, but the McDonald’s All-American has struggled to find a role in the Wolf Pack’s veteran lineup, averaging 4.2 points and 2.8 rebounds over 11.4 minutes per game entering Saturday’s game at Fresno State.
Wyoming’s Hunter Thompson (12.2-point average) and Utah State’s Neemias Queta (10.2 points, 8.2 rebounds) are the other early competitors for top freshman, which UNLV’s Brandon McCoy won last season after averaging 16.9 points and 10.3 rebounds.
Adjusting to college ball in general and the Mountain West specifically came fairly easy for Ntambwe, someone accustomed to transitions.
He spent his first 10 years in Belgium before moving to his dad’s native Congo. French is spoken in both countries, and Ntambwe easily made friends in each place.
“I’m a nice person, I’m a great kid, so I always get along with pretty much everybody,” he said.
His dream was to come to the United States, and basketball was his ticket when it came time to enter high school. Ntambwe played at three prep schools, most recently the Aspire Academy in Louisville, Kentucky. He also attended schools in Fernandina Beach, Florida, and Kernersville, North Carolina.
Because he lived in a dorm with other players, the assimilation into a new country wasn’t difficult, he said. His sister lives in Dallas and an uncle in Houston, giving him family to visit.
When UNLV came into the picture for Ntambwe, he didn’t have to travel across an ocean to see if he wanted to play for the Rebels.
UNLV assistant coach Andre LaFleur was impressed with Ntambwe from the beginning, and soon so was Menzies.
“We had great chemistry right away and got it done pretty quickly,” Menzies said. “I knew I wanted him, and he knew he wanted to be here almost spontaneously.”
Ntambwe chose the Rebels over UCLA, Wichita State and Tennessee.
“Some other schools would call me and ask, ‘How many points did you score? How did you do tonight? Who were you playing?’” he said. “Coach Menzies, Coach Dre, Coach (Eric) Brown, they weren’t really asking me, ‘How many points did you score?’ They were like, ‘How is everything going? How is school? How is your family?’ It wasn’t all about basketball. That made me really want to come out here.
“Coach Menzies talked to me like his son.”
Overcoming a slow start
Ntambwe might be playing well now, but he had a rough start, tearing left ankle ligaments on the first day of practice.
Even though he missed a week of practice and needed two months for a complete recovery, Ntambwe did what he always does when given the chance — go as hard as he could. Menzies and his coaches noticed that hustle, and before long they were making plans to put Ntambwe in the starting lineup, where he has been all season.
“His energy and his aggressiveness to get better in practice separated him from some of the other guys,” Menzies said. “He would talk, and he had great responses to coaching. Antennas went up, and then watching him closer, I realized how long he was and how efficient he was at rebounding and could make the tough shots. I said, ‘Let’s put him in there, and then we’ll see where it goes.’”
Menzies told Ntambwe to keep playing hard and focus on defense and rebounding. With offense not his focus, Ntambwe failed to reach double figures in is first seven games.
“As soon as I would get a stop or get a rebound, that’s when my confidence started building to go play offense,” he said.
There were signs that his offensive game was beginning to come along. Ntambwe took only six 3-pointers in the three games leading up to the Dec. 8 trip to Illinois, but he made four. Then against the Illini, he made 5 of 9 shots and both 3s to score 18 points.
That began his current streak of double-digit games, though the shooting hasn’t always been here. Ntambwe made 11 of 17 shots in a 31-point, 10-rebound effort Jan. 5 against Wyoming and followed by going 4 of 15 with 12 points and five rebounds Tuesday at New Mexico.
“He’s still learning shot selection, and he’s still learning defensive schemes,” Menzies said. “He’s got a lot of room for improvement, but fortunately for us, his efficiency has been pretty good in a short amount of time.”
Joel Ntambwe file
Hometown: Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo
Height/weight: 6-9, 210
Averages: 12.4 points and 6.0 rebounds in 15 games