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Pistons take look at 7-1 Nigerian long shot Michael Ojo

Rod Beard
The Detroit News

Auburn Hills — Michael Ojo spent Tuesday morning a long way from where he thought eight years ago that he’d be.

Far from his family, far from his friends, far from his village and everything he was comfortable with in Lagos, Nigeria — almost 6,000 miles away.

Ojo, a 7-foot-1, 304-pound behemoth from Florida State, was working out for the Pistons at their practice facility, looking to get an NBA job. He’s a long shot, not projected to be even a second-round draft pick, but his dream is no different than any of the top prospects.

His road to an NBA workout is, though.

Ojo has a master’s degree in International Affairs and has a plan beyond the NBA.

In 2010, Ojo, 24, hadn’t really heard of basketball and was finding his way in his home country’s most popular sport, soccer. He was a defender — and admittedly a rugged one, at that.

“I’m the defender and I have one rule: if I miss the ball, I’m not going to miss your leg,” Ojo joked Tuesday.

He was about 6-foot-6 at age 16 until one of the few folks familiar with basketball approached him, asking why he was wasting his time playing soccer.

“Do you realize what basketball can do for your family?” the man asked of Ojo, who had never played basketball.

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It was an inauspicious start.

“At first, I didn’t like it because everything I did was wrong,” Ojo said. “I was goaltending — and when I picked up the ball, I walked five miles.”

He’s a long way away from that, after five years at Florida State, including a redshirt year in 2015-16 because of a torn meniscus. He averaged 4.9 points and 3.2 rebounds in his senior season but his bigger contribution was on the defensive end, where he had 30 blocks.

But Ojo, having played basketball for only seven or eight years, had so much to learn.

A big part of that was on the fly, from the beginning, when he went from Tennessee Temple prep school in Chattanooga to Florida State. The learning curve there was steep, but he had to climb one step at a time.

“When he came to Florida State, he had played 15 games where there was a clock and officials. The only other basketball he played was in the streets and in the camps he came from in Lagos,” Florida State assistant coach Stan Jones said. “The only rim they had near his village, he wasn’t allowed to dunk.

“His first summer workouts with us before freshman year, he couldn’t powerfully dunk the ball because he wasn’t allowed to dunk (there).”

But through his work with the assistant coaches and through his own work ethic, he improved on some of his weaker points, going from a poor free-throw shooter to one of the best on the team in a couple years.

“He couldn’t shoot free throws well and he was determined that he wasn’t going to be labeled as the big guy who couldn’t shoot free throws,” Jones said. “And then he led our team at 81 percent.”

Some of the work was on his own, but much of it, Ojo had to put in the effort and sweat himself. He credits Florida State head coach Leonard Hamilton and the coaching staff with giving him the push he needed.

“Generally, coach Hamilton does a really good job at player development. He’s a patient coach and pays attention to the details and he takes his time to teach you exactly what he wants you to do,” Ojo said. “That’s something he has been able to work on over the course of my career — trying to stick with it and get it right before you move on to the next one.”

A priority now

Ojo’s family never has seen him play at Florida State, because of the expense and the extensive travel. If he reaches his NBA dream, he’s looking to turn a lot of that around.

“I have a lot of plans. Plan A is to make it to this league. Plan B is to figure out how to make Plan A work,” he said. “Plan C is to see what happened to Plan B, and Plan D is to figure out Plan C isn’t working.”

He was serious, but the NBA isn’t his only way out. He has a head on his shoulders and values education and puts basketball in its proper place: a priority for now, but not the end-all.

“First that degree was for my mom, my people, my family and my city. Education back home, even though we have a better standard of education, it is very expensive to send your kids to school,” Ojo said. “The economy is not that great and there’s a lot of corruption.

“My family can’t afford to send kids to school, much less sending them to school in America. Getting this opportunity to play basketball and go to school for free is a big deal for me and my family. That’s why I take so much pride in my education.”

Whether he makes an NBA squad or just gets an extended look on a summer league roster, Ojo will cherish the opportunity. He could be a third center or even play internationally, but either way, he’ll just wait and see.

And enjoy the ride.

Even if it doesn’t work out, he has a master’s degree to fall back on.

“The thing that opened the game up where he has a chance to be an NBA player is last year when he had a meniscus tear,” Jones said. “We made him be our shadow coach for our other freshman kid from Africa in Chad.

“Michael had to be by him (all the time) and all that having to talk about it made him have an unbelievable understanding of how the game has to look.”

And a unique perspective on life, almost 6,000 miles away from home.

rod.beard@detroitnews.com

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