ESPN | Joel Embiid and Pascal Siakam are the NBA’s current Cameroonian stars, but Chicago Bulls legend Joakim Noah, who also hails from the African nation, has tipped teenager Ulrich Chomche to be the country’s next ‘fighting spirit and hope’.
Already courted by the University of Arizona Wildcats amongst others, Chomche, the 6’11” 17-year-old hot prospect was plucked from the NBA Academy in Senegal, and is lighting up the Basketball Africa League (BAL) for Rwanda Energy Group (REG).
Among Chomche’s many admirers is Noah, a Bulls icon who is an NBA Africa investor. He told the media in Dakar, where REG leads the Sahara Conference: “Ulrich is our spirit right now. He’s our fighting spirit and he’s the hope.
“There’s a lot of work that he’s doing. I see his work ethic. I see the way that he runs the floor and I’m proud of him.
“I feel like the BAL is a great platform for him to play against top talent, to play against grown men, so this is what he’s going to have to do to get better, but obviously, the sky’s the limit to him and we’re always going to be there to support him.”
A smiling Chomche, however, was humble when informed of Noah’s ‘hope’ tag, telling ESPN: “Nah, not yet.
“First of all, I have to say thank you for that and I don’t think that I’m the greatest hope for Cameroon because they have a lot of basketball talent in Cameroon; it’s just that they don’t have an opportunity to be there too to showcase [it]. I think I still have a lot to learn, so I can’t say that I’m the greatest hooper in Cameroon.”
That Chomche, already a senior international, is a work in progress is clear. Specifically, his shooting is not quite as formidable as the defensive side of his game. However, Chomche is a player whose work ethic means there is no doubt from those around him that he will fulfill his potential.
The way he took to the task of learning English was an example of his desire to succeed. When he first started playing basketball in Bafang around the age of 11 — spurred on by peer pressure as he was the tallest kid in his neighbourhood, he had almost no grasp of the language.
This may not have been a problem in French-speaking Cameroon, but Chomche was always destined to grow out of Bafang. Just as he was beginning to learn the ropes of basketball, the NBA Africa Academy was opening in Saly, Senegal, in 2017.
The following year, Chomche, then just 12, was on their books, and faced with a range of cultures and the very real prospect of a professional basketball career, he had to learn English.
“I came to the academy and my English was very bad. I only knew ‘yes’ and ‘no’,” Chomche recalled. His discomfort speaking English stuck with him for some time.
However, at Basketball Without Borders (BWB) Africa in Cairo last year, his grasp of the language had improved to such an extent that he was able to serve as a translator for fellow hot prospect Thierry Darlan’s interview with ESPN.
Chomche walked away from that camp with the Defensive MVP award, while Darlan was the overall Boys’ MVP. They subsequently visited the University of Arizona together, but Darlan, who is two years older than Chomche, committed to G League Ignite.
Chomche, who will finish high school this year and can choose whether to go to college now or in 2024, hinted that Arizona is not the only college interested in him.
“I had a lot of universities who came for me, but I didn’t go to visit [any other than Arizona] yet,” he said, and perhaps Embiid’s University of Kentucky, also Wildcats, could be an option?
REG coach Dean Murray, a mentor with 34 years of experience including in the NBA Development League and G League, made special mention of Chomche’s contribution to the team in three successive post-game press conferences. According to him, Chomche would have attracted even more interest if he were American.
“Obviously, if he was going to high school in America, every team in America would want him. That’s clear,” he said.
“He’s in Africa and probably every team in America still wants him. He’s got a really good attitude. You can tell that he really loves to play basketball. He’s a hard worker in the classroom; he even left the hotel last night to go take some classes online that he’s working on, so he’s really focused on that.
“I’ve just been talking to him. I think he’s honestly like any young player – he wants to get to the NBA – but he’s willing to take the steps to get there.”
REG advance to BAL playoffs after beating AS DouanesREG advance to BAL playoffs following a 69-55 win at the Dakar Arena.
First things first, Chomche will look to help Rwanda’s REG, a team who he played against in a shock quarter-final win for Cameroon’s Forces Armées et Police (FAP) at last year’s BAL, win a championship on home soil in Kigali in May’s playoffs.
“We need to, first of all, qualify for the playoffs, then to win the championship, he said, before adding “and [I need to] improve my game to the next level.”
So far, so good. REG picked up wins over Nigeria’s Kwara Falcons and Ivory Coast’s ABC Fighters, before sealing their playoff spot with a win over AS Douanes on Wednesday.
Chomche contributed in all three victories, with his six points and eight rebounds against ABC proving vital in a tight contest. Similarly, his six rebounds and nine points were influential in a dominant win over Douanes.
According to Murray, however, Chomche is a player whose brilliance transcends the box score: “A lot of times, people just look at stats and he had eight boards and six points, but just the fact that he’s standing in front of the rim [means that] if anybody is going to come in there, he is going to alter their shot.
“He has really good instincts and I wish the best for him; I know this is a great experience for him.”
The playoffs in Kigali take place from May 21-27 and Chomche will be one of the key players to watch not only in his age group, but in the entire competition.