NC State begins its 2018 NCAA Tournament on Thursday against Seton Hall. CBS Sports' Reid Forgrave had a chance to talk with WolfPack star Omer Yurtseven and those around him earlier this season about how NC State turned things around from an ugly season last year and how he became a more solid NBA prospect in the process.
RALEIGH, N.C. -- Omer Yurtseven was 15 years old when he first came to the United States.
"It was like a dream come true," he said.
He'd flown from his home in Turkey, where he was playing basketball for the Turkish club Fenerbahce -- one of the top Euroleague teams -- to play in New York City for the Jordan Brand Classic. He put Jay-Z's "Empire State of Mind" on his headphones and rapped along. He gawked when he walked into the Brooklyn Nets' arena, the Barclays Center. He played in the Jordan Brand Classic's international game, then he watched the game that featured American high schoolers, future top NBA draft picks like Karl-Anthony Towns and Myles Turner, Devin Booker and D'Angelo Russell. And he just about passed out when he met the man himself, Michael Jordan.
For a talented basketball player who would soon grow to seven feet tall, this place -- America -- was where it was at. He knew it then: He needed to get to the United States.
"It was a dream -- a dream that I thought I wouldn't be able to reach," Yurtseven told CBSSports.com earlier this school year. "Because it just seemed so far. I'm just a kid from a small house in Turkey, and I'm supposed to go to the U.S.? It just sounds hard. But things worked out."
Things have worked out for Yurtseven as well as for his first-year head coach at North Carolina State, Kevin Keatts. After Mark Gottfried's tenure ended with last season's underachieving squad, NC State hired Keatts from UNC-Wilmington, who promised to bring a more intense, up-tempo style of basketball to Raleigh.
The day after NC State lost in the ACC tournament last year, Yurtseven started going to a local Lifetime Fitness every morning and working on his game with the team's equipment manager. He didn't know whether he would put his name in for the NBA Draft or not, but he certainly wanted NBA executives to evaluate him after his freshman season. "I just wanted to know if I'm there and what it takes to get there," he said. He did well at the combine and did well at draft workouts; teams told him his draft range would be anywhere between 20th and 45th, he said. They also told him that his versatile offensive skill set was perfect for where the NBA is heading, but he needed to be more aggressive on defense and rebounding.
Yurtseven was torn. He hit it off with Keatts immediately. They played ping pong together and developed a plan for how he could work on what the NBA said he needed to work on. After a team meeting not long after Keatts was hired, the new coach took Yurtseven aside: "I'll make you a superstar," he told him.
On the morning of the deadline when he had to decide whether to keep his name in the draft or return for a sophomore year, he called his father in Turkey. Yurtseven still wasn't sure what he would do. He was leaning toward going to the draft. His father wasn't so sure. His father liked the idea of his son continuing his college education for at least one more year, working toward his computer science degree.
Then he said something that stuck with his son: "My father felt like school would have helped me more because you should be in a place where you're wanted," Yurtseven recalled. "And Coach Keatts definitely showed that he wanted me here."
In the nine months since that decision, Yurtseven has proven that his leap of faith with Keatts has paid off. NC State is rolling relative to the preseason expectations; the Wolfpack are 16-9 and 6-6 in the ACC, with big-time wins over Arizona, Duke, North Carolina and Clemson. CBSSports.com's Jerry Palm projects them as a team that's sitting just inside the NCAA tournament bubble. I went to a preseason game in Raleigh, then saw the Wolfpack during the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas, and the culture change from a year ago was abundantly obvious; this team gets after it on the court, trapping and pressing and creating turnovers, with a tempo that ranks 43rd in the nation.
But just as important that NC State is nationally relevant again is the fact that Yurtseven's choice to come back for a sophomore year has only helped his draft stock. He's averaging 13.8 points and 6.9 rebounds plus nearly two blocks per game despite averaging only 23 minutes. He's been an incredibly efficient shooter plus one of the best shot-blockers and rebounders in the ACC. Most surprisingly, he's shooting 48.3 percent from three (albeit with limited attempts).
"He has a tremendous opportunity to be a really good NBA player one day because of his ability to be able to score inside and out," Keatts told CBSSports.com. "What NBA guys are starting to like about him is his ability to rebound the basketball on both ends of the floor. He can certainly stretch defenses, playing a little five and a little four, a modern-day big man. He's great with ball screens because he can pick and roll or pick and pop. He can score over both shoulders.
"He's benefited more in our system than anyone," Keatts continued. "He's got the freedom here. We move our post guys around so much, you don't know where he's going to be on the floor. At times he's a pick-and-pop guy, at times he's a pick-and-roll guy, at times we can go right to him in the post."
Yurtseven is a unique guy. His goal after basketball is to become a computer programmer. His favorite game isn't NBA 2K, like most collegiate players but instead an online game called Warframe, where players control these ancient warriors who have awoken from centuries of cryosleep and go straight to war. "It's a weird game," he said.
He's one of two Muslim players on his team, along with Abdul-Malik Abu. They attend Friday prayers together, and the team nutritionist ensures their meals are pork-free. He fasts during Ramadan, and he's glad Ramadan doesn't fall during the NCAA Tournament this year; that can be tough. "Sometimes your body can't take it," he said.
And he's found a Turkish community in North Carolina. He was shocked when he attended a local Turkish conference and more than 300 people from his homeland were there.
He couldn't be more happy with his decision. And he knows that his relationship with Keatts, and the way Keatts has transformed this team, can only help him if he opts to put his name in the 2018 draft.
"I believed in my instincts," Yurtseven said, "and I believed in him."