The best defender in this year's NBA Draft class did not pose for photos at the top of the Empire State Building this week. He will not stride onstage in a garish, custom-made suit to shake Adam Silver's hand at Barclays Center on Thursday. He has been "waiting, calling every day out, marking my days" in anticipation of this moment, he says, but he'll have to watch it from almost 7,000 miles away.
When other prospects wake up on draft day, Usman Garuba will be in the middle of a game against Argentina, playing alongside the Gasol brothers and other Spanish national team legends. The time difference means it will be Friday morning in Tokyo when the draft begins. On the phone from his room in the Olympic Village in between practice and team dinner on Tuesday, Garuba says he expects his teammates to wake him up for the festivities. The plan is to "tune in as a team."
Garuba says he could have done the normal draft-preparation thing, crisscrossing the United States to conduct private workouts with potential employers. He understands that "my future is a little bit at risk because I could get injured," but insists he's not thinking about that. "I love playing for my country," he says, and "the atmosphere is something amazing," even with pandemic-specific restrictions in place.
"Being able to play with the national team, for me, is one of the most important things in my life," he says. "Representing your country is something that not very many players can say. I don't know how many players in the draft will play one Olympic Games one day."
Garuba is 19 years old, standing 6-foot-8 with a 7-2 wingspan. Part of his appeal is what he could become with a few years of NBA experience. That he's playing in these Olympics, though, speaks to the kind of player he is right now. Garuba might not be a household name in the United States, but he is one of the more accomplished prospects in the entire draft. At 17 years old, he became the youngest player to ever start a game for Real Madrid, a distinction that previously belonged to Luka Doncic. This season, he won the EuroLeague Rising Star award and the ACB's Best Young Player award, playing an integral role for the most storied franchise in the second-best league in the world.
Garuba was born in Madrid, where his parents had moved from Nigeria in the late 1990s, and he says the footwork and lateral quickness that set him apart are a product of summers spent playing soccer at the park. He wanted to be a professional soccer player, but, as an unusually tall nine-year-old, the team in his hometown of Azuqueca de Henares didn't have room for him. This led him to join some friends on the basketball team. It was not love at first practice.
"I made a lot of mistakes," Garuba says. "My coach was always yelling at me."
As soon as he started playing in competitive games, though, something clicked. Garuba says he knew he wanted to be a basketball player right away. He remembers how much he hated losing as a member of the Castilla–La Mancha regional team ("so much, so much, so much, so much"), and he remembers pledging to improve.
Garuba joined the Real Madrid program at 11 years old, and he was just 14 when he led Spain's U16 team to a European Championship and won MVP of the tournament. By the time he was starring for the Real Madrid junior team that won the 2019 Adidas Next Generation Tournament, he had been on the NBA's radar for years.
"I think I have a problem, but it's not really a problem," Garuba says. "I want to be always the best version of myself. And want to be the best player I possibly can. And I want to do the right things every single time. I hate to do the wrong things."
What Garuba loves to do, more than anything else, is dunk the ball and hang on the rim. He gets a similar burst of adrenaline, though, from blocking shots and getting steals. An extraordinarily advanced pick-and-roll defender, Garuba is an expert at the cat-and-mouse game bigs play when guarding a ballhandler and a roll man at the same time. He doesn't get bullied by older, heavier players, and he is comfortable switching onto guards and wings.
In an exhibition game against Team USA earlier this month, Spain used him as a primary defender against Kevin Durant. He takes pride in his ability to "be ahead of the play," and he believes that, as long as he plays with intensity, he "can be the best defender on the court," regardless of who else is on it.
Fortunately, Garuba always plays with intensity. Even when he isn't scoring, it's impossible not to notice him flying around the court, making the multiple-effort plays that coaches are always talking about. This is the mark of an energy guy, but that label sells him short. Garuba is a savvy passer, particularly in the short roll, and a timely cutter. He can take contact, finish at the rim and make plays in transition.
"Because of my defense, I think I'm very underrated on an offense," Garuba says.
Garuba says he'll play whatever role he's asked to play as an NBA rookie. He watches League Pass religiously, though, and knows that he'll be entering a completely different offensive environment. With all the space on the floor, "it will be easier for a guy like me to score more points," he says.
"I watch a lot of Bam Adebayo, I like his play style," Garuba says. "I watch a lot of Draymond (Green) also sometimes. I like when Giannis would grab the rebound and do the fast break, all that stuff. I watch a lot of players. Paul Millsap, when he was in Atlanta, I watch a lot of his films."
There is a common thread here: Players who "can pass the ball, that can make the right plays, you know? Score, defense. Guys with IQ. Guys that can play."
Garuba says he still gets angry at himself when he doesn't do what he's supposed to do. Despite having a modest foul rate for such a disruptive defender, he says he must be more careful to "not make stupid fouls." He knows he can't be afraid to shoot when open, even though his 3-point shot is a work in progress. In time, he says, "I want to be able to do everything on the court."
In his Olympic debut against Japan, Garuba was admittedly nervous. He was thinking too much, he says, and while he played typically stout defense, he finished without a field goal in 15 minutes. Nonetheless, "it's a dream being here," he says. In Tokyo, Garuba is paying attention how the Olympians he sees at the gym prepare for their various events. He's getting advice from NBA champions and gold medalists. That he's about to realize another one of his loftiest dreams is beyond his wildest imagination.