Ben Uzoh has proved a solid role player for Nigeria at the FIBA World Cup. He is playing proof Markelle Fultz can mount his comeback.
Nigeria’s run at the FIBA World Cup had already come to an end. They were not advancing to the second round. The team was only playing for classification placement and the chance to qualify for the Olympics.
There was still something to play for — point differential will help determine Nigeria’s ultimate finish in the tournament. Everyone would have to play their part.
Early in the game, Al-Farouq Aminu got a steal and ran the other way for an easy lay-in on the way to nine points, five rebounds and three assists in nearly 17 minutes.
The Nigerians dominated Korea 108-66 in the finale, helping set them up to play Cote D’Ivoire on Friday in their first classification game. This game saw them dominate the interior with their size — Ike Diogu scored 16 points, Chimezie Metu scored 15 and Michael Eric had 17. It was not a game where Nigeria needed its heavy hitters.
Then there was Ben Uzoh.
He scored 10 points against Korea and has averaged 6.7 points per game in the first three games for Nigeria. It was nothing special for the 31-year-old point guard. He is coming off the bench and providing some stability for the second unit.
Uzoh did not do anything super flashy in his 13.5 minutes on the floor Wednesday. He had a nice dribble move that gave him the space to explode toward the basket for a nice layup. There was a pull-up jumper that looked smooth and comfortable, as he did when he was playing for the Tulsa Golden Hurricane.
Uzoh’s NBA career was not really that significant. He had a cup of coffee worth 60 games in 2011 and 2012. Hardly anything worth noticing.
But for Orlando Magic fans, Uzoh’s presence on the court for Nigeria and playing at this high stage is significant. The fact Uzoh at 31 is playing easily and comfortably and making a difference for his national team is important.
Uzoh is one of three NBA players that have had a documented case of thoracic outlet syndrome. The others are Landry Fields and, of course, Markelle Fultz.
Ben Uzoh’s play is hope that Markelle Fultz can make a full recovery and still have a long career ahead of him.
Back in February, Uzoh told his story to Marc Spears of The Undefeated about how he came to understand what was going on with his body and begin to rehab and get back on the court.
He told Spears, he began feeling numbness in his arm in college while he was averaging 15.3 points per game and 4.7 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game as a senior. He was a multi-faceted scorer and playmaker at the point guard position.
His story really does track Fultz’s story. He brushed aside the pain and kept playing, trying to make his way until it became too much. Like Fultz, Uzoh expressed frustration with the injury and lost confidence in himself.
Similar to Fultz, when Uzoh finally reported the discomfort to team trainers with the Canton Charge in the G-League (coached at that time by current Orlando Magic assistant coach Steve Hetzl), they could not find anything wrong. That caused Uzoh to shut down mentally.
As Hetzl described it, Uzoh went from one of the best players in the G-League to a non-factor overnight.
The diagnosis for Uzoh was liberating. It allowed him to focus on his rehab and get back to playing.
Uzoh has not returned to the NBA (he is currently in the G-League’s apprenticeship program to become a coach), but he had a long career in Belgium and Africa. He remained an effective professional basketball player.
With World Cup qualifying taking place during the NBA season, Uzoh was one of the key players that helped Nigeria reach China. He has continued contributing at the World Cup, where Nigeria is in position to earn a spot in the 2020 Olympics as the top team from Africa in the tournament.
Uzoh is still playing meaningful basketball despite his TOS diagnosis. It is possible to return.
“Listen to his body and take it a day at a time,” Uzoh advised Fultz in that article for The Undefeated. “Therapy and his mental approach are No. 1. . . . He probably has a timeline he has to follow. He has to stay the course in terms of what his people are telling him and with the course of action in place.
“It can be a long grind. A rigorous, day-to-day grind. He will see results, take one step back and two steps forward.”
Since the Magic acquired Fultz, they have given him the space to go through that process. They have not put a timetable on his return or anything that might put undue pressure — although surely the beginning of training camp is a deadline on the back of everyone’s mind. And expectations for Fultz are probably a bit low, although everyone understands Fultz’s potential.
But Uzoh showed a comeback is possible. He is still a dynamic and solid guard who has played a key role for Nigeria. And if they are going to make the Olympics from their World Cup play, Uzoh will have a role to play.
Of course, neither Uzoh nor Fields have the same expectations level or weight for their team that Fultz was expected to have. Neither of those players was a top pick, let alone the top overall pick, with major roles to play on a playoff team. For Fields, his diagnosis led him from a rotation-level player to out of the NBA fairly quickly.
But Fultz has a clear model to follow and a path to return. It is undoubtedly possible.
It will just take time and patience to recover and regain confidence.