How Izzo's new walk-on, Peter Nwoke, went from Nigeria to East Lansing
East Lansing, Mich. - Peter Nwoke grew up in another hemisphere, but he speaks Tom Izzo’s language perfectly.
He also happens to be 6-foot-8, with quick leaping ability and the beginnings of some good ball skills.
Throw in a 4.2 grade point average at Orchard Lake St. Mary’s, and it’s clear why Michigan State pursued him as a preferred walk-on basketball player this spring. Nwoke (pronounced N-w-okay) accepted the invitation over scholarship offers from Oakland and Mississippi Valley State last week.
“I want to be pushed,” Nwoke said. “I want to be criticized. I want to be told how to do things so I can get better. That’s the only way I can get better.”
Those words have to make Izzo smile.
“Tom Izzo is one of the best coaches in the nation,” Nwoke said. “He’s more experienced than I am. I’m just an 18-year-old freshman coming into a big-time program. It’s going to be a huge change for me. I’m going to put my head down, learn and humble myself.”
Nwoke is a native of Nigeria. He moved to Michigan as a ninth-grader in 2017 after his pastor back home responded to an Orchard Lake St. Mary’s overseas outreach program.
Nwoke loved basketball in Nigeria, but only played at the street and playground level. He had never played organized basketball when he arrived at Orchard Lake St. Mary’s.
“I came to St. Mary’s for educational purposes,” he said. “But when I came here, I started playing basketball. I love the sport.”
He wasn’t able to play as a freshman. He has only played three years of organized basketball, but has improved rapidly.
He averaged 11 points and 10 rebounds for St. Mary’s this season. Nwoke helped St. Mary’s take an unbeaten record into the state quarterfinals, where it lost to eventual state champion Grand Blanc in overtime.
“Peter is an exceptional young man,” said St. Mary’s head coach Todd Covert. “Great defender and athletic.”
What did Michigan State coaches say they like about Nwoke?
“Potential and smarts,” Covert said.
Michigan State began contacting Nwoke three weeks ago. Nwoke had a Zoom meeting with Michigan State coaches and St. Mary’s coaches two weeks ago.
“I got to talk to Coach Izzo and Coach Dwayne,” Nwoke said. “We talked for 30 or 45 minutes and we got along pretty good.”
The walk-on invitation was extended last week.
“It was a great feeling for me,” Nwoke said. “I did not care if it was a scholarship or not, as long as I’m getting to play basketball, that’s all that matters to me.”
Nwoke hopes to earn a scholarship in the future.
“I just have to put in the work and focus on the present,” he said. “I talked to my family and my family is really happy about the whole situation. My mom is really, really proud of me. After I talked to my mom, I committed.”
THE BOOK ON NWOKE
Nwoke can finish around the rim with quickness and power. He is learning to score with his back to the basket, over either shoulder. He has the beginnings of a good hook shot.
He has good hands on slips and rolls, finishing with explosiveness.
He runs the floor well in transition.
On defense, Nwoke has very good lateral movement, which is a key for any big defender in the Michigan State system. Defensive length and quickness enabled Kenny Goins to earn playing time as Michigan State's most recent impact walk-on. Goins' scoring ability came to the forefront later in his career, culminating with his game-winning shot in an upset victory over No. 1 Duke in the Regional Finals in 2019.
Nwoke is not a Goins type of player on offense. But Nwoke shares some of Goins' defensive tools, especially his lateral movement.
“Coach Dwayne (Stephens) likes my defense,” Nwoke said. “I pride myself in my defense. I feel I am one of the best defenders in the country. I can guard all positions - guards, bigs. And I feel like I’m a great teammate.”
Straight out of the Izzo handbook.
“If a coach does not yell at you or what to do and how to do it, and if he doesn’t push you to get better, then he doesn’t really care about you,” Nwoke said.
Nwoke will become the second West African player on the roster, joining sophomore Mady Sissoko, of Mali.
Izzo loves Sissoko’s approach to life and opportunities. Izzo has affectionately told Sissoko to avoid becoming too Americanized. He loves Sissoko’s values.
Izzo’s respect for Sissoko was among the things that led Izzo to welcome another player from the continent of Africa.
Nwoke said he hasn’t met Sissoko, but is looking forward to it.
“I’m ready for this opportunity,” Nwoke said. “I’m really, really happy that this has happened for me. I’m excited to play under Tom Izzo. I’m ready for the next level.
“There are going to be ups and downs. There’s always ups and downs in anything, but being able to bounce back is going to be important.”
He struggled with loneliness while living in the dormitories at St. Mary’s.
“My whole family is back home in Nigeria,” Nwoke said. “I’m the only one here. It’s been a good experience because I got to meet new people, a new culture and play basketball. But I’ve been away from my family. I haven’t seen my mom since 2018. That’s the only bad thing about everything is I don’t get to see my family back home.
“My mom (Roselyne Nwoke) doesn’t really know much about basketball. When I was back home, nobody really took basketball seriously. She is just happy that I’m going to college. She doesn’t understand anything about basketball. All that she says is: ‘You have to do well at school, you have to do well at school.’ I have been doing that.”
Pursuing basketball gave him balance. The gym became a sanctuary.
“I love it,” he said. “Basketball is my life. It’s what makes me happy. Basketball takes my mind off of every other thing. If I’m worried about something or something is bugging me and I play basketball, it just makes me happy, being out there on the floor.
“I loved basketball back in Nigeria, I just never thought basketball was going to take me as far as it has right now.”
He visited the Michigan State campus once, as a sophomore, when St. Mary’s played at the Izzo Shootout team camp.
He saw the facilities, the big arena, the weight room.
What if someone had told him some day that he would be on the team at Michigan State?
“I would not have believed that,” he said. “I’m really, really grateful for it. When I started playing, I just started putting in the work. I got better every year. I put my all into basketball and my education as well. Everything plays out.”
Nwoke is a reserved and highly intelligent off the court. On the court, his recent improvement has created an aggressive alter ego.
“When we played basketball earlier this year, I just came out every game ready to punch people in the face,” he said. “I came out vicious. That’s the same mentality I’m taking up to East Lansing.”
Izzo’s language to a tee.