At 15 he left home to pursue a dream: Now Naz Mitrou-Long is an Olimpia and Euroleague player

Mitrou-Long ended last year as the third-best scorer and the eighth-best passer of the Italian league

The whole neighborhood gathered around Nazareth that morning to wish him the best. He was only 15 years old, but he was about to leave home and the emotional level was comparable to that of the recruit who leaves the loved ones to go to fight a war in some remote corner of the world. In reality, Naz was just going to chase his dream of becoming a basketball player. He was already known for being a good player, one of the best in Canada, but exposure was needed.

Growing up in Missisauga, near Toronto, Canada, he had a clear vision. He had to cross the border and go down to the United States to compete at a higher level and realize what he could become in basketball. A journey comparable to that of many Canadian boys especially of his generation. They are not forgotten players, like their predecessors, the players of a time when Canada was only about hockey, but not as lucky as those of today. They were starting to get the benefit of the Toronto Raptors ascension and the growth of the local player movement led by the great Steve Nash. But still they were forced to cross the border and be seen in the United States. And that’s what Naz Mitrou-Long did, packing his bags, and get on a plane. But the whole family was there to hug him and wish him good luck. There were neighbors, too. And in one corner Georgia Mitrou, the mother. She is of Greek origins, the daughter of emigrants from Sparta, and married to Jersey Long, a world-class kickboxing athlete, a Canadian champion and once he challenged the great Rick Roufus, in 1992 in Montreal for the world champion belt. In his father’s gym, where a basketball court had been set up, Naz fell in love with the game. His dad saw him compete against boys twice his size and knew he was talented. But he had to go. He had to go to the States.

Missisauga is a kind of a twin city of Toronto, lying on Lake Ontario, and it is the third-largest municipality in the state, with 800,000 residents. The Raptors 905, the Raptors-controlled G-League team play right in Missisauga and have effectively canceled the local team that was part of the Canadian league. Going from Missisauga, where so many Canadians of Italian origins live, to the United States is not a cultural shock, but it is very hard if you are just a 15-year-old kid and suddenly find yourself alone. Naz cried a lot during that time and spent even more on phone calls home. But he didn’t give up. The first stop on his journey was Montrose Christian Academy in Maryland, in Rockville. He played alongside two future NBA players, Justin Anderson now in Memphis and Terrence Ross who is now in Orlando. A year later, he moved to Nevada, to Findlay High School, near Las Vegas, at that time a sort of “basketball factory” where Amedeo Della Valle also played. At Findlay, he had another Canadian among his teammates, Anthony Bennett who would be the number 1 pick in the NBA draft. Several mid-major schools wanted him, Miami, Rice, Dayton, Creighton, but Fred Hoiberg went to Missisauga to recruit him and defeated the competition. Naz was going to play for him at Iowa State.

During his career at ISU, the Cyclones were a top-tier team. Many professional players came from there. The first met by Mitrou-Long has never played in the NBA, but is a legendary figure in European basketball, Will Clyburn. He was in his senior year with the Cyclones, he was a star, when Naz was a freshman trying to learn how to compete at that level. During the second year, Naz became an excellent sixth man averaging 7.1 points per game over 20 minutes spent on the court. He had his first real moment of glory in February 2014, in Stillwater, Oklahoma, where Iowa State had last won in 1988. In the second overtime, he received a pass from DeAndre Kane, down by three, with less than two seconds left to play. Mitrou-Long took the shot and, swish, he forced the third overtime, which Iowa State won by one. A month later, against the same opponent, but at home, in transition he still made the three to tie the game.

As a junior he became a starter, averaged 10.1 points per game and made 39.1 percent of his three-pointers. Among his teammates there was Georges Niang who was going to be again on of his teammates in Utah and now he is in Philadelphia; Nick Weiler-Babb, the Bayern Munich guard, and above all Monte Morris, the point-guard who had just joined the Washington Wizards and forced him to play mostly as a shooting guard.  The decisive season was supposed to be senior, but he suffered a hip injury and after eight games he decided had had enough and called it a season, in order not to lose his eligibility, recover and come back stronger the following year. Meanwhile, Hoiberg who had recruited him had gone to the NBA in Chicago and the Iowa State coach had become Steve Prohm. But the promise made to himself was not forgotten. As a senior, Mitrou-Long was in the best physical shape of his life, had the team in his hands and averaged 15.1 points per game (he had a 37-point effort against Drake) with 4.6 rebounds and shot 38.4 percent from three.

The way he played, he should have been selected, but in the NBA drafts the potential of the players is heavily watched and Mitrou-Long was almost 24 years old. Nobody decided to invest in him. The Sacramento Kings signed him to play in the summer leagues, but they didn’t keep him. He was signed by the Utah Jazz. For two years he remained there, with several G-League appearances. During his college years, he had had the patience to wait his turn to prove his skills, so he decided to do the same in the NBA. But with the Jazz, the competition was fierce, from Donovan Mitchell to Mike Conley. After two years, he was released. In the summer of 2019, he signed for Indiana and found himself behind Malcolm Brogdon for a year. He had some G-League stints again and finally he decided to move overseas. To come to Europe.

The season in Brescia is well-known: he began fighting some understandable difficulties, but at a certain point he unlocked himself forming a close-knit pair of great guards and scorers with Amedeo Della Valle. The Italian was more of a scorer, Naz was more of a facilitator. He was named rookie of the year which, being 29, is a definition that makes you smile. But he played at very high level, finishing as the third-best scorer in the Italian league and the eighth-best passer. Over the playoffs, he was first in both statistical categories and in his last game of the season, in Sassari in the playoffs, with Della Valle out with an injury, he scored 38 points. He was a wanted man, as they say in these cases, and he had decided to come to Milan. The story continues from here, from the place “where no goal is too high.”

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