Anthony Grant: Zimife Nwokeji a ‘great fit’ for Dayton Flyers

Dayton’s Zimife Nwokeji shoots before a game against Richmond on Jan. 25, 2020, at the Robins Center in Richmond, Va. David Jablonski/Stafff
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Dayton’s Zimife Nwokeji shoots before a game against Richmond on Jan. 25, 2020, at the Robins Center in Richmond, Va. David Jablonski/Stafff

Newest Flyer practicing with team and will debut next season

A photograph from Saturday's game at Richmond shows Zimife Nwokeji jumping into the air on the bench as Obi Toppin throws down a windmill dunk in the second half. The ball had not even left Toppin's hand, and Nwokeji was a foot off the ground, reacting faster than anyone in the arena to one of the most exciting plays in the Dayton Flyers' 87-79 victory.

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Nwokeji’s dad, Kennedy, shared the image on Twitter on Tuesday as did his former coach, Justin Brantley, who was at the SPIRE Institute when Nwokeji was there and is now the Ohio and Midwest Recruiting Coordinator for All-Ohio Basketball and also works for Koa Prep in Maryland.

“This picture is everything!” Brantley wrote on Twitter. “This is one of the reasons I love (Nwokeji). From the day I met him, he was always about being a great teammate! He championed others’ successes! He motivated the man next to him. Often times, that man next to him was my son! It’s just who Zimi is.”

Brantley called Nwokeji, a 6-foot-7 forward from Quincy, Fla., a natural leader and praised him for bringing energy to the bench even though he knows it must be hard sitting and watching. If that sounds like a familiar description, it’s because the same thing was said about Obi Toppin two years ago during his redshirt year.

Now Dayton's leading scorer and a candidate for national player of the year, Toppin arrived at UD in May 2017 but sat out his first season as an academic redshirt. He developed as a player that season but also did so well as a cheerleader on the bench he became the first non-active player to win the Dr. George Rau Spirit Award after the season.

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A press release announcing that award stated Toppin “took it upon himself to bring a positive attitude to the team every time the Flyers were on the court. This was evident in games when fans could see him, but also on the practice court. Not only did Toppin improve his own game in preparation for next season during practice, he made his teammates better by pushing them every day.”

Dayton has two players filling that role this season: Moulaye Sissoko, who enrolled at Dayton last summer and is redshirting this season, and Nwokeji, who committed to Dayton on Dec. 15 and arrived on campus days before the second semester started earlier this month. He has been practicing with the team ever since and took his first road trip with the Flyers last weekend to Richmond.

Nwokeji will debut with Dayton next season as a redshirt freshman. He gets a head start on the three other freshmen in the class — Lukas Frazier, Koby Brea and R.J. Blakney — because he gets a chance to learn the system now.

“I think he’s a great fit just in terms of who he is as a person and the skill set he brings,” Dayton coach Anthony Grant said. “He reminds me of a Ryan Mikesell-type guy that can do a variety of things, whether it’s shooting the ball or helping the team score or understanding how to play. He’s versatile, definitely a good rebounder. He’s got good size for the position. I think he’ll bring a lot to the table for us.”

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Dayton assistant coach Anthony Solomon said the coaching staff knew of Nwokeji when he was still a Florida State recruit and met him for the first time in October when the Flyin’ To The Hoop event held a media day in Dayton. Nwokeji was playing for the SPIRE Institute at the time and traveled to the event with several teammates and a coach.

After the press conference, the group visited UD and watched the Flyers practice. Then when Nwokeji reopened his recruitment in November, UD reached out to the SPIRE coaches to find out more about Nwokeji, looking into his background and why he decommitted from his hometown school, Florida State.

Even though Nwokeji grew up in Florida, he was born in Ann Arbor, Mich., and Solomon said that caught his eye because it meant there was some connection to the Midwest. The next step was a visit to SPIRE for Solomon and Grant.

“We had a chance to sit down with him,” Solomon said. “He got familiar with us. We got familiar with him. I’m a little old school with this recruiting. I still like to talk to young people and ask questions to see if there’s mutual interest but also a mutual fit to give both parties a chance to be happy.”

Solomon said they spent three to four hours at SPIRE. They sat down and talked to Nwokeji about the program and found he had already done his research on Dayton.

The next week, Solomon and Grant visited Nwokeji’s parents, Kennedy and Linda, in Quincy, which is 25 miles northwest of Tallahassee. At that meeting, the coaches found out there was as much interest on the family’s part as there was on their part, and they moved the process forward, hoping to get Nwokeji to visit campus before the Christmas break and talking about the possibility of him enrolling at UD in January.

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Nwokeji and his parents sat behind the Dayton bench on Dec. 14 during a game against Drake. He committed to Dayton a day later and arrived on campus on Jan. 8.

“It’s great having him here,” Solomon said. “I think a lot of people can benefit from (sitting out). With the microwave society these days, that’s not the cool thing to do, but I’m about the right thing. If it fits, put it on and wear it. Zimi and his family decided to do it, and I think it’s going to help him tremendously.”

Nwokeji will get extra skill development sessions, Solomon said, and work with strength coach Casey Cathrall and trainer Mike Mulcahey to get his body in shape for the 2020-21 season. The developmental year worked for Toppin, Solomon said, and it’s a good example for Nwokeji.

“My word for the year is consistency,” Solomon said. “Being successful, being good, can you consistently do it? Getting a head start the way Zimi is will increase his chances of being more consistent early in his career. It’s a daily thing to improve and get better. I think coming in at this time will allow him to do it. That’s an important position for us moving forward in terms of who we’re going to lose from this year.”