“Just being in that arena, meeting the coaching staff, and seeing the 13,455 committed Dayton fans solidified my beliefs that this is the best FIT,” his dad Kennedy wrote on Twitter.
SPIRE Academy Director Justin Brantley said Nwokeji’s visit was just a formality. He had to see what Dayton had to offer up close and personal, but Dayton’s coaches had already sold Nwokeji on the program with their plan for him and the relationships they built during the recruiting process, which began in November. Nwokeji reopened his recruitment after being committed to his hometown school, Florida State, since February 2018.
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Dayton got a head start on the recruiting process. Brantley called Solomon to tell him about Nwokeji on Nov. 11, the night before he reopened his recruitment.
“Coach Solomon has been a mentor for me for quite a while,” Brantley said. “He’s been amazing everywhere he’s been. He takes guys and develops them, from Notre Dame to Georgetown to now here at Dayton.”
Brantley and Solomon kept bumping into each other and exchanged numbers. Solomon would check in with Brantley regularly, not just when he wanted to ask about a recruit. They talked about the struggles of balancing family and basketball.
Everything Brantley learned about Solomon he passed on to Nwokeji. Brantley told Nwokeji he would be in a great situation at Dayton on the court and in the classroom, but “most importantly, you’re going to be a position where you’re going to be loved and you’re going to have guys that will put their arms around you and help you develop as a young man and future father and future husband. Those are things I value.”
In November, a number of schools contacted Nwokeji, a three-star recruit who ranks 215th in the 2020 class. Some relaxed in their recruiting efforts. He said Dayton and Boston College, which he also visited, pursued him the hardest.
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Experiencing a game at UD Arena and a 78-47 Dayton victory made his decision easier.
“It was a big crowd and the crazy part was it was finals week,” Nwokeji said, “and all the students were gone and they still sold out.”
The chance to play right away next season also played a part in Nwokeji's decision. He'll be one of four newcomers next season, joining three recruits who signed in November: Lukas Frazier, Koby Brea and R.J. Blakney. Nwokeji is a year ahead of those three players because he's a 2019 graduate who was spending a post-graduate year at SPIRE, and he'll also get a head start by arriving on campus next month.
“I’m really excited to come to the program and get assimilated with the system and how everything works,” he said, “and get a jump start on my academic career.”
Nwokeji averaged 12.5 points and 7.6 rebounds as a senior in high school.
“He’s a strong shooter,” Brantley said. “To me, the strongest thing about him is ability to see the floor and play basketball the right way. A lot of guys nowadays it’s all about flash. It’s all about scoring. He has the ability if you need him to give you 30, he can give you 30. He gave us 24 against Putnam (Science Academy), and that was probably the best team we’ve played this year. If you need 10 assists, he’ll give you 10 assists. If you challenge him to rebound, he’ll give you 14-15 rebounds, which is what he did against Putnam. He’s the type of guy who can help the team in multiple ways.”
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Instead of playing the rest of the month with SPIRE, Nwokeji returned home. He was born in Ann Arbor, Mich., but grew up in Tallahassee, attending the Maclay School before transferring to The Rock Academy in Gainesville, Fla., where he lived with a host family during his senior year.
Nwokeji would have been the first Florida State player from Tallahassee in more than decade, but he said the coaches decided to go in a different direction, and there was a mutual parting of ways.
“Florida State’s one of those schools where there are always four or five-star guys,” Brantley said. “Zimi was looking for a situation where he could come and contribute immediately versus going in and redshirting or coming off the bench for a while. Not that he needs anything handed to him because he’s a fighter and a worker, but he saw the writing on the wall.”
Nwokeji arrived at SPIRE early in the summer and started training with Brantley, never complaining about early-morning workouts.
“He’s he type of guy you want to build a program around,” Brantley said. “You never have to worry about him doing anything the wrong way. He’s a, ‘Yes, sir; no, sir’ guy. He’s the type of guy you want your kids around. That’s the first thing I noticed about him as I got to know him. He’s the type of player I want my son to look up to and say, ‘That’s who I want to be. That’s the type of basketball player and the type of young man I want to be.’ That immediately made me to want to do anything and everything I could to make sure he’s successful just because I think he’s an amazing young man. That in and of itself is probably the best thing that comes out of this. Dayton gets a true character young man that’s going to represent the Flyers well and represent Dayton well and represent his family well.”