May 18, 2024

NEW YORK — On the plane to D.C., where on Monday he had a pre-draft workout with the Washington Wizards, the 6-foot-9, 19-year-old Jeremy Sochan got the standard questions. First, yes, he is a basketball player. Fancy that. Second, well, that’s complicated. 

“Good question,” Sochan told his fellow passenger. “Where am I from?” 

While he was born in Guymon, Oklahoma and was a Thunder fan as a kid, he didn’t attend an NBA game in person until his favorite team visited Manchester in the 2013 preseason. Sochan left the States for France when he was 2, moved to Southampton, England about a year later and grew up primarily in Milton Keynes, where his mother, Aneta, and stepfather, Wiktor Lipiecki, and younger brother still live. 

Aneta is from Warsaw, which meant the family regularly spent summer holidays in Poland. His talent has since taken him to La Porte, Indiana; Waco, Texas; Ulm, Germany and the Polish national team. 

In a Times Square hotel lobby on Wednesday morning, Sochan laughs as I run down my own history of continent-hopping. “Oh, wow, yo,” he says when I get to the part about moving from Toronto to Melbourne and back again. At the end, he says, “So, you’re a citizen of the world, too.”

There is a look that people give you when they learn that you have lived somewhere far away. “People don’t really expect it,” Sochan says. He is thoroughly used to the faces that Americans make when they hear his voice for the first time. 

“Everyone starts thinking, ‘OK, what kind of accent is it?'” Sochan says.”‘Cause it’s mostly English, but — I don’t know if it’s American or the Polish — it’s a little bit different than just a proper English accent.” 

Sochan likes that it’s difficult to place. 

“I feel like it’s who I am as well, as a person,” he says. “‘I’m myself. And I have this type of energy and vibe that you can’t really pin me down or put me in a box. I feel like I think out the box.” 

There is a “very big connection,” Sochan says, between his out-of-the-box background and, well, everything else. “I think all that travel has just made me have a broader perspective on life and on basketball.” He didn’t just study Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook; he studied Sergio Llull, who has starred for Real Madrid and the Spanish national team for the last 15 years. He has learned from radically different coaches in radically different places. 

“I feel like every place I’ve been has shaped me,” he says. 

About 35 hours before he’d find out where he’s going next, Sochan is chipper, which cannot be said for every prospect who passes through the lobby on the way to whatever prescheduled obligation is on the schedule. 

“It’s all very exciting,” he says. “And it’s been just a lot of fun, experiencing all this media.” His last couple of weeks have been “very busy, just flying from place to place,” but it’s “interesting to see how every team does stuff differently — not every team is the same.” 

At the draft combine in Chicago, Sochan got to meet Manu Ginobili, who was part of the Spurs’ contingent. He missed a workout with the Pacers because his flight was diverted to St. Louis, but didn’t mind it. “Being not really from America, experiencing these new places is very cool for me.” 

Basketball is “in my blood,” Sochan says. His parents met at Panhandle State, where Aneta was a point guard and his late father, Ryan Williams, was a forward. But while the sport was always close to Sochan, the NBA was definitively not. 

He remembers being 10 years old at that exhibition game, stoked to watch Durant, his favorite player, go up against the Sixers, who were so early in The Process that no one was calling it that yet. Durant sat on the bench for the entire fourth quarter, and Russell Westbrook was an ocean away, but “I didn’t even care about who was playing,” he says. “It was just really being in an NBA atmosphere, which was so cool to me. That’s when I was really dreaming of doing something like this.” 

In England, at least back then, this particular dream wasn’t taken particularly seriously. “People doubt you,” Sochan says. “Like, ‘basketball’s not that big in England.'” This only added to his motivation. There were, however, logistical challenges. 

“Gyms were expensive,” he says. Like, £60-for-an-hour expensive if you wanted to play on a full court. “We didn’t have money to spend like that. So you’d have to text a bunch of people: ‘OK, we’re going in, we want to play some 5-on-5’ or something. So you’d have to bring everyone there, get all the coins and then give it to the staff at the leisure centre.”

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Aneta, who was also his first coach, addressed the court-time problem by taking the team to the magnificent, green hills of Campbell Park, in the heart of Milton Keynes, every Wednesday. If you can’t have 5-on-5, you can at least have cardio.

During the NBA playoffs, Sochan would ask permission to go to bed early, so he could wake up a few hours later and watch games in the middle of the night. At 15, he moved back to Southampton, where for a year he played for the Solent Kestrels in under-19 competition, a couple of hours away from home.  

“It felt like a long way away,” Sochan says. “But then I crossed the little pond and I was in America, in Indiana, in the middle of nowhere. So that was pretty interesting.”

On Wednesday afternoon, Sochan is dancing on a basketball court in an office building. Most of the players who will be drafted the next night are at the National Basketball Players Association’s headquarters for a clinic, none more visibly into it than he is. He chats with the kids, Ds them up and distributes high fives generously. 

Afterward, Sochan says that it was only a couple of years ago that he really knew the NBA was attainable. He was in Germany, playing with pros, some of whom had NBA experience. This was after he’d committed to Baylor, and after he’d gone across the pond to play at La Lumiere, a powerhouse team that featured fellow draftee Jaden Ivey, only to have his American high school experience cut short by the pandemic. 

In Germany and in the States, Sochan felt like a fish out of water initially, but “I get adjusted,” he says. “I feel like I’m pretty good at adapting.” He has learned, through Aneta, through coaches and teammates the world over, to not get ahead of himself, to focus on trying to improve and on the people around him. 

“Just know your capabilities, your abilities, and then one day, whether it’s tomorrow, today, in 20 days, people will start finding out, starting to get to know you,” he says. 

When he arrived on Baylor’s campus, “no one really thought I was going to be in college for only a year,” he says. He never told himself, “I gotta be this guy.” He didn’t want to get in his own way.

“The way I see it, basketball is more mental than physical,” he says. He believes that, “once you really open up your mental,” your physical limits shrink by half. “My mum always told me that.” 

Sochan says he needs to finish reading “Be Water, My Friend,” a book about the philosophies of Bruce Lee, by Lee’s daughter, Shannon. But it sounds like he has internalized the message. “It’s about literally being like water, being formless,” he says. “Water can be powerful but can also be weak, like, vulnerable.” He sees the value of shapeshifting everywhere, “in the stuff you do in daily life.”

On the court, he’s comfortable all over the court. He can handle the ball, set screens and defend everybody. When someone asks him what position he plays, it feels the same as when someone asks where he comes from. 

Draft day is long. After the draftee meeting and lunch, Sochan had an hour or two to get ready to go to Brooklyn. He arrived at the red carpet in a lavender suit, which would earn him compliments all evening. He chose it because lavender is one of his favorite colors, and because it stands out. 

At 6:58 p.m., Sochan signs a ball and hands it to a young fan wearing a Celtics jersey. At 7:11, he poses for photos on the Barclays Center stage with his mother, stepfather and brother. The family then took their seats in the green room — not a room, just some tables and chairs where the court normally is — and waited. Commissioner Adam Silver announced the first pick at 8:10, and, at 8:55, the Woj Bomb dropped: The Spurs are “landing on” Sochan with the No. 9 pick.  

There were no hugs until Silver said his name at 8:58, but Aneta kept looking at her son and smiling.

After Sochan has put on his Spurs hat, shaken the commissioner’s hand and made the first couple of stops on his media circuit, Baylor coach Scott Drew says he’s looking forward to going to dinner with Sochan and his family. Drew doesn’t sound pleased that Sochan is staying in Texas. He sounds elated. 

“His game is an old man’s game,” Drew says. “What I mean is he’s so fundamentally sound. Normally, 18-year-olds aren’t that fundamentally sound. And that’s why the Spurs and [Gregg] Popovich obviously love him. I mean, he knows how to play, how to move the ball. He knows how to make other teammates great around him. And he’s a great teammate. How many guys are the ninth pick in the draft and yet they were the sixth man on a college team?”

There is no time to answer the rhetorical question because the plaudits are coming faster and faster. “No-ego guy,” Drew says. “Whatever he can do to help the team. And then, defensively, guard 1 through 5 right away, Day 1. Picks up schemes really quickly. And he’s had a really interesting path.” 

Drew calls Sochan “tremendously coachable and mature,” but says he “gives you that youthful energy. He comes into a room and he doesn’t act too cool to have fun. You even hear him in the interview; he just gives you enthusiasm and light. In a locker room, as a coach, you love to have guys like that, that bring energy and excitement. You want to go to practice every day with guys that make you want to be in practice. He’s one of them.”

On the bleached blond hair and striking suit, Drew says that Sochan is “always going to be on the cutting edge” when it comes to fashion. “Nothing surprises me. Personally, I loved when he wore green in the hair. That was my favorite.” 

Half an hour after the hugs and the hat and the handshake, Sochan is grinning ear to ear on the phone. 

“Hello, Coach!” he says. “How we doing?” 

The call with Pop lasts only a minute. “Thank you so much, thank you so much,” Sochan says. Moments later, he says, “Thank you! I tried, I tried. I try my best to look good.”

There is laughter, and then Sochan tells his new coach that he and his family can’t wait go to San Antonio: “It was meant to be.” Before handing the phone back to a Spurs staffer, he says, “Thank you, Coach. It means a lot. Have a good night. Yessir.”

Sochan is quickly whisked away for more media. He tells a reporter from San Antonio that he’s going to the perfect place to work on his shooting mechanics, he answers a few questions in Polish and he pledges to bring energy and be a sponge. Asked about dyeing his hair to match the Spurs’ “fiesta” colors, he says he might poll the fans. 

After emerging from the Panini trading card room, he tells me it is “crazy” that he can now say Popovich is his coach. “He’s a legend,” he says, and “he’s coached so many legends, so I feel like I’m going to learn so much.”

He knows, too, how excited his former coaches are for him. Five of them are at Barclays: Aneta, Drew, Baylor assistant coach John Jakus, plus Jack O’Keeffe and Matt Guymon, the two he credits the most for his development in England. 

“I feel like I appreciate them all and they all coach me differently,” he says. “So I can’t wait to see how Coach Popovich coaches me.”

Sochan says he doesn’t know what number he will wear in San Antonio yet. A staffer showed him a list of the ones that aren’t taken or retired, and he says he is considering “a few options.”

He does not have a favorite player from the Spurs’ dynasty years. “I just adore all of them,” he says. “I really respect what they’ve done.” He knows he’ll see Ginobili and Tim Duncan in San Antonio, which he describes as “wild.” He has not yet had a moment to stop and reflect.   

Meanwhile in San Antonio, general manager Brian Wright tells reporters that Sochan is “worldly” in a way that reminds him of Boris Diaw. He is not the first person to make this comparison recently. Wright also says that Sochan is “all the things that we identified that we wanted to add to this team,” and that the culture fit was important. 

The previous day, a few minutes after horsing around with the kids at the clinic, Sochan said that he’s always trying “to make someone else’s day happy and fun.” For him, this has always come naturally.

“I just feel like we’re all connected in some way,” he said. 

In every pre-draft interview with an NBA team, someone asked him to tell his whole story from the beginning. Sochan did not find this tiresome; if anything, it was clarifying. “I think it’s really cool to have a unique background and really be yourself in there,” he said in the hotel lobby. Besides, he thrives in those situations. “I mean, I don’t mind interviews. I feel like I’m comfortable and confident to be in those types of environments and talk to people.” 

On that flight to D.C., he ended up chatting with person next to him for “the whole plane ride,” he said. It turned out she was visiting her niece at Baylor, and, like Sochan, she’s well-traveled. 

“It was just a good talk, and we talked about different things. About travel. It was pretty cool.”

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