Nathan Jawai’s face lights up with pride when asked about being the first indigenous Australian to be drafted into the NBA.
Jawai also realizes that after a heart scare, weight trouble, three trades and little playing time over two seasons, he faces an important summer that will determine whether he sticks around in the big leagues.
Monday showed just how much work he has to do.
The 2.05m center lumbered up and down the floor in three ineffective minutes in his summer league debut for the Charlotte Bobcats. Carrying at least 130kg, Jawai must get his pudgy body closer to how it looked when he was the rookie of the year in Australia’s NBL in 2008.
“Back then I was quicker, smaller. That’s what I’ve got to get back to right now,” Jawai said as he looked at his box score line of all zeros save for one foul and turnover. “I’d have more opportunities to stay here and be more effective.”
Jawai is a Torres Strait Islander, an indigenous group from northern Australia. It has a culture and customs distinct from Aboriginal peoples, the more well-known Australian indigenous group.
Despite his size, Jawai played rugby growing up and didn’t pick up a basketball until he was nearly 17 when his uncle introduced him to the game. He quickly excelled, and starred with the Cairns Taipans in 2007 and 2008.
He made history when Indiana selected him in the 2008 draft.
“It means a lot, not only for myself, but my country, my culture,” Jawai said. “For kids coming behind us, the next generation, it means a lot to be the first indigenous to play here.”
However, Jawai’s career was suddenly put in jeopardy after the Pacers quickly sent him to Toronto in the Jermaine O’Neal trade. Jawai thought he could contribute for the Raptors, but a routine physical showed he had an enlarged heart.
Jawai not only couldn’t play basketball, he wasn’t allowed to do any activity that got his heart rate above 100 beats a minute.
Jawai’s weight soared as he sat idle for nearly the entire rookie season until numerous tests determined he had no serious ailment.
After playing in just six games in the 2008-2009 season, Jawai was sent to Dallas in a four-team deal that included Jerry Stackhouse and Shawn Marion. When he realized he likely wouldn’t get playing time with the Mavericks, he asked to be traded again, and was sent to Minnesota in October last year for a second-round pick.
Jawai lost some weight and played in 39 games last season, averaging 3.2 points and 2.7 rebounds. But his playing time slowly declined.
“I got an opportunity and then Darko Milicic came in,” he said. “They wanted to convince him to stay.”
Jawai injured his right foot near the end of the season, and he gained more weight. Jawai has been trying to shed the pounds this summer, playing for the Australian national team last month in a three-game series with Argentina.
It allowed Jawai to spend time with Patty Mills, the Portland guard who became the second indigenous Australian to be drafted in the NBA last year.
The Bobcats were one of several teams to show some interest in Jawai. Charlotte has open roster spots, but a logjam of big men.
“He’s got great hands. He runs pretty well for a guy that’s 6-10 [2.05m], 285 pounds [130kg], maybe a little more right now looking at him,” said Charlotte assistant Dave Hanners, coach of the summer team.
“But he has to be more aggressive and more assertive on every play. Maybe that’s hard for him at his size. But he can’t just disappear. For long periods of time he’s just on the court and he doesn’t do anything special,” Hanners said.
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