When Iranian basketball national team star, Arsalan Kazemi, enrolled at Rice University in the fall of 2009, he became the first Iranian to play major college basketball in the United States.
Now, the 20-year-old is widely considered a top prospect to play professional basketball with the NBA.
Things have changed since Arsalan Kazemi’s Iranian parents enrolled their son at a prep school in North Carolina. The gamble paid off when basketball powerhouses such as Memphis, Maryland and Oklahoma State all offered him full athletic scholarships.
But Arsalan chose a different path. He signed with Rice University in Houston, Texas, over other better-known basketball programs.
“I didn’t want to sit on the bench for an entire year my freshman year," says Kazemi in Farsi, his native language. "It just doesn’t work with my mentality and secondly, because Rice is a very good school academically, I knew I could get a great job after graduating from here.”
That great job might have to wait. After a successful freshman year at Rice, scouts noticed Arsalan at the basketball World Championships in Turkey last summer.
“My first year here everyone talked about me being the first-ever Iranian to receive a scholarship in the NCAA," says Kazemi. "That’s why it was such a good feeling after the world championships. Then, everyone, all the reporters all of a sudden started talking about basketball with me and telling me I’m a great player and that I have a future. It was a great feeling.”
A reporter for Slam Magazine picked Arsalan as one of the top five NBA prospects of the tournament.
“After this year I'd really like to sign up for the draft, practice with teams to compare myself to other players and see what areas I need to improve upon" says Arsalan, "then come back for my junior year at Rice, work on those areas and then make the move fully after that season.”
Arsalan might not need to look that far to determine the areas of his game that need improvement. His head coach at Rice, Ben Braun, knows a thing or two about what needs work.
“The next step for Arsalan, he’s now got to go out and guard some quicker guards. He is very quick off the dribble, he can get to the basket, he can finish," says Braun. "He is knocking down his free throws now. So his game is really starting to come around. If he can just add that element of improving his range on his jump shot, then the sky is the limit, then he becomes almost an impossible player to guard.”
Entering the NBA draft before graduation requires careful calculation. Any player who signs with an agent loses his college eligibility. Anthony Ibrahim, a former TNT basketball analyst, discovered Arsalan when he competed for the Iranian junior national team. He's been the athlete's mentor since bringing Arsalan to the United States.
“I would love for him to go this year but I think he still needs another year of seasoning," says Ibrahim. "We're going to evaluate him at the end of this season. I’m going to give him the best advice, like I did for him when I brought him to this country. When the NBA scouts or the general managers of the NBA that I know give me the green light, I will present him the facts and he has to make the decision.”
But until the NBA comes calling, Arsalan plans to enjoy life as a college student. And although he is 12,000 kilometers away from home, Iran remains close to his heart. His national team jersey proudly hangs in his dorm room and he's poised to break some barriers.
“Arsalan is a pioneer," says Braun, his coach. "He has really paved the way and I told him that that’s quite an honor. It’s not a burden, it’s an honor and a privilege. I know he feels sometimes the pressure of wanting to succeed, so other people in fact can succeed, so he takes it very personally and I know he doesn’t want to let anybody down.”
Arsalan has yet to disappoint. He averages nearly 16 points and more than 10 rebounds per game. He's not only the first Iranian basketball player in the NCAA, he’s also a talented athlete with a real shot at going pro.