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Shoot for a dream: Ex-Northern Michigan University men’s basketball guard Naba Echols now plays in Croatia pro league

Former Northern Michigan University men's basketball player Naba Echols, center, tries to dribble around a bigger player in a Croatian pro league game played recently in that European country. (Photo courtesy Zvonko Kucelin)

“It almost reminded me of arriving in Marquette five years ago as a freshman. It was a huge culture shock.” — Naba Echols, former NMU men’s basketball player,

on adjusting to playing as a pro in Croatia

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SINJ, Croatia — This year 2020 hasn’t been easy for many athletes, but former Northern Michigan University guard Naba Echols has been one of the lucky ones.

While the Wildcats wait and wonder when, and if, their season will begin, Echols is pursuing a dream overseas — that’s playing professional basketball.

He signed with an agent based out of Serbia after graduating last December, and when the agent told him that KK Alkar, a team in the Croatian League, was interested in him, Echols quickly signed a contract.

Northern Michigan University's Naba Echols directs a teammate as he sets up a play in the second half of a GLIAC game against Davenport played at the Berry Events Center in Marquette on Jan. 17, 2019. (Photo courtesy Daryl T. Jarvinen)

“We had some other leagues looking at me, but a couple deals fell through,” Echols said in a FaceTime interview. “So I decided the next deal that came about, and if it was good, we were gonna take it … because right now, it’s hard to get overseas, or start a professional career with everything going on right now.”

Not surprisingly, Echols said that it was quite an experience when he arrived in Croatia and he compared it to what it was like for him moving from hometown of Memphis, Tennessee, to the Upper Peninsula.

“It almost reminded me of arriving in Marquette five years ago as a freshman,” he said. “It was a huge culture shock and it still is right now just with the way they talk and things like that.

“I can say ‘hey’ and ‘bye’ and ‘thank you’ (in Croatian) and a couple things like that. I haven’t just really focused on learning anything yet because I wanted to just get adjusted.

“I hear it every day, so I’m getting adjusted to it pretty fast.”

Northern Michigan University's Naba Echols sinks this 3-pointer over Davenport's Janeau Joubert late in the second half of a GLIAC game against Davenport played at the Berry Events Center in Marquette on Jan. 17, 2019. (Photo courtesy Daryl T. Jarvinen)

It wasn’t just the culture difference that Echols had to deal with, it was also how the game is played in southeastern Europe. He said that although crowds are limited due to the COVID-19 pandemic, games are entertaining to watch.

“The practices over here are intense and way harder than American practices, so I had to get used to that,” he said. “The style of play, it depends on the game. Guys normally play real patient and slow on different teams and some teams play high level. So it’s a switch up.

“The games are very exciting. The talent level is there because everybody is in the pros now. So they’re over there for a reason, but the games are really exciting. Just going into different arenas and just looking at the lights and looking at how big the arenas are that we play in, those are really exciting.”

Playing basketball in a foreign country can be tough when you don’t know much of the language, but luckily for Echols, he can talk with his coach.

“He speaks pretty good English,” he said. “He goes back and forth during games, timeouts and after games. He’ll speak in English first and then he’ll speak in Croatian. So I gotta get used to that.

Naba Echols

“He communicates really well, so that’s a big thing. That’s a huge plus for me that I can understand him.”

Echols also has some coaches back home that are helping make his transition overseas easier, like his cousin and former Northern assistant coach Charles Belt, current Wildcats head coach Matt Majkrzak and former NMU head coach Bill Sall.

“I talk to Charles quite a bit, almost every day,” Echols said. “He watches all my games and he’s still coaching to this day. He sends me notes and things on what I need to improve on. He just breaks down the game and just basically is doing the same things as if he was still coaching me.

“Also, Matt, the head coach now at Northern, he does the same thing. He watches every game and breaks it down for me. With those two guys, they’re still teaching. Sometimes, relationships go beyond college and those two guys are still in my corner.

“I talk to Bill, too. We don’t talk as much as we used to due to the fact that we’re in a different time zone. And with his age and my age, he’s probably sleeping or things like that.

“I talk to him and his wife a lot. We were real close during my years at Northern and they became more like, basically, a home away from home. Like a mom and dad to me. We talk about basketball sometimes, but mostly about other things like life and things like that.”

In terms of basketball, Echols said he hasn’t changed how he plays much. Why should he, considering he is the fifth-leading career scorer at NMU and a two-time All-GLIAC First Teamer.

However, he said he is trying to connect with his new teammates and is also trying to become a better defender.

“I’ve still been doing the same things that I did in college,” he said. “I just try to focus on basically just feeling my teammates out. Getting to know them and what they like to do on the court and things like that. Then I try to be like a more efficient player on both ends of the court.

“I’ve been focused on and been trying to target more on the defensive end because now I have to guard my position (point guard).

“In college, I didn’t guard my position. I guarded 2s and 3s due to the fact that I was with another guard in Sam Taylor. So he usually guarded the point guards. So now I’ve just got to get used to like getting over ball screens and things of that nature.”

Echols said his contract is a one-year deal and all rookie deals are that way. He said it’s so they can prove themselves that they can play at the professional level and that he’s already made an impression with the powers-to-be after just a few games.

“We had a couple conversations already about it (his contract),” Echols said. “We’ve had four games, so I guess I kind of impressed them in a way. I know they had mentioned something about it.

“It depends. The coach, he had been really good to me. He’s basically saying that if I have a good enough year, he won’t allow me to come back. He’d want me to go higher and go for like a bigger contract and things like that.

“He’s not that type of coach, that if one of his players had a good season, he wouldn’t make them come back.”

It’s been kind of a roller coaster for Echols so far during his first month in Croatia with the culture shock and intense practices, but he’s grateful that he gets a chance to play in the pros and he wants other players to know that it can happen for them, too.

“My experience has been interesting,” he said. “It’s been very challenging. When I came here, I thought things would be a certain way, but things have been totally different.

“My first two weeks of practice, and getting back into the flow of things, were tough. But my last two weeks have been really great. I’m enjoying it. I’m getting adjusted to it basically, so I’ve been loving it.

“I’ve got a great opportunity here to do good things and it’s a life-changing opportunity. So I’ve been enjoying it.

“To all of the players that are trying to pursue a professional contract, man, just keep going and just keep believing. It can happen you know, even during times like this.”

Ryan Stieg can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252. His email address is rstieg@miningjournal.net.

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