When it comes to developing future stars and giving them a shot at the highest level, no team is quite like Real Madrid. The winningest team in European basketball with 10 EuroLeague titles, Real also leads the standings with four EuroLeague Rising Star awards won by its players, which is double its closest competitors. This season Real has a new contender for the award in teenage big man Usman Garuba.
The 2.03-meter Garuba is a constantly improving bundle of energy and was one of only two players to appear in every Turkish Airlines EuroLeague game for Real this season, his second with the club's senior squad.
"My friends told me 'hey, you should play basketball!' and then I tried basketball and it was fun."
Born in Spain to parents from Nigeria, Garuba said that playing basketball was not his dream when he was young.
"I didn't choose to play with Real Madrid. Real Madrid chose me to play with them, so that's why I started playing here. I started playing basketball, I think, at 9 years old," he said. "First of all, I was playing football because I preferred more football than basketball. But then I was very tall for playing football and my parents, my friends told me 'hey, you should play basketball!' and then I tried basketball and it was very fun and exciting for me."
The rest, as they say, is history. His younger brother Sediq also plays basketball in the Real youth system, which is a source of pride for the older Garuba. Usman credits the Real youth system for making him the player he is today.
"The most important thing about winning in the youth categories is to just keep being yourself. Just be yourself and keep working every day and keep working hard," Garuba explained while noting that the club will help with the rest if you put in the work. "The youth coaches help us a lot. We train a lot. We train in the morning. We train sometimes in the mid-morning. Also in the afternoon, and we train a lot of hours, almost every day besides the weekend when we can play games and train very hard."
"The facilities are really good for every player and honestly, we have the best youth players in maybe the world, maybe in Europe. They join us together and we compete between us. Every training, every day, every hour, we compete against each other, but not being selfish, we compete as teammates. That makes us feel better and make us work more."
Garuba had a successful run at the youth categories both with club and country. He helped Spain capture gold medals at the U16 European championship in 2016 and the U18 championship in 2019. He also captured the Euroleague Basketball Adidas Next Generation Tournament in 2019 after losing in the finals in Belgrade the year before. Like so many champions, the stinging loss was motivation for the future.
"We have the best youth players in maybe the world, maybe in Europe."
"I remember more the loss [against Lietuvos Rytas] than the win," Garuba recalled. "We lost against Lietuvos and that gave us motivation for the next year to win the Next Generation in Vitoria. That motivated me and also all my team for the next year. It was really amazing and we enjoyed the win."
Garuba averaged 16.5 points, 7.0 rebounds and 1.0 block the ANGT Munich qualifying event in 2019 and was named tournament MVP. He was then voted to the All-Tournament Team at the finals in Vitoria-Gasteiz after posting 15.3 points, 7.3 boards and 2.3 blocks, including 21 points in the championship game against U18 Mega Bemax Belgrade.
After such strong appearances, there was nothing left for Garuba to prove among his peers. He began the 2019-20 season as a full-fledged member of the Real senior squad and scored 12 points along with 4 rebounds and 3 steals in his EuroLeague debut in Round 5 at FC Bayern Munich in October 2019. He was 17 and a half years old.
"I was training hard every day with the youth teams, competing with my teammates and I wasn't really thinking about that, about the senior team," Garuba said of his promotion. "Every year, if you keep working, keep working with your teammates and the youth team, you have a possibility to be here, so I worked very hard for that and I had a chance… It is something amazing to be a full member of the Real Madrid first team, especially at such a young age. It is something very special for me."
Real's players welcomed Garuba warmly and he is especially appreciative of the atmosphere and encouragement he felt from Coach Pablo Laso.
"He is a nice coach because he doesn't use the age as an excuse," Garuba explained. "He doesn't care about the age; if you are 16 and you can play well, perform well and help the team, he will put you in. So that's why I respect Pablo a lot and it is very nice to play in his teams."
"If you keep working with your teammates and the youth team, you have a possibility to be here, so I worked very hard for that."
To be worthy of a larger role for Real in Laso's eyes, Garuba continues to work hard at all aspects of the game: "I tried to work on my outside shooting but that's not the only thing. I worked on a lot of things. I also worked on defense, the lateral movements... a lot of things. Physically also, I worked on that. I use that as an advantage."
The result has been a role as a regular in the rotation. In fact, no teenager in the EuroLeague has played more minutes than Garuba's 15.07 per game this season and he leads all Rising Star Eligible players in per-minute PIR with 14.0 prorated over 40 minutes. He has contributed 3.2 points on 64.9 two-point shooting, 3.6 rebounds and 0.7 blocks per game.
Garuba remains hungry for the future. He was there in Belgrade, as a member of the club's U18 squad when Real won its last EuroLeague crown in 2018. Now he dreams of playing a central role on the next Real team to conquer the continental basketball championship.
"It would be amazing. It is a dream that I want that to be true," Garuba smiled at the thought of winning the EuroLeague. "It is a big dream for me and I will do whatever it takes to make my team win the championship."