The week of March 7 was interesting for Gracin Bakumanya.
That’s because his NBA Development League team, the Northern Arizona Suns, was in Frisco for back-to-back games against the Texas Legends. And Bakumanya, who is 19 years old, once played at Pantego Christian Academy in Arlington, was happy to be back in the area.
“It’s cool (to be back),” Bakumanya said. “Yeah, I’m excited. I was here for high school. I have a lot of people I know here in Dallas. My whole family lives here.”
On March 7, the young center born in Democratic Republic of Congo played just 1 minute in a loss against the Legends. Two nights later, he played 2 minutes in a win. Even with at least 20 friends and family in the stands each night, he took not playing more in stride.
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Northern Arizona will host the Texas Legends on Thursday at the Prescott Valley Event Center.
“We work hard. I haven’t played some due to coach’s decision. We have a lot of young forwards and guys who have more experience. My time has been up and down,” Bakumanya said.
So was it at Pantego.
Bakumanya attended Pantego Christian for one year. He only played in 20 or so junior varsity games during his brief stay before leaving during spring break of 2014 to play overseas. Still learning the game, he got to practice against the varsity players at Pantego.
Pantego Christian coach Andre Walker said Bakumanya was a “great kid” and that they both “shed some tears” when he left.
After leaving Pantego Christian, Bakumanya played in France before returning stateside and playing for Houston’s Summer League team in 2016. Last fall, he spent preseason with the Phoenix Suns, Northern Arizona’s parent club. Bakumanya enjoyed Europe, where he says coaches focus more on fundamentals than anything else. But since his goal is to reach the NBA, he knew he had to return stateside and get more experience through the D-League to continue his progression.
His time with the Rockets and Suns over the past year has helped accelerate that development since he never played college basketball.
“I am learning a lot. I’ve learned from guys like Michael Beasley, guys who have played in the NBA,” Bakumanya said. “This has been a great experience. With the Suns, that was a great experience, learning about how to approach the game.”
Dallas native Tyrone Ellis, a Carter High School product who had an 11-year playing career in the D-League and overseas, is coaching Bakumanya with Northern Arizona. And Ellis, in his first season as a head coach, sees plenty to like.
“He’s tall and he’s coachable. He runs the floor. He’s athletic,” Ellis said. “He is long, athletic and he can run. He can move his feet, that’s a big strength. One thing he does well is his ability to defend the pick-and- roll. That’s something that a lot of bigs have issues with.”
This season, Bakumanya is averaging 3.2 rebounds and 2.8 points in 36 games (13 starts) for Northern Arizona. And like many young players in the D-League, especially someone who is relatively new to the game, there have been stretches where he didn’t play consistent minutes.
And Ellis has seen Bakumanya struggle at times with the often up- and-down nature of playing in the D-League, but he remains impressed with Bakumanya’s commitment to improving daily.
“Yeah, he needs to develop as a professional as well as on the court,” Ellis said. “That’s part of his development, is understanding the professionalism of being a professional basketball player. I tell him all the time, you have to be ready whenever your number’s called. This is not college. We’re not catering to you. You have to basically just man up and take this as your job. I’m proud of him thus far.”
For many young players in the D-League or NBA, learning patience when the minutes aren’t coming can be a hard lesson, but it’s also something they can’t take personally. Sure, sometimes not playing consistently is a function of their own performance, but minutes can also be dictated by other external factors like injuries, match-ups and other players on the roster who play the same position.
To his credit, Bakumanya hasn’t let his lack of playing time diminish his confidence.
“Yeah, I know my time’s going to come,” he said. “I’m not still worried about it.”