Ariel Hukporti is a young man with an old head on his shoulders.
Just 19, the new Melbourne United giant will enter his fourth season as a professional, after stints in Germany and Lithuania gave him a veteran’s perspective on the business of basketball.
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All bets are off now, though, as he zeros in on an NBA career — via the booming breeding ground the NBL has become.
He spoke to Michael Randall about life, hoops and his plan to avoid Australia’s famed snakes and spiders.
The Giddey connection
Hukporti has known about Australian basketball for a while now.
Last year he was a teammate of breakthrough Aussie NBA rookie Josh Giddey at the Basketball Without Borders camp — an NBA and FIBA-organised event he came away from holding the MVP crown.
“Giddey’s a good guy, he plays good, you see them highlights, he’s getting almost triple doubles,” Hukporti said.
“It’s incredible how he just came up. When I was playing with him in Basketball Without Borders (he was a) great passer, nice vision, definitely a good person.
“I’m just happy for him, happy for him to make it to the NBA.”
Hukporti, like Giddey before him, is part of the league’s Next Stars program, which fast tracks young talent from all over the world, with a view to making them NBA players.
Charlotte Hornets star LaMelo Ball is the most high-profile graduate of the program, but joining Hukporti as Next Stars this season is an array of prospects from all over the world, including Australians Makur Maker (Sydney) and Mojave King (Adelaide), Frenchmen Ousmane Dieng (New Zealand) and Tom Digbeu (Brisbane), and Russian Nikita Mikhailovskii (Tasmania).
Hukporti has the perfect mentor to lean on in his quest to make it to the big league — rising Oklahoma City star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who is, coincidently, Giddey’s back-court running mate at the Thunder.
The pair shares the same management agency and ‘SGA’ is only a WhatsApp message away.
Hukporti also has someone a little closer to home — NBA champion Matthew Dellavedova — who knows a thing or two about taking the hard road to the big league.
‘Basketball or nothing’
While he’s seen more than most teenagers and is mature beyond his years, Hukporti is still filled with the wonder of youth.
He lives by the creed “basketball or nothing”.
“I’m putting everything on one card,” he says.
“Nobody wants a normal job, right? Everybody wants to make money.
“Everybody wants a family and to be able to feed them one day.
“My dream is to be an NBA player and I just want to follow and achieve my dream, that’s what ‘basketball or nothing’ means.”
He could have entered the 2021 draft but, by his own self-assessment, decided he wasn’t quite ready and would spend another year honing his skills.
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“I think I need a little more time, just to get myself together,” he said.
“(I) just want more experience before I enter the league, (to) learn more and be more prepared,” he said.
He says it’s not a matter of if, but when, he makes the jump to the NBA, with most key draft boards projecting him as a second-round pick. A strong showing in the NBL would shoot him up those boards, just as Giddey did when he won the NBL’s Rookie of the Year award last season.
He sees parallels in his game with that of Phoenix Suns’ big man DeAndre Ayton.
“He’s athletic, too, like me,” he said.
“I feel like I’m similar to him.
“He’s doing it better than me now, but I can see myself following him on the court, his style of play, his role in the NBA.”
Born in Germany to Togolese parents, Hukporti’s positivity can be traced back to his upbringing, chiefly mother Marcele, who taught the young Ariel to fight for his dreams.
“My mum always pushed me, doesn’t matter what I did, she always said ‘do it’,” he said.
“She would always support me, no matter what.
“I was doing a lot of sports when I was young — I played soccer, table tennis, tennis, I played everything.
“She is always on my side. She always said ‘give your best’ — ‘if you want to do it, just do it. If you don’t want a regular job, then you better fight for it’.”
Fight for it, he has, switching from soccer to basketball when it became obvious his height — now 213cm with a wingspan of almost 220cm — and athleticism would be major assets on the hardwood.
Now he gets the chance to show United what he can do.
‘Like a family’: A special basketball experience
Professional basketball can be ruthless — especially in Europe — and relationships often difficult to forge.
Hukporti says he is experiencing something different at Melbourne.
“I’ve played in Europe and the states so, to be out here, is different,” he said.
“I’m used to being away from family, but the team has helped me forget about being so far away. Nobody really helped me (at other teams) like they have at United.
“They’re (teammates) inviting you to their home, they’re doing things with you, getting haircuts and all of that.
“They’re more supportive, they’re low key like a little family for me.”
He’s become close with Nigerian import Caleb Agada, and forwards Mason Peatling and Jack White — who will be like a new recruit for United when he returns from a ruptured Achilles.
But it is veteran David Barlow who has left an indelible mark on the young gun.
Separated by 19 years, Hukporti was just one-year-old when Barlow made his NBL debut.
Hukporti is amazed at the veteran’s durability.
“Barlow helped me on the court a lot and off the court too, because I would be seeing him stretch after practice, doing his thing — he’s 38 and he still be competing with us,” he said of the ageless big man, whose fastidious yoga and stretching regime helps him overcome father time.
“That’s pretty impressive to me, to be that age and be able to do those things. You don’t see a lot of people like that. It’s like LeBron James is still playing at that age or Vince Carter.
“He plays aggressive, he competes with us, he’s up and down, making shots. He’s strong as s**t.”
Hukporti projects to tag team with the long and lean Jo Lual-Acuil at centre for United.
‘The best coach I ever had’
Hukporti is not the first player to be enamoured with United’s newly-extended coach Dean Vickerman.
The three-time NBL champion mentor has signed through the 2023-24 season.
Hukporti does not mince his words when asked about Vickerman.
“Dean is the best coach I ever had, I ain’t gonna lie,” he said.
“It’s how he builds the relationship with the players, it’s just incredible because I’ve never had a relationship with a coach like that.
“He always pushes me, he’s always telling me if I do something wrong or do something good and he always gives me advice when I have a question or we’re watching film together.
“He always asks me what I am doing to get better every day, I be answering ‘I’m going to the gym after practice’.
“I never had a coach like that.
“I feel like he really cares and he’s interested in our success. He just wants the best for the players. It’s incredible because I never saw that overseas.”
Vickerman is a big fan of his young international charge, too.
“Ariel is a 19-year-old Next Star that we’re asking a lot of — it’s going to be interesting how good he can be in this league,” Vickerman said of the 213cm giant.
“We’ve seen him dominate at times in practice and him and Jo (Lual-)Acuil form a pretty formidable frontline.
“Ariel is big and powerful, he’s got great mobility on the perimeter that allows him to take people off the dribble at seven feet. His length and reach are exceptional.
“We’d like to see Ariel build on his fitness level. He can be anything, we love the talent level, we love the cheekiness and the liveliness he brings, he’s fun to have around the group.”
‘This is where all the snakes are, huh?’
Hukporti has a place to himself in Melbourne but, having arrived only six weeks ago, is yet to see any of the city, thanks, of course, to lockdowns.
Rap staples Jay-Z, J. Cole and a steady diet of gaming have been his go-to in lockdown.
Now, as Victoria opens up, he’s looking forward to exploring his new surroundings and taking in more Aussie culture.
He’s dined out with teammates Jack White and Mason Peatling, but is yet to try the parma — it’s now on his list.
And he’s definitely planning to avoid our famous creepy-crawlies.
“Before I came to Australia I was googling stuff like spiders and all that,” he said.
“It’s hell dangerous out here.
“Tarantulas fighting, see like snakes coming up the toilet, I’m like daaaaaamn. Hell nuh.
“Hell no, I’m not doing that. That’s just scary.”