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Arizona commit Maya Nnaji’s aspirations extend far beyond basketball

Maya Nnaji led Hopkins to its eighth Minnesota Class AAAA state title on Monday. (Courtesy of Apham Nnaji)

Maya Nnaji is one of the 10 best high school basketball players in the country, a three-time state champion and a McDonald’s All-American.

But those close to the Arizona commit know basketball doesn’t define her; it’s just a part of who she is.

Nnaji, the Hopkins High School (Minnetonka, Minn.) senior, is an aspiring doctor who provides care packages to homeless people across Minneapolis; an amateur writer whose teacher encouraged her to turn a short story into a novel; and a trustee in the Nnaji Family Foundation, which is building basketball courts and educational centers across Nigeria.

“[Athlete] is what she is now,” said Gillian McNeal, one of Nnaji’s former teachers. “But the skills and things she learned, she’s taking it and branching out in so many ways. She’s going to help the world.”

Nnaji, 18, counts Maya Moore as a role model, and not just because of the WNBA MVP’s on-court accomplishments: Nnaji watched in awe as Moore stepped away from the game at her peak in 2019 to fight for social justice and help free Jonathan Irons, who was serving a 50-year prison sentence for a crime he did not commit.

“She knows she has bigger things to chase and more important things to work on,” Nnaji said of Moore. “People maybe didn’t understand her decision, but it really resonated with me.”

Nnaji’s holistic worldview is by design. Her parents, Apham and Janel, have always made sure their children’s interests stretch beyond sports. Nnaji, her younger sister Josie and her older brother Zeke, who now plays for the Denver Nuggets, join their parents on regular trips to Apham’s native Nigeria. All three children are also musically inclined — Nnaji has sung the national anthem before games, Zeke is a virtuoso piano player and Josie plays the piano and guitar. And then there’s the extra classwork.

“My parents made sure we filled our extra time with doing extra schoolwork,” Maya said. “Doing extra math stuff, doing a lot of reading, doing a lot of writing, practicing spelling and making sure we’re excelling in everything we can do.”

That includes helping others. Nnaji hopes to follow in Moore’s footsteps, whatever direction that might take her in — even if it means stepping away from the game earlier than expected.

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The Nnaji Family Foundation (Courtesy of Apham Nnaji)

Nnaji’s desire to be of service to disadvantaged populations stretches back to the beginning of high school.

For a ninth-grade community service project, Nnaji decided to give out care packages around Minneapolis. She, Janel and Josie bought paper bags and blankets from Menards, fruits, vegetables and bread from Sam’s Club and Costco, and toiletries from the Dollar Store. They put together individual packages and drove around the city, offering them to the homeless.

“I didn’t give them a house. I didn’t give them a bunch of money,” Nnaji said. “I could do more to save their lives. But I felt like it was so touching to see the small act of kindness just make their whole day.”

Nnaji and Josie continue to deliver care packages today and have named the informal initiative “Silent Strength.”

That same year, in McNeal’s language arts class, Nnaji penned a powerful story on civil rights and police brutality.

“The kid grew up in a family, and they all did everything right,” Nnaji said, describing the story. “Then his dad was killed from a gang-initiation and his mom was killed being pulled over by a cop. It talks about the system of oppression that Black people are in. No matter how hard you work, you can work twice as hard and still be taken by the system.”

McNeal was so impressed, she told Nnaji to turn the short story into a novel.

“A ninth grader writing like this is uncanny,” McNeal said. “I remember bringing it back and saying, ‘I don’t even know what to say. This was unreal and I think I need you to make this into a book.’

“To get this voice out there, especially in the times we are living in now, this is such a strong voice and it’s actually being written by a teen, which has a whole other level of impact on people.”

The book remains a work in progress, but Apham has promised to get it published if her daughter finishes writing. McNeal said she wants an autographed copy.

Nnaji’s perspective is informed in part by those family trips to Nigeria, where she came across families unable to get necessary medical care because they lacked money for hospital visits.

“You have people dying from simple and curable diseases,” Nnaji said.

Arizona offered Nnaji, a 6-foot-4 forward who averaged 16.5 points and 9.3 rebounds this season, a pathway to pursue basketball and medicine. A Zoom call with Arizona President Dr. Robert Robbins was a major factor in her decision. A cardiac surgeon and former president and CEO of the Texas Medical Center, Riggins promised to write letters of recommendation and mentor Maya.

“The plan has already been set in place for her,” Apham said. “She’ll be doing summer school to catch up. The whole thing is set up for her to be successful.”

And Nnaji is already thinking about how to best maximize her time. She has applied for Arizona’s Accelerated Pathway to Medical Education program, which would allow her to finish undergraduate and medical school in seven years, instead of eight.

“I know I’m doing it for more than just myself,” Nnaji said. “I’m doing it for thousands and thousands of people who will be able to benefit, and thousands of people I can save and help.”

On a recruiting visit to Arizona in October, helping others wasn’t far from Nnaji’s mind. During a meal with coaches, Nnaji noticed some food had been left untouched. Knowing she wasn’t going to eat the leftovers, she boxed it up, and Arizona head coach Adia Barnes drove her around Tucson as they delivered it to the needy.

“Coach Adia was saying it’s awesome you care so much for so many people,” Nnaji recalled. “She was saying, ‘When you get here, we can do it more often, anytime we’re on road trips or we can have the fans come and do a food donation, do a food drive and deliver it to people around the city as well.’”

***

The Nnaji Family Foundation, founded shortly after Zeke was drafted into the NBA in 2020, plans to build five basketball courts and educational centers across Nigeria and hold basketball camps across the U.S., including in Fort Collins, Colo.

As a trustee in the foundation, Nnaji is working with Josie to design jerseys kids will wear at those camps.

“In terms of overall vision, they are intimately involved,” said Apham, who co-founded the foundation with Zeke. “They are kids. They know what other kids want.”

The foundation wants to help 300 Nigerian children learn the game of basketball and get hands-on technological training, an experience most college graduates in Nigeria don’t receive, Apham said.

Feeding the hungry is also a priority, with the foundation recently providing 26 meals to families in Nigeria.

“My family, we’ve always vowed that if we’re ever successful, we’re going to make sure to give back first,” Nnaji said. “That’s what we’re doing.”

Much like UConn star Paige Bueckers, her former Hopkins teammate, Nnaji wants to be an inspiration for thousands of girls. But her dreams don’t end there.

Moore gave up basketball for a higher cause. Nnaji’s professional career is still years away, but she’s already prepared to make a similar sacrifice.

“It might be something I have to do,” Nnaji said, her voice taking on a solemn tone, “step away from a game I love to be able to help people that I love.”

Phillip Suitts is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports. He has worked at a variety of outlets, including The Palm Beach Post and Southeast Missourian, and done a little bit of everything from reporting to editing to running social media accounts. He was born in Atlanta but currently lives in wintry Philadelphia. Follow Phillip on Twitter @PhillipSuitts.

The Late Sub Podcast: Can the USWNT Medal?

The USWNT takes a silly face photo during their team Olympic photo shoot
The USWNT will begin their 2024 Olympic medal hunt on Thursday. (Brad Smith/ISI/Getty Images).

This week, JWS podcast host Claire Watkins discusses WNBA All-Star Weekend, which felt both like a celebration of the league's explosive growth over the past year and a way to set Team USA up for a particularly competitive Summer Olympics.

Later, Watkins previews the field for the upcoming Olympic soccer tournament, nominating her personal "Group of Death" and discussing whether or not the new-era USWNT could still reach medal contention despite their current rebuild under new head coach Emma Hayes.

Subscribe to The Late Sub to never miss an episode.

Team USA, Germany Play Pre-Olympic Exhibition Game in London

Team USA's 5x5 Basketball Team stands for the National Anthem before Saturday's WNBA All-Star Game
Team USA looks to rebound from Saturday's WNBA All-Star Game loss in an exhibition against Germany today. (Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images)

USA Basketball's 5x5 team will tip off in an exhibition against Germany in London this afternoon, getting in one last tune-up before the Summer Olympics begin.

The US is hunting an eighth-straight gold medal this year, with group stage play starting on July 29th.

Team USA's Kahleah Copper, Alyssa Thomas, Kelsey Plum, and Sabrina Ionescu gear up to face Germany in pre-Olympic exhibition.
Team USA's Kahleah Copper, Alyssa Thomas, Kelsey Plum, and Sabrina Ionescu gear up to take on Germany in London. (Juan Ocampo/NBAE via Getty Images)

US to use All-Star loss as fuel

Coming off the weekend's All-Star Game loss, the Olympians are ready to repeat history: They earned their Tokyo gold medal immediately after losing the first Team USA vs. Team WNBA All-Star Game back in 2021.

Breanna Stewart, who led Team USA with a 31-point, 10-rebound double-double on Saturday, said that the defeat "is going to help us tremendously. We don’t get that many game opportunities, [and now] we can go back and watch the film and focus on how we can continue to be better."

Today’s tilt against Germany will see the US work to lock in their defense, particularly in the paint. They'll also lean into their positional versatility before heading to Paris.

WNBA pro Satou Sabally leads Team Germany in today's pre-Olympic exhibition game against Team USA.
WNBA pro Satou Sabally helped Germany to their first-ever Olympic berth. (Axel Heimken/picture alliance via Getty Images)

Olympic debutants Germany enter first US clash

The exhibition marks the first-ever US-Germany linkup. The German team will make their Olympic debut in Paris after decades of failing to qualify for major international competitions. Their sixth-place 2023 EuroBasket finish sent them into February’s FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament, where they punched their ticket to the 2024 Games.

Leading Germany's run was two-time WNBA All-Star Satou Sabally, who put up career-high averages in points, rebounds, assists, and steals with Dallas last season. Her 20-point, 11-rebound double-double was the difference-maker in Germany's must-win 73-71 Olympic qualifying victory over Brazil.

Other German players to watch include 2022 NY Liberty draft-pick — and Sabally's sister — Nyara Sabally, along with Liberty sharpshooter Leonie Fiebich.

Where to watch the Team USA vs. Germany game

Today’s exhibition tips off at 3 PM ET with live coverage on FS1.

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retired uswnt star kelley o'hara interviewing san diego wave and uswnt forward jaedyn shaw
'1v1' is back with Jaedyn Shaw joining Kelley O'Hara for a conversation about the upcoming Paris Olympics. (Just Women's Sports)

In the latest episode of Just Women's Sports' 1v1 With Kelley O'Hara, San Diego Wave and USWNT star Jaedyn Shaw joins two-time World Cup champion and Olympic gold medalist Kelley O'Hara for a one-on-one conversation about the upcoming Paris Olympics.

We hear from the 19-year-old Wave FC phenom about her first impressions of new USWNT coach Emma Hayes, her experience with international competition at this point in her young career, and how she's preparing to take on the 2024 Summer Games.

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The 91st: Complete USWNT & Olympic Soccer Preview Featuring Jess McDonald

Logo for JWS USWNT Olympic show The 91st
The latest season of JWS' awarding-winning Olympics show 'The 91st' premieres today. (Just Women's Sports)

We're back! Hosts Jordan Angeli, Duda Pavao, and retired USWNT forward Jess McDonald deliver a full preview of this year's Olympic soccer tournament in Paris.

Watch for full analysis of USWNT manager Emma Hayes's coaching style, this team's shifting identity in this new USWNT era, and a projected starting XI for the team's group stage opener against Zambia. The 91st hosts also break down all three Olympic groups — including top players and teams to track throughout the tournament — plus give their predictions for the medal rounds and individual awards.

Subscribe to Just Women's Sports on YouTube to never miss an episode.

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