Zimi Nwokeji was always one of the tallest kids in his class, but the grace and finesse that characterizes the 6’7” forward’s performance on the court today was nowhere to be found.
“I was tall but I was really clumsy,” says Zimi. “I just grew too fast, I guess, and I was not coordinated at all when I was a kid.”
Time spent in SPIRE post grad basketball program, following a distinguished high school career playing for two of Florida’s top private school teams, undoubtedly helped Zimi make it to his current spot on the University of Dayton Flyers. Coached by Anthony Grant, now in his fourth season, the Flyers were ranked #3 in the AP Top 25 Poll in March of 2020, the NCAA Division I’s highest ranking since the 1955-56 season when it was ranked #2. Most recently, the Flyers advanced to the quarterfinals of the 2021 Atlantic 10 Tournament.
However, Zimi’s evolution as a top-flight collegiate basketball player began long before he ever played on an organized team. To help his young son develop ball-handling and shooting skills, Zimi’s father, Kennedy Nwokeji, put up a basketball hoop in the driveway of the family’s home in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Zimi remembers spending hours on end outdoors in all kinds of weather, driving to the hoop, working on his free throws and perfecting his three-pointers from both sides of the basket—improving his game and increasing his overall coordination and confidence.
When Zimi’s grandfather became ill in 2006, the Nwokeji family moved from the midwest to Tallahassee, Florida to help take care of him. During the family’s early years in the Sunshine State, Zimi settled into the local public school system and continued to work on his hoop skills. Before long, his height, athleticism, and general skills caught the eye of the middle school basketball coach, who recruited Zimi to play for the team of 6th–8th graders.
After two years playing JV and Varsity basketball at the local high school, Zimi was recruited to attend and play at Maclay School in Tallahassee. He averaged 17.1 points and 11.7 rebounds as a junior at Maclay and was named Big Bend Conference Defensive Player of the Year for 2018. Zimi finished his high school career at The Rock in Gainesville, Florida, where he posted 10.2 points and 7.0 rebounds per game during the school’s 2018–19 championship season.
After graduation from high school, Zimi decided to do a post grad year at SPIRE Institute and Academy (IA) in Geneva, Ohio starting in August of 2019. According to SPIRE’s Post Grad Basketball Coach Gravelle Craig, Zimi and players like him often really benefit from a program such as the one SPIRE offers between high school and college.
“Opting for a post grad year at SPIRE is not taking a year off,” said Coach Craig. “Think of it instead as adding a year to your future. Each post grad athlete receives performance training, including athletic and mental skills development, character building and a variety of educational options—all in Olympic-grade facilities. It’s a unique opportunity for athletes to enhance their overall academic, athletic and personal standing with top college coaches and programs throughout the country.”
“I was fortunate to be able to participate in the post grad program at SPIRE,” says Zimi. “Along with the opportunity to play with and against really high caliber players, I also got life skills experience. The chance to live on campus, improve my game and stick to a training regimen taught me discipline and built my confidence.”
“Playing for Coach Craig was a great experience,” he added. “He demanded the best of all of us, on and off the court. I learned how to be a better basketball player and a better person.”
After his time at SPIRE, Zimi enrolled at Dayton in January of 2020, where he took a redshirt year for the remainder of the season to maintain his freshman eligibility. This past season for the Flyers, Zimi had a breakout performance against Rhode Island, where he tallied 29 points, including 9-10 from the field and 9-11 from the free throw line, and seven rebounds.
Zimi is currently majoring in Criminal Justice with a minor in Information Technology with a view toward earning a spot on an NBA team in the future.