Sometimes it doesn’t take long to think disaster is inevitable. And one game into the 2018-2019 season, the Baylor Bears season looked over. The team fell to Texas Southern at home. Two time zones away at UNLV, Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua played three minutes in a double digit loss to Loyola.
The Bears would find that despair in November—something that perhaps more of us should remember when our preferred candidates lose an election—did not mean much. The Bears rallied to win an NCAA Tournament game.
Tchamwa Tchatchoua would flash plenty of potential that season too. After the firing of Marvin Menzies he’d end up at Baylor and be part of a team that makes anyone taking the field in a “Gonzaga, Baylor or the field” debate someone that should take the first step and admit they have a gambling problem.
But before turning to how a francophone from Cameroon became a key piece on one of the nation’s two best teams (we’ll save the Gonzaga-Baylor debate for Twitter), let’s start in Africa.
Tchamwa Tchatchoua grew up in Dioula, Cameroon. And while he earned a wonderful education there—studying 15 subjects and having class from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.—he says, “I started learning English at a young age in Cameroon...I wasn’t really into it.”
That wouldn’t seem to be a challenge for him. But at 15, Tchamwa Tchatchoua started playing organized basketball. He says, “I went to this camp in Cameroon. I did okay in this camp. Me and four other guys were selected for basketball without borders. I did alright and got a scholarship to one of the first NBA Global Academy programs in Australia.”
Heading halfway across the globe at 15 isn’t an easy decision; that kind of move isn’t easy for a grown person seeking a reprieve from the drudges of life. Tchamwa Tchatchoua loves Cameroon. But he says, “In Africa, it’s more about getting a scholarship to go to the U.S. My dad was all-in to get a scholarship in the U.S. I told him it was my dream...going to Australia was different, but it was backed up by the NBA, so I thought it was a good thing for me.”
When Tchamwa Tchatchoua arrived in Australia his problems weren’t on the court. He says, “When I got there, when I was first going to class, I didn’t understand a word in a single class. I had to go home and teach myself for two or three months. I had to go on YouTube and type all these subjects in French to learn this.” For those of us that spend time on YouTube watching mid 2000’s rap battles or debates over whether SpongeBob SquarePants is actually about nuclear testing (probably), we can take solace that we maintained a platform that let someone doing real work pass his classes.
After playing in Australia, Tchamwa Tchatchoua achieved his goal and earned a scholarship to UNLV. He went for two main reasons. First, he wanted to play for Menzies—a man who coached another Cameroonian star, Pascal Siakam, while at New Mexico State. The second, and “main reason was wanting to play right away. I only had two to three years of organized basketball...I didn’t think sitting out my freshman year would be smart for me. I wanted to make mistakes and learn from it.”
Unfortunately, the Running Rebels finished the year 17-14 and made a coaching change. With Menzies gone, Tchamwa Tchatchoua elected to transfer.
He started by looking for a program where he could improve. He said, “I looked at players getting better in their redshirt year, and I considered that I wouldn’t get a waiver, so it would maximize potential.”
Baylor fit that mold. Ekpe Udoh went from averaging six points per game as a sophomore at Michigan to the No. 6 pick in the NBA Draft after one season in Waco. Royce O’Neale improved in nearly advanced statistical category after leaving Denver and has made tens of millions for the Utah Jazz. And Davion Mitchell, MaCio Teague and Manu LeComte became All-Big 12 players at Baylor after sitting out a year.
Tchamwa Tchatchoua had other reasons that Baylor landed him over Nebraska and Grand Canyon. He credits, “The coaching staff and faith. I realized I kind of lost my faith. I was focused on getting that back. Coach Drew had the same energy and is so positive like I am. I felt like being around a coaching staff built for me.”
The Bears’ fans may not have been thrilled when they first saw Tchamwa Tchatchoua’s UNLV numbers. He averaged three points—while shooting 47% from the field—and three rebounds per game for a mediocre Mountain West cadre. But Scott Drew told me at a press conference they wanted him because, “first and foremost his character and work ethic. We knew he’d put in the time, especially with the year off, he’d get better and make our team better. Every day he practices so hard, he’d make himself better but also the team better.”
Time is only valuable if you do something with it. To those that don’t the refrain, “Wait until next year” becomes an annoying ballad of nothingness. Tchamwa Tchatchoua did something with his time. Over that redshirt year he got substantially better by turning to people that could help him.
That didn’t make the redshirt year easy. He says, “The first month was tough. They were great Big 12 athletes. Freddie (Gillespie) was a great defensive player. He would always beat me every day. Tristan (Clark) was always that guy you couldn’t guard.” When facing that kind of situation, Tchamwa Tchatchoua could have sulked and embraced that maybe he wasn’t built for the Big 12, or he could have gotten better. He did and says, “Freddie gave me a lot of tips because we lived together. We watched film every night, and he took me to the gym with him.”
The hype around Tchamwa Tchatchoua was intense entering the season. Mitchell told me about lob opportunities, and Clark said at a press conference that, “Jon is super athletic and one of the most athletic players I’ve played with. He’s going to surprise a lot of people. He’ll lead the team in rebounding and can defend on the perimeter.”
If anyone thought Clark was a liar, they found out he displayed an honesty befitting Abraham Lincoln with Tchamwa Tchatchoua’s performance against Illinois. The Bears worked two empty side ball screens for him, and the Illini had no chance:
I asked Mitchell about those lobs after the game, and he said, “We talked about it earlier, and he said, ‘throw it as high as you can.’ He’s got the most bounce in the gym. I don’t even think where I throw it up. He just goes and gets it.”
Tchamwa Tchatchoua says that he thinks his vertical leap is 40 or 41 inches. To put that in perspective, that’s a lot. He says, “I feel like I got more bounce this season. Shout out to Charlie Melton (Baylor’s strength coach). Weight training and conditioning have been hard during quarantine with a shortened schedule. Charlie did a great job. he did a great job getting us ready and (boosting) our athleticism.”
Those lobs are also the product of strong chemistry between Mitchell and Tchamwa Tchatchoua. He says, “We worked on it during the summer and giving him enough confidence. Whatever he can throw and catching it. It has to be thrown. Now he’s one of the best passers I’ve seen.”
Tchamwa Tchatchoua is so focused on making sure they have the lob opportunities down that he’ll call Mitchell before games when he notices something on film. Mitchell found Tchamwa Tchatchoua for another lob against Kansas State, and you can see the stoicism I have to maintain on press row (I’m in the red polo and giant white mask):
Jared Butler is also one of the country’s best passers, and he’s gotten involved in these lob chances too. After the Kansas State game, I asked him about two alley-oops he threw to Jon. He said, “With Jon you just have to throw it up as high as you can. Not too many people can reach 14 feet. It was back-to-back.”
The Bears dealt Bruce Weber his worst loss at Kansas State. After the game, Scott Drew said, “The execution and passes are some great passes, and Jon gives you an opportunity to be off target and get it.”
Although he’s spent most of his life across the Atlantic, Tchamwa Tchatchoua has mastered American diplomacy. When I asked about the difference between Mitchell and Butler’s lob passes, he says, “I’m not trying to be diplomatic, but they’re both great passers.” He did let me know that “Both them are competing for, ‘Jon, which is the best.’ They’re always asking, ‘Which is the best one.’ Tchamwa Tchatchoua refuses to pick a favorite, which seems like a good strategy if he wants to preserve this:
A good offensive game is about more than dunking. Maybe that’s something that I—a 5’9 man that’s willing to offer alternative facts and say I’m 5’11 if a woman out of my league has a mandate to not date men under 5’10—have to believe. Dunking has never been possible for me, and if it were, I’d only dunk. But Tchamwa Tchatchoua has broadened his game.
Two plays against Kansas State exemplify that he’s more than a dunker. He hit Matt Mayer cross-court, which led to a layup He says, “I developed that during my redshirt year with Jake (a manager) and all the G.A.’s They told me that I’m a little smaller compared to some bigs, but when I use my faceup, I can see if they’re over playing me from the help side and throw that pass right away:
He also put the ball on the floor and scored. I asked him what he’s looking for when he decides whether to attack. He says, “It’s about a read. How much focus they put on the guards. They’re all great players, so they’ll put so much attention (on them). If the defender is focused on the guard, I’ll try and attack. I’ll try and go inside.”
Although I’ve never played defense in basketball, Tchamwa Tchatchoua does. The Bears have the No. 5 KenPom defense. If that mark holds, it will be back-to-back top five seasons. With the loss of Gillespie, there were real concerns about whether the Bears could maintain that mark. But Tchamwa Tchatchoua can react quickly and eliminate opportunities:
Against Iowa State, the Bears couldn’t make a three. They started 3-of-14, a surprising mark for Baylor’s coterie of guards and a team that ranks No. 2 nationally in 3-point percentage.
And with 10 minutes left, the Bears trailed. They had trouble defending middle pick-and-rolls. So the Bears opted to switch screens. After the game, Drew said, “We trust our bigs to guard a guard...it’s like a pitcher when you have a fastball, it’s great, but it’s also good to have the slider, the curve, the knuckler or whatever else. The fact that Flo (Thamba) and Jon can guard a guard helped us out down the stretch.”
In one key sequence, Rasir Bolton appeared to have zoomed past Tchamwa Tchatchoua for an easy bucket. But he blocked the shot. He said, “It’s about riding hips. I’m good laterally, but I’m still big, and I get beat sometimes. We knew that he loved shooting his layup high, and I knew I had a chance to get there.”
Tchamwa Tchatchoua hasn’t hit his ceiling either. After their first two games in Vegas, associate head coach (then acting because Drew had COVID-19) Jerome Tang said, “this is a process, it will be mid-January and you’ll start to see it come together even better.”
In his time at Baylor, Tchamwa Tchatchoua has made lasting friendships. He said that Butler let him know he was returning to Baylor weeks before his announcement.
And he’s grown in his faith. He credits the Baylor program, and the JOY motto of prioritization—Jesus, others, yourself—for rekindling his faith. He believes he’s on, “the right path.”
The setbacks we suffer give us the chance at something better. Some of Baylor’s recruiting misses are now at their second schools after they showed they weren’t quite ready to play high major basketball, while Tchamwa Tchatchoua is at his second school and thriving at Baylor.
There’s nothing quite like the relentless optimism of Tchamwa Tchatchoua. He’s half a world away from his home chasing his dream. For now, he says, “I want to win the Big 12 and national championship. I haven’t been here three years, but I feel like I’ve been here 40, and we haven’t won a natty. I want to do it.”
Maybe that’s why Drew said earlier this season, “If every player were like Jon, then everyone would want to be a coach.”