Twenty-five year-old rookies straight out of the NCAA aren't common in the NBA. But with Bernard James and Vernon Macklin having been drafted each of the last two seasons, there appears to be room for someone like Kenny Kadji to make his mark.
Kadji's skill set is thoroughly tantalizing. Athletic, 6'11" power forwards that can potentially shoot threes don't grow on trees. Kadji shot 37% on three point attempts in his two years at Miami, along with averaging 12.5 points, 6 rebounds, and 1.4 blocks per game. He's a versatile player, to be certain. The question is simply how much can he grow into an NBA role after injuries and age. Kadji told me that he thinks his age and maturity is actually an asset in his favor.
"For me, being 25, I grasp the game a little faster than other guys...the terminology on defense and things like that," Kadji said. "I want to show the coaches that you can put me in the game and you don't have to wait three or four years like for an 18 or 19 year old."
Kadji comes from an extraordinarily interesting background that I was unaware of before writing this. He was born in France to Cameroonian parents in 1988 and then moved and lived in Cameoon for 14 years. Kenny's family owns "Kadji-beer," which is the most popular beer in that country. He told me about how proud he is of family and about how his father would bring samples back to the house for people to try when he was younger. Kadji obviously didn't go into the beer industry like his father, but that doesn't mean basketball was his first love either. Like most European and African athletes, Kadji's first infatuation was soccer. He had a dream to play for Paris Saint-Germain of France's Ligue 1, but that was quickly dashed whenever he had a growth spurt.
"I figured out I was done with soccer when I was 13 or 14 years old, when they wanted to put me at goalie," Kadji said. "At the same time, I was starting to fall in love with basketball. That's the time when overseas players were coming over and doing pretty well in the NBA, like Dirk Nowitzki and Manu Ginobili. So I started watching it and I loved it."
He came over to America at 15 years old, moving to Tampa and attending IMG Academy. Although IMG Academy is known more as a tennis facility run by Nick Bolletieri, Kadji transformed into one of the top 30 basketball recruits in the country during his time there. When the Florida Gators came calling, he decided he couldn't say no after their back-to-back NCAA titles.
As a freshman Kadji received a lot of playing time, appearing in all but two games. But then a herniated disk derailed his sophomore campaign. While recovering, Kadji decided he wanted to transfer. The Gators had a crowded front court rotation including Vernon Macklin, Erik Murphy and Chandler Parsons, as well as incoming recruit Patric Young.
"It was a learning experience, Kadji said. "I went there not knowing what to expect as a student-athlete. I made a couple of mistakes and decided to start new at the University of Miami."
Because of the injury and transfer, this essentially meant that Kadji did not play in an NCAA game for nearly two seasons. Then to top it off, former Miami coach Frank Haith left the program in order to pursue the job at Missouri. However, Kadji never wavered from his commitment after speaking to new coach Jim Larranaga.
"I knew Larranaga's reputation from what he did with George Mason, and I knew it was only a matter time with the guys we had," Kadji said. "In the first meeting he had with us, he just told us we're one of the best teams in the ACC, and that within two years we'd be on top of them."
Kadji reshaped his career at Miami, averaging nearly 12 points, 5 rebounds, and 2 blocks per game. In Larranaga's offense, he was able to show off his aforementioned but previously unused jumper and shot 42% from three-point range. As one of the leaders on the team, he helped turn the program into a 20-win team that played in the postseason.
However, it was this season where they made their mark. Miami won the ACC's regular season conference crown and conference tournament championship in order to clinch a two-seed in the NCAA tournament. There, they reached the Sweet Sixteen before falling to Marquette. Kadji may not have been the best player on this team (Shane Larkin was deservedly named ACC Player of the Year for his stellar work), but he was most assuredly the glue and backbone that held together as he upped his statistical averages across the board.
"(Coach Larranaga) put me in a great position to succeed," Kadji said. "We had Shane Larkin, Durand Scott, guys who were great at driving and dishing the ball. He just put me in a situation to spread the floor and he gave me the total green light. He had confidence in me to shoot the ball and when someone does that it's 90% of the fight."
Despite showing off exceptional athleticism at the NBA Draft Combine to blend with his proven collegiate production, Kadji went undrafted in June's NBA Draft. Teams were assuredly scared off by his age, perceiving that he lacked upside potential. Even though it hurt to go undrafted, Kadji never assumed this was the end of his NBA career. He was the first undrafted free agent to sign up to play on the Cavaliers' summer league team here in Las Vegas.
While here, Kadji's been a mixed bag - although it's nearly impossible to take anything away from the production of big men in summer league play because it's mostly a guard-dominated event. Playing right around 20 minutes per game, Kadji is averaging 5.2 points and 5.0 rebounds per game, along with five blocks in four games. Thursday, Kadji played his best game of the week. Unsurprisingly, it was the game where he got the best opportunity to run the pick-and-pop and let it fly from three-point range. He scored ten points with five rebounds and two three-pointers.
It's clear upon watching him that there is a specific role for in the NBA for Kadji if can find the right system. He has a great basketball IQ in the pick-and-roll, knowing exactly when to release from the screen and how to find the open space on the floor for his shot. I can absolutely envision him playing a two-man game with Kyrie Irving in the future. Plus, he's an athletic and active defender in the post that is able to police the rim better than most power forwards are capable of.
He definitely has his weaknesses as a player - for instance he definitely isn't capable of creating his own shot off the dribble - but carving a niche in the NBA is more about playing to your strengths and minimizing weaknesses. It's rare to see him try to overstep his skills, which means he can be extremely valuable as a role player that can come in and space the floor. Kadji is a thoughtful observer of the game, and after speaking to him for only seven minutes I came away impressed with both his personality and also his basketball intelligence.
The Cavs don't have a 6'11" big man on the roster right now that is capable of stepping out to twenty feet and making a jumper consistently. For all of the good things that Andrew Bynum, Tristan Thompson, Anderson Varejao, and the rest of the big men bring, Kadji supplies a different look that should help to get him noticed by both the coaching staff and front office.
Because he went undrafted, every game he plays with the Cavs is a tryout either for them or the other 29 NBA teams. Also, with his international background, a contract with a European club is simply a phone call away. Kenny Kadji will be playing basketball for a living somewhere. Hopefully, that place is in the NBA.