Among the unique players in the Eurocup this season is Rising Star candidate Isaac Fotu of CAI Zaragoza. Fotu, whose full name is Isaac Mana Mei Langi Finau Fotu, was born in York, England, to a Tongan father and an English mother, but the family moved to New Zealand and settled down in its biggest city, Auckland. His father, Manu Fotu played professional rugby in England and Isaac, the oldest of five brothers, had the late Jonah Lomu as one of his sports idols growing up. Fotu started playing in New Zealand and starred for two seasons at the University of Hawaii, but his college basketball career came to a premature end due to off-court bureaucratic matters, after which he chose to begin his professional basketball career in Spain. At age 22, Fotu has become a fan favorite in Zaragoza due to his great hustle, high-flying dunks and unique hairstyle. In his first Eurocup season, Fotu continues to raise the level of his game; he has pushed his scoring average to 12 points on 78-3% two-point shooting (18 of 23) in the last 32. And it appears that the best is yet to come.
"I started playing basketball in intermediary school," Fotu told Eurocupbasketball.com earlier this week. "I was about 13 years old and I just started playing because all my friends started playing, so I decided to play with them and I thought it was fun, so I kept playing."
He attended Rangitoto College, when he played in the North Harbour Basketball Association, often against players much older than him. By 2011, he was one of the best prospects in Oceanic basketball and proved it in the Nike All-Asia Camp in China, an invitation-only tournament for some of the best high school players throughout Asia and Oceania.
"The experience in China was a good one. There were a lot of great coaches there and I got to learn a lot as a basketball player," Fotu said. "Back then I didn’t really know if I was going to be a professional basketball player, I didn’t know if I was going to be good enough to be a professional basketball player, but I kept working and obviously it worked out well for me."
Things started to go really well for Fotu, who was chosen by the New Zealand Breakers, the best basketball club in the country, to be one of its development players for the 2011-12 season. Fotu had already spent two years in the Breakers' academy program for emerging talent and back then, he was the youngest development player in club history.
"As he turns his frame from that of a kid into an athletic basketballer, Isaac's potential is enormous. He has great hands, balance and footwork around the basket, but also the ability to knock the outside shot down," New Zealand Breakers academy coach Judd Flavell said back in 2011. "He is a great kid with a fantastic work ethic and attitude."
In August 2011, Fotu kept breaking records, becoming the youngest player to represent the Tall Blacks, New Zealand's national team. He made his Tall Blacks debut in the 2011 Boris Stankovic Cup played in Guangzhou, China, and helped the team win the tournament.
"It was actually a big surprise for me to make that team, the Tall Blacks team, when I was 17. They took me on as a young player to get experience and it helped me a lot. It helped me to learn the level of basketball that I need to play at and to play against all the guys. So that definitely helped me," Fotu said. "It is great to be a Tall Black. I love playing for my country and it’s just a brotherhood when we play together. It’s more than just teammates. It’s brothers playing together, so it’s always fun playing with the Tall Blacks every year."
In November 2011, Fotu played his first and only game for the Breakers, for 46 seconds. Fotu had signed as a non-contracted development player, keeping his amateur status to be eligible for a NCAA Team. A few days later, Fotu committed to the University of Hawaii, which suggested he not play for the Breakers, or any other professional team, until he arrived in Hawaii to play for the Rainbow Warriors.
Fotu found instant success at Hawaii when he finally joined the team for the 2012-13 season. He earned Big West co-Freshman of the Year honors by averaging 10.1 points and 6.2 rebounds in 30 NCAA games. He did even better in the 2013-14 season with 14.9 points and 6.1 boards as a sophomore for the Rainbow Warriors and being named to the All-Big West first team. He scored 20 or more points in seven games, with a career-high 30 points in a 90-86 win against UC-Irvine.
His great season helped him earn a spot with the Tall Blacks at the 2014 FIBA World Cup. Fotu had 18 points and 8 rebounds in a decisive, go-ahead win against Finland, and 11 points in the Tall Blacks' eighthfinals loss against Lithuania. Fotu averaged 9.5 points and 4.5 rebounds in six games.
"The best thing about that World Cup was just playing against all the top teams in the world. We got to play against USA, Lithuania, Turkey and stuff," Fotu said. "So it’s always good to play against the best players in the world that you watch as a kid growing up and then you get to play against them. So that was awesome. And it was also great to play with the Tall Blacks as well, the brotherhood again. So everything about that was good."
Things started to change for Fotu right at the start of the 2014-15 season. The University of Hawaii fired men’s basketball head coach Gib Arnold in late October. Just a day later, the university confirmed that Fotu was not eligible to play due to a NCAA investigation; he could practice with the team, but could not participate in games. The NCAA suspended him for one year for a minor infraction involving "improper benefits" while being a member of the New Zealand Breakers.
"It was very difficult not to keep playing at Hawaii. It was so fun over there; it was a perfect place for me: the weather, the people, the food. I loved it over there, but I had to leave and keep developing as a basketball player and I think it’s worked out well for me," Fotu said. "The NCAA definitely helped me develop my game even more from when I had left home, so those two years did great for my game."
In an official statement, Fotu decided to forgo his last two years at Hawaii and start a professional basketball career. "I thank all my teammates (brothers) at UH, and mostly the fans of Rainbow Warrior basketball. The people of Hawaii have welcomed me since the day I arrived, and all that aloha made my stay enjoyable. I enjoyed every minute I got to represent the University of Hawaii and I will look back at many wonderful memories," he said in that statement.
Fotu decided to trust his agent and sign a long-term deal with CAI Zaragoza, which immediately sent him on loan to another Spanish team, La Bruixa d'Or Manresa, for the 2014-15 season. "I didn’t choose; my agent just put me in the best scenario for me. So I’m glad with his choice, because it’s a great place," Fotu said. "I didn’t get to choose where I got to play. I think my agent just picked the best situation for me."
Fotu had to change his game a little bit to become an elite power forward and started to work on his shot. He had shot 12.5% from three-point range, just 1 of 8, the previous season, but started to do much better in Manresa and also hitting 41.7% of his three-point attempts in the World Cup. "I didn’t use to shoot that much when I was 16, 17, 18. But lately, coming to Europe I knew I had to develop a shot because all the big men here can shoot," Fotu said. "So I just worked on it, getting more reps in – after practice, before practice."
Fotu joined Manresa and started to play right away. He earned a lot of playing time, which was the best way for him to adapt. "That was definitely good for me, playing a lot. The team last year was, kind of, struggling when I got there," Fotu told us. "I got to play a lot of minutes and that definitely helped me. And also playing for a great coach over there; he helped me adapt to the European style of play very quickly. So I’m thankful for that. It helped me a lot to play there, to play big minutes."
Fotu averaged 10.7 points and 4 rebounds in 26 games, hitting 36 of 95 three-point shots and helping Manresa avoid relegation. Later on, Fotu averaged 9 points and 9 rebounds in the 2015 FIBA Oceania Championships.
At the start of this season after going through many different basketball experiences at age 21, Fotu re-joined CAI Zaragoza with a chance to compete in both the Spanish League and the Eurocup, and to play two games per week. Fotu has had a strong Eurocup rookie season, averaging 9.4 points and 3.9 rebounds in 14 games thus far and reaching the 20-point mark in a home win against Szolnoki Olaj. Fotu seems to be enjoying it, as it is allowing him to discover other ways of playing basketball, which is interesting for someone who has played in three different continents. “I like the Eurocup competition. There is a lot of great teams in it. It’s fun to play against teams from other countries," Fotu said. "You get to see how they play, their style of play. It’s good to go up against them. It’s fun as well. I think it’s a good competition."