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Jeremy Sochan, a 'citizen of the world,' sets course for the NBA

Jeremy Sochan, a 'citizen of the world,' sets course for the NBA

Many college students — even Division I basketball players — have a window of time around Christmas to travel home, see their families and press pause on the motion and stress of life at school.

Baylor freshman Jeremy Sochan did not have that luxury. 

Sochan's mother, stepfather and brother live in Milton Keynes, a medium-sized city in the United Kingdom. Between the short break (Baylor men's basketball played on Dec. 20 and Dec. 28), the long flight and the surging COVID-19 pandemic, a homecoming simply was not feasible.

Instead, the highly-touted prospect bought a ticket to finally see his first NBA regular-season game, tagging along with Baylor assistant coach Bill Peterson and a couple of Peterson's friends to watch the Dallas Mavericks host the Milwaukee Bucks on Dec. 23.

The freshman was enthralled. He lingered in the American Airlines Center well after the game ended, soaking up the atmosphere.

"Afterwards he just kept saying, 'Coach, I can't thank you enough,'" Peterson told BasketballNews.com in a phone interview. "He just had a different appreciation for it. Because he was from another country, going to an NBA game wasn't something he did all the time."

Soon, Sochan will live those moments almost every day. The 6-foot-9-inch forward is headed to the 2022 NBA Draft as a sure-fire first-round pick and a possible lottery selection. Sochan's journey to June 23 includes crisscrossing the globe for basketball, and in his NBA Draft Combine interview, he aptly proclaimed himself a "citizen of the world."

"My family's from all over the place — Poland, America, and I lived in England most of my life — and it's hard to answer the question when someone says: Where are you from?" Sochan told BasketballNews.com over the phone. "Because you don't really have one specific place. So I try and explain it that way."

In the past five years alone, Sochan has suited up for five different elite basketball programs, beginning from his home in England and traversing through Poland, the United States (twice) and Germany. But the takeoff started in his hometown of Milton Keynes, where Sochan grew up after being born in Oklahoma and living briefly in Southampton.

After playing for his local club, the Milton Keynes Trojans, Sochan spent one season at Itchen College in Southampton as a high-school-age freshman. (Sixth-form colleges in the UK are somewhat like private high schools in the U.S.). Sochan adamantly states that basketball is on a serious rise at the youth level in England, and he might be right.

According to an article from Vithushan Ehantharajah of The Independentbasketball ranked as the second-most popular sport at the recreational level behind only soccer, and over 1.3 million people said they hooped at least once a week in a study between 2018 and 2019. Per the same 2021 article, the United Kingdom is ninth in the world and first in Europe for NBA League Pass subscriptions.

In Sochan's estimation, the problem is a lack of funding that limits the ceiling of player development. It's part of the reason he moved on from UK programs.

"Unfortunately, I feel like it's not funded well enough, and there's not a lot of exposure or resources for basketball," Sochan said. "So at times, it's difficult. It's difficult to rent a court. It's expensive, and you'd have to have a massive group of people... But there's a lot of potential, and it's a country with a lot of immigrants [and] a lot of people around the world. So if they put money in it, and resources, it's gonna be a great place for basketball, for sure."

As Sochan made waves in England, his mother, Aneta Sochan, was leveraging her connections abroad. Aneta is Polish and played Division II basketball at Oklahoma Panhandle State University before her own professional stint with Polonia Warszawa in Poland. She moved to England with Sochan's late biological father, Ryan Williams, as Williams pursued a professional career, and later settled in Milton Keynes with her current partner, Wiktor Lipiecki. Sochan's holidays were typically spent with Aneta's extended family in their home country.

Aneta sent emails and film to the Polish Basketball Association, looking for inroads for her son. Eventually, they came in the form of development camps in Poland and Spain, and persuading Dawid Mazur to allow him to compete for a spot on the Poland U16 National Team.

Sochan exploded in his second year with the program. He put up 16.1 points, 9.6 rebounds, 3.1 steals and 3.0 assists per game in the summer of 2019, leading Poland to the European Class B title and winning MVP honors in his tour de force through the continent.

Sochan had proven himself on one of the largest European stages. But as his name reached scouting circles in the United States, Sochan transferred to La Lumiere High School, a national powerhouse program in Indiana. It featured a loaded roster that fielded some of the country's top prospects, including draft classmate Jaden Ivey and Louisville commit Kamari Lands. Sochan's third high-level team in three years — and three countries — tested his resolve as a young talent.

"It was interesting because I feel like there's differences, of course, between European basketball and American basketball," Sochan said. "In America, I feel like the players are a lot more confident... just more confident and free, and at first, it was a little bit difficult for me to understand that. But I feel like as time went on, [me] building confidence and my teammates believing in me, it got a lot easier."

A barrier to entry exists whenever an athlete joins a new team. For international players like Sochan, that barrier can feel thicker and taller, particularly with the stereotypes that persist surrounding European hoops.

Later on at Baylor, Peterson wanted Sochan to challenge the narrative.

"I would joke with him a lot about [how] one of the monikers in the NBA is that European guys are soft, or they're wusses. That goes around the NBA," Peterson said.

"So he would say to me, 'I do not want to be a wuss. I'm not a wuss,' he would always say, and I said, 'I know.' Sometimes when guys hit you, you gotta hit 'em back. You gotta stick 'em on an offensive or defensive boxout. You gotta hammer 'em on a screen. It sends a message." 

Time and again, Sochan demonstrated his physical toughness and determination. He did it by solidifying himself as a four-star high school recruit at La Lumiere in 2019-20, becoming the youngest player in Poland men's senior national team history in 2021 and smothering opponents with the Bears in 2021-22. Sochan also charted his own course when the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted his basketball plans.

Sochan returned home for school vacation in the spring of 2020 as a high school junior at La Lumiere. Then, the school told Sochan to stay in Milton Keynes for an extra week as activities paused. One week became two weeks, then a month. Sochan ultimately never returned. As the United States reeled from the impact of the virus, Sochan pivoted back to Europe and settled on Orange Academy, a development program under German pro team Ratiopharm Ulm.

"Germany was pretty good with the COVID situation, and also, they were one of the only clubs to offer me no contract, so I could be eligible for college," he said. "So it was a great opportunity."

Sochan verbally committed to Baylor in the summer of 2020 before he headed to Germany. But the pandemic and travel hurdles kept him from visiting campus after he committed; all of his conversations with coaches came via phone and Zoom. And after never seeing his family while at La Lumiere, Sochan had to leave them again for another year when he took off for Orange Academy.

"Of course it's difficult; you can be a little homesick," Sochan said. "But I think, as of an early age, I always used to go to camps in Spain and Poland on my own. It was an easy adjustment for me. Personally, I am confident, just knowing the reason I'm leaving home. [It] helped me stay on course and keep on working every day. I'm doing this for my family, of course, and myself — to get better. I feel like that motivated me to keep on going,"

Peterson recalls receiving a video from Sochan while the then-17-year-old was at Orange Academy. It was 30 seconds of Sochan alone on an outdoor court in Germany, laughing and smiling while drilling himself on ball-handling exercises that Peterson had recommended. 

"Coach, I'm working on this. How do I look?" Sochan would ask him. "Am I getting better?"

The grind has powered Sochan through those lonely nights away from home. He celebrated his 19th birthday on May 20 with dinner at an Italian restaurant — and by working out in front of teams on the final day of the Combine. Though he may be surrounded by new teammates, new coaches, new audiences and new cultures, he knows he has two constants: family and basketball.

"I feel like it's just understanding where you came from — your family — and just being able to stay present," Sochan said. "Just being able to get better every day is what I feel like grounds me. And I think it's important for me to just get better every day and just keep on learning — whether it's through basketball on the court, off the court, mentally, physically."

At Baylor, Sochan and Peterson developed a bond over their travels. The 65-year-old Peterson made several stops at the college and NBA level before arriving at Baylor in 2017. He served as a player development coach and scout for the Dallas Mavericks from 1999-2000, coached six seasons as an assistant for the Milwaukee Bucks from 2007-13 and spent three seasons at the helm of the Erie Bayhawks in the G League (formerly known as the D-League). With those positions, plus other coaching roles in the collegiate ranks, Peterson collected experiences and stories from his trips across Europe and China.

The two met frequently for lunch around the Baylor campus. They'd chat about Premier League soccer (Sochan is a noted Arsenal fan) and EuroLeague basketball. Peterson learned that Sochan's grandmother lived about an hour from a clinic he once hosted in Poland. 

"It was fun because he could relax and realize, 'Hey, Coach Peterson has been over there and kind of knows where I'm from [and] some of my background anyway, because he's traveled there a lot more than maybe some of the other coaches on the staff,'" Peterson said.

As Sochan acclimated to his fifth elite program, his confidence started to shine. He formed close friendships on the Baylor team, specifically with fellow draft prospect Kendall Brown and promising injured freshman Langston Love. Fans saw Sochan's energy radiate from his colorful hairstyles and powerful slam dunks. Meanwhile, in practice, he wowed Peterson with his quick and willing inclination to move the ball around, displaying the court awareness of someone who had played with and against veterans — which Sochan had, of course, in Poland.

"He has a great understanding of how to play for a kid [who's] 18 years old — like, really understands offense, how to move the ball and make the next pass, and do it in limited dribbles," Peterson said.

"He plays like a pro. I mean, he plays like a guy that's 10 years older than his age."

If a teammate withheld a pass, Sochan wasn't afraid to call him out or ask the coaches about the play afterward. 

"Occasionally he'd go, 'Hey, come on, man. Let's move the ball.' You would expect a senior to be saying that, not a freshman," Peterson said. "He has that instinct about him to feel that and help that happen on the floor."

Along with his quick processing on offense, Sochan's defensive toughness and versatility have not just pushed back on his European stereotypes — they've become hallmarks of his game and a sales pitch as a prospect. BasketballNews.com's Senior NBA Draft Analyst Matt Babcock remembers watching Sochan on Jan. 29 against Alabama, when the forward posted 17 points, 8 rebounds and 2 steals for the Bears. 

"During that game, Sochan displayed his defensive versatility and potential," Babcock said. "He also showed flashes as a player that could stretch the floor and be an effective slasher."

Sochan has steadily risen on draft boards throughout the spring; Babcock most recently slotted him in at No. 15 overall to the Charlotte Hornets in his latest BasketballNews.com NBA Mock Draft. Babcock said that the lottery is definitely within reach for Sochan, and that he likely won't stick around past the teens of the draft order. He noted that, in addition to wielding an archetype built for today's NBA, Sochan carries a journey that should favorably position him for the professional lifestyle.

"Similar to the advantages that experiences on the court create, off-the-court experiences also provide learning opportunities. It's all a part of growing up, and from the sounds of it, Sochan has seen and done a lot, which I think will help him transition to the NBA," Babcock said.

Peterson believes that playing for five programs in five years doesn't just help Sochan on the court; it also teaches him how different team cultures can each be uniquely successful.

"If you work at IBM, and everybody in IBM wears a suit and coat and a tie, and then you move and you go work for a grocery store chain [like] Kroger, H-E-B or whatever, and everybody there just wears a polo shirt and nice slacks, you're not going to keep wearing suits when you go work at Kroger or you're gonna look like an idiot," Peterson said. "That's not the culture they have. You have to adjust somewhat to what their culture is and what their program's about. And he's had to do that five different times."

The NBA has a small but noteworthy history of English and Polish talent. James Donaldson, Luol Deng, Ben Gordon, Michael Olowokandi and OG Anunoby are players with English ties who have played over 300 games in the league. Marcin Gortat is the lone Poland native with over 100 appearances.

Sochan aims to be a beacon for both countries.

"I think it's really exciting," he said. "I think it's a great opportunity for me, personally, to connect these communities to the NBA again."

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