Ochai Agbaji Stayed Optimistic Throughout His First Year In The NBA

Ochai Agbaji didn’t have the traditional “welcome to the NBA” moment. When the Utah Jazz rookie is asked to look back on his first year as a pro and identify the moment that hammered home that he’s in the top professional basketball league in the world, he didn’t bring up any of the stuff you’d expect — getting dunked on by Giannis Antetokounmpo, getting shook by Steph Curry as he pulls up from a different zip code, having a layup sent into row F by Joel Embiid, none of that.

Instead, Agbaji went right to the first major milestone of his extremely short career: getting thrown into a trade. The Cleveland Cavaliers used the 14th pick in the 2022 NBA Draft on Agbaji, giving them the sort of young, two-way wing for which their roster cried out. Almost three months later, Agbaji went west, as he was part of the monster package of picks and players that the Cavs sent to Utah in the trade that landed them Donovan Mitchell.

“You go all this way, I’ve been playing basketball for all these years and stuff, and you get on a team and you think that’s going to be your team and then boom, you get traded,” Agbaji tells Dime. “But this is, like, top of the top level, and there’s a business factor that you don’t even know about until you go through it.

“If that was my welcome to the NBA moment, and I’m stepping on court with Joel Embiid, LeBron, all that stuff, now, in a way, I don’t feel that kind of [traditional] welcome to the NBA,” he continues. “I feel like, okay, I’m in it, I’ve already gone through what guys probably fear in their whole entire career.”

Agabaji admits that he’s always been a pretty naturally optimistic person, something that certainly helps when a player is traded before they can even take the floor in the regular season. It’s a mindset that fits well on a rebuilding team, especially one like Utah that got a surprising taste of success this season before the wheels came off a bit towards the end. Despite being viewed as one of the favorites coming into the year in the race for Victor Wembanyama, the Jazz were one of the best stories in the NBA early on, racing out to a 10-3 start before settling into the middle tier of the Western Conference.

Things fell off a bit after the All-Star break, and Utah ended up missing the Play-In Tournament by five games. Still, Agbaji believes the team caught opponents off guard by playing hard every night, and ultimately, can learn from how close they got in a year where the expectations couldn’t have been much lower. All of this was possible, according to Agbaji, because of the team’s approach to every situation they faced.

“We honestly just kept a positive attitude every single day,” he says. “I’ll say this about our team, I thought we were really good just at responding well to different adversity or different stuff that was going on — different rumors, all that stuff. I thought the guys kept basketball the main thing and the coaches and everyone kept basketball the main thing. And that’s obviously what’s most important for us. It was just good to know that. And obviously, that helped a lot of us grow and play through all these ups and downs that we had.”

Like most rookies, Agbaji was impacted by his own ups and downs during his first year in the Association. There’s a big step up that comes when making the jump to the NBA, even beyond all the ways one might expect from the level of competition changing. For example, it took some time getting used to the pacing of an NBA season — while he was a Jayhawk, there would usually be two or three days between games, while every loss was considered, in his words, “basically the end of the world.”

In the NBA, neither of those things are the case. You have to learn how to bounce back from games quickly, whether they’re wins or losses. And you have to learn that, even through a whole lot of losses, professionalism is of the utmost importance — in 122 games as a Jayhawk, Agbaji lost 28 games. This season the Jazz suffered their 28th loss just before the All-Star break and went on to lose 45 games in all.

The goal, of course, is not to become comfortable with losing. It’s to learn how to push through, never go into panic mode, stay consistent, and remain optimistic through low points with the unflinching belief that your work is going to pay off. Playing 122 games in college helped Agbaji understand most of these things, as did a mindset that was fostered during the time he spent learning from Bill Self in Lawrence.

“At the end of the day, it’s basketball,” Agbaji says. “Basketball is basketball, whether it’s college level, high school level, or NBA. There’s still principles — that’s the coach Self in me a little bit — but it’s principles that you follow, game by game, practice by practice, in your workouts, all that stuff that can help put you in a better position to be successful without anything, without any talent, just intangible things that like that. Always keying in on those and making sure other guys know that that’s what wins games in the long run.”

It’s basketball regardless of whether he was in the NBA or the G League, the latter of which he called home for nine games as a member of the Salt Lake City Stars. And as the year went on, Agbaji saw his role grow with the Jazz, as he played in every game following the start of the new year and started each of the final 20 contests — he compares it to his collegiate career, where he redshirted halfway through his freshman year before eventually breaking through and becoming a stalwart for the Jayhawks. A Jan. 16 performance against Minnesota where he scored 17 points in a win gets brought up when he’s asked to point out a game where things started to click, and he saw a noticeable uptick in production after the team returned from the All-Star break, as Agbaji went from averaging 4.6 points in 15.1 minutes per game to 13.5 points in 29.6 minutes a night.

All of it came amid a busy season in Utah, which moved Mitchell and Rudy Gobert before the year, appointed Will Hardy as a first-time head coach, and found itself active around the trade deadline. Agbaji is ultra-complimentary of how Hardy navigated the whole year, saying he instilled a sense of confidence, wanted the players to be themselves, and empowered all of them with the knowledge that the coach had their backs. And while the team fell out of the Play-In race towards the end of the regular season, you will probably not be surprised to know that an optimist like Agbaji sees a bright future based on the experience the team gained.

“Obviously, there’s different makeups of teams, trades happen and all that,” Agbaji says. “We had a different team than we did back in December. But still, I thought we were right there to get into the Play-In, get into that playoffs talk. But now seeing what we went through and all that it takes, all these post-All-Star break games that mean so much. I think that’s something just moving forward into my second year, that we gotta lock in more once that time comes.”

His second year will start soon enough. Agbaji took some time during the offseason to let his body rest, as he went through the pre-Draft process in each of the last two seasons and hasn’t had a break in a while. The plan is to work on everything in his game, work on getting into better shape, and possibly participate in Summer League.

It’ll be a busy summer, but whenever he gets some free time, Agbaji will pursue his primary off-court interest. As he tells it, Agbaji got into making beats when he was in middle school through a mix of learning how to do it on YouTube and trial and error. He doesn’t have a full studio or anything like that, but he loves firing up his computer, using the digital software FL Studio, and experimenting.

Agbaji’s love of beats was inspired by trap music, and has evolved as he’s become a bigger and bigger fan of, particularly, Detroit trap. “It’s a newer age, it’s a little bit underground, but they rap on more off of fast-paced beats, so it’s really they just have a beat down and they go and rap on it,” he says. “No chorus anything, it’s just straight bars on a beat.”

He likes Chief Keef and Gunna, and his love of music that originated in Detroit turned him onto Babyface Ray, Rio Da Yung OG, and Veeze. The most important thing to him is the beat, and if the beat is good on a song where he isn’t a fan of the rapper, he’ll add it to a playlist on his phone, anyway. Getting lost in music gives him a chance to get away from basketball, and it’s gotten to the point that throwing together a beat is second-nature.

“Making music is something that I’ve been doing for so long, but I haven’t noticed how much of a hobby it is for me,” he says. “I just do it and I enjoy it. And sometimes, when I don’t do it for a while I’m like, yeah, I need to get back into making beats because I feel like I need that escape a little bit.”

But even though it serves as an escape, there are times when his love of music comes back to basketball — when Agbaji likes a beat that he made around the time of a game, it’ll be among the things he listens to as he gets ready to play. It’s a way to bring something he does for fun into the thing he does for a living, although with his ability to remain perpetually optimistic, he’s having a blast being in the NBA, too.