Abdel Nader exclusive: Egypt's NBA trailblazer determined to shine for Phoenix Suns

The second ever Egyptian to play in the NBA speaks to Reem Abulleil about moving to the US as a child, overcoming challenges, and his focus on the future

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When an eight-year-old Abdel Nader and his family moved from Alexandria, Egypt to Chicago to pursue better opportunities, his mother did not necessarily have ‘professional basketball player’ in mind as a dream career for her son.

“If you had an Egyptian mom, you know how they are. She’s like, ‘I want you to go to school and become a doctor or an engineer, I didn’t come to America for no reason’,” Nader said with a chuckle, reflecting on his early days in the United States, long before he became just the second Egyptian to play in the NBA.

“I had to tell her. Because my high school coach was saying, ‘Why didn’t you come to practice today?’ and I’m like, ‘My mom, she won’t let me leave the house, she wants me to do homework and stuff’.

“So my high school coach had to drive to my house and talk to her during my sophomore year at high school and told her, ‘Your kid has a chance’. She kind of bought in after that and she’s totally supportive of me.”

Nader was speaking to The National from Dallas, just a few hours after he helped the Phoenix Suns claim the first of two wins over the Mavericks last week.

The 27-year-old small forward was part of the Chris Paul trade from Oklahoma City Thunder last November and missed the first few games of the season in concussion protocol.

Since his first regular-season appearance for the Suns against the Wizards in mid-January, Nader is averaging 8.5 points per game and is seeing increasing playing time in a loaded roster.

He enjoyed a season-high 16-5-3 game in a win against the Golden State Warriors before the trip to Dallas and has earned props from his teammates for making an immediate positive impact.

“I told Doolie after the game, ‘Way to be ready’,” All-star Devin Booker said of Nader following a win at Houston last month.

“It’s hard to predict things like that, haven’t had real NBA time and you come in ready to go. He has all the pieces to be a really good player and he shows his good sides, he can defend, and he can create on offence.”

Rebuilding his confidence

This is Nader’s fourth season in the NBA, having had stints with the Boston Celtics and Oklahoma prior to his arrival in Phoenix.

After starring for Iowa State as a transfer from Northern Illinois University, the Celtics picked up Nader in the 2016 NBA draft before sending him to the G League, where he was named Rookie of the Year with the Maine Red Claws.

When asked to reflect on the toughest point of his career so far, Nader goes back to his time in Boston.

“I would say that for me, being a high-calibre player my whole life and being thrown into a loaded Boston Celtics roster and barely playing at all my rookie year was extremely difficult on my mental and my confidence,” he said.

“I really had to get humbled and build myself all the way back up from the skill point to a mental point because that was a very hard thing to get over.

“Being able to get the opportunity that following season and really build my confidence back and understand, like, ‘Hey, I am an NBA player, I am good enough to be here’, and start playing well, that really showed me that there really is no lows and highs. If you just stay even keel through it all, it’s just going to be fine. It’ll all work out.”

That experience surely helped him bide his time this season in Phoenix; his current approach to the game highlighted by a positive and healthy perspective.

“The biggest thing I learned is to never really take anything so seriously, because it’s a long season, it’s a long career,” Nader said. “The biggest thing I learned is trust yourself, and don’t get discouraged ever, because there’s literally no point to it, it’s only going to hurt you and it’ll never help.”

Long journey

One constant in Nader’s life has been his ability to adapt. He has moved countries, switched universities and gone through several trades, and has always found a way to adjust to his new surroundings.

It’s a trait he acquired when he was a young child touching down in America for the first time.

“I think it was 2001 or 2002, and there was a huge winter storm once we landed, and I had never seen snow before. That freaked me out. I was like, ‘No I’m not getting off the plane, take me back’. That was the first shocker,” he said.

“If you grow up in Alexandria, you have no choice but to be tough. The hardest thing for me was to learn social norms they had in the US. Things I used to do in Egypt that were just unacceptable to do here.”

Nader remembers how he used to climb everything he could possibly climb when he was in Egypt – behaviour he soon realised was considered trespassing in the US. His first day at school was an eye-opener as well.

“I used to go to an English school in Egypt and I would have this little bow-tie and a whole suit for school uniform. And my first day in Chicago public school, my mom dressed me like that and sent me to school. Everybody was looking at me like, ‘Woah, this kid is so weird, what’s going on?’” he said.

Lucky for him, his English wasn’t good enough to realise the other kids were mocking him. Overall, Nader believes his background and mix of cultures he experienced growing up has given him valuable perspective.

“I think it really did help me just because it made me grateful," he said. "A lot of things we didn’t have in Egypt were expected in the United States. I was like, ‘This is awesome ... we got hot water all the time’. It gave me a different light on the world, and it gives you like two different views, whereas most people only get the one.”

Turning point

Nader's NBA dream started the first time he picked up a basketball. His coaches at school believed in his potential but when he went to Northern Illinois University, being so close to home proved to be a distraction. He eventually transferred to Iowa State in his junior year.

“I was young at the time, I probably shouldn’t have quit halfway through the season, but I was frustrated. So I just announced I was going to transfer,” he said.

Nader had to navigate some difficult times at his new university as he lost his best friend John King, who died with a heart condition, and got a DUI that led to a three-game suspension.

“That was one of the biggest turning points in my life,” he said in an interview on Cycle’s Youtube channel.

From then on, Nader put all his energy into basketball. He hit the gym, lost weight, and enjoyed a great senior year on the court before getting drafted by the Celtics.

Nearly five years on, Nader continues to concentrate on his own development and already feels he’s made progress since he joined the Suns.

“My emphasis this summer was to become a high-level defender and I think that’s one of the things I could feel that I’m doing much better," he said. "Just being able to guard from 1 through 4, and keeping the ball in front of me."

Abdel’s inspiration

Nader considers Kobe Bryant – his “all-time GOAT” – to be one of his biggest inspirations growing up, and like any Egyptian, Nader grew up being a football fan and is unsurprisingly a Mohamed Salah supporter.

“I’m a big Mo Salah fan and I’m a big Cristiano Ronaldo fan," Nader said. "Cristiano has been, in my eyes, the best player, for so long now. I think Mo Salah is taking the torch, and the fact that he’s Egyptian on top of it, just makes me want to support him more."

Despite spending the past two decades in the United States, Nader still feels a strong connection to Egypt, and gets lots of support from his compatriots on social media. He is just the second Egyptian, after Alaa Abdelnaby, to play in the NBA, and is hoping to see more follow in his footsteps.

Nader mentors two young Egyptian players, Mohab Yasser and Yara Osama, who met him in Chicago at a Basketball without Borders camp. Yasser, 18, is at Senegal’s NBA Academy and is in constant contact with Nader.

"He stood by me so much and never leaves me wanting for anything. He calls me all the time, we talk almost every day. He really helped me so much," Yasser told The National.

The Egyptian teen, who has four offers from Division I schools in the US, says Nader gives him advice on how to improve his game, tells him what it’s like to play basketball in America, and even spoke to the coaches of the universities interested in Yasser to know more about their plans for the talented youngster.

“It’s inspiring to see Abdel in the NBA. When I see an Egyptian playing in the NBA, I think to myself, ‘If he made it, so can I’,” Yasser said.

“He is a pride for all of Egypt. We could easily think that there’s no way we can play in the NBA, but there is an actual Egyptian playing in the NBA at the moment, so it’s obviously not impossible.”

Egyptian pride

Nader is keen to represent his country and don the Egyptian national team jersey in the future but is not committing to a time just yet.

“I don’t want to say that I’m going to play right now because I know the Olympics are coming up this summer, and I want to, and I’m planning on it," Nader said. "But also, I’m entering free agency, so there’s a lot of stuff I need to consider at the same time."

For now, Nader is looking to enjoy the ride with the Suns, who are trying to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2009-10.

A self-described “out-of-the-box thinker", Nader isn’t burdening himself by setting any outrageous goals, or chasing certain dreams before his time in the NBA eventually runs out.

“I try not to set those kind of expectations,” he said. “This is the way I live my life, I’m kind of like a free spirit, I don’t think there’s anything I necessarily need to do. I think the best way for me personally is just go out, try my best and enjoy myself and from there everything will fall into place.”