Outside of Oregon Duck fans and Rice Owl fans, almost no one in the world of college basketball has even heard of Arsalan Kazemi, the 6’7 senior who transferred from Rice this season and has quickly made an impact at Oregon. When you see him out there on the court, Kazemi doesn’t look like your prototypical basketball star, but he is deceptively skilled. He is an intelligent player with great awareness and a fiery competitor as well. He also happens to be the first Iranian basketball player to ever play Division I basketball in the U.S.
Kazemi’s Division I aspirations began in Iran. There, he led the Iranian Under-17 national team to the 2007 West Asian championship, named the tournament’s MVP. Kazemi also was the captain of the Iranian Under-19 national team. According to this article in Sports Illustrated written by Luke Winn, when he was a teenager living in Iran, every Friday (which is Iran’s only weekend day) Kazemi would watch the TNT Thursday night NBA game. The games were tape-delayed and shown by the U.S.-government sponsored network, Alhurra. Tim Duncan was Kazemi’s favorite player growing up, fittingly enough. That may help explain why Kazemi is such a smart and understated player.
Kazemi first moved to the U.S. in 2008, when he was still in high school. He received several scholarship offers, but he only visited Rice University. According to the SI article I mentioned above, Kazemi had an interesting visit to Rice on Halloween. As it says in the article, “There he [Kazemi] witnessed one of the school's stranger traditions: The Baker 13, in which a group of students run through campus wearing only shoes and shaving cream.” He's not the only one who's ever thought it was crazy," says senior guard, Lawrence Ghoram, who was Kazemi's host. "But he was laughing hysterically. I think it blew his mind."" Ultimately, no matter how mind blowing his visit was, Kazemi felt comfortable on Rice's small campus, and decided it was the best place for him to play.
In his first season with the Owls, Kazemi averaged 10 ppg and 9 rpg, and earned C-USA All-Freshman Team honors. In his sophomore season for the Owls, Kazemi averaged 15 ppg and 11 rpg, and posted 18 double doubles. After a solid junior season in which he averaged a double double yet again, Kazemi made the decision to transfer from Rice to a high-major program for his senior season. It remains unclear why he made the transfer, but six other Rice players also transferred that same offseason, raising some questions about the college basketball program at Rice. Kazemi has remained quiet about his reasons for transferring, and back in December of 2012 he told the Register Guard, “I’ve put that behind me and all I care about right now is Oregon basketball and my new team. I’m hoping I can do whatever I can to make my team improve and get to our goals this year.” Many basketball “experts” questioned whether or not Kazemi would be effective in a high-major conference, where he would be going up against bigger, stronger and more talented opponents.
Kazemi quickly silenced all of his doubters. After sitting out the first two games of the 2012-2013 season for the Ducks, he received a waiver from the NCAA allowing him to play almost immediately following his transfer. Usually players must sit out for a full season following a transfer but for reasons unexplained, Kazemi was granted a waiver. You won’t hear any Duck fan complaining. Kazemi has become one of the most important players on the Ducks. He is averaging 9.4 ppg and 9.9 rpg, and has accumulated six double doubles this season. Kazemi currently ranks third in rebounding in the Pac-12, and second in steals. Yes, you read that correctly. The 6’7 forward Arsalan Kazemi is averaging 2.2 steals a game, which ranks 28th in all of Division I basketball. Clearly the stats illustrate the kind of impact that Kazemi has had on the Ducks this season, but one thing the stats don’t show is Kazemi’s leadership qualities. In a home game against Utah on February 9, the Ducks were trailing 30-22 at the half. The Ducks had lost three games in a row, and were in danger of extending that streak against the lowly Utes. Then Kazemi decided to assert himself. In the locker room at halftime, he delivered a fiery speech to his teammates, imploring them to give everything they had in the second half. The Ducks went on to outscore the Utes 51 to 34 in the second half.
So is the NBA in store for Kazemi once he finishes up his college career with the Ducks? It remains to be seen. He has garnered some NBA scout attention for his rebounding skill and his defensive awareness, but his size and his lack of perimeter offensive skills may hurt him. At 6’7, Kazemi would be a short power forward in the NBA, so it is likely that he would be asked to guard small forwards, which he has little to no experience doing. I personally think that size is overrated in the NBA these days. There are effective undersized power forwards aplenty in the league these days, such as Kenneth Faried and Thaddeus Young. Heck, Sir Charles, aka “The Round Mound of Rebound,” was one of the best rebounders the NBA has ever seen, and he was only 6’6. I’m not saying that I think Kazemi is the second coming of Charles Barkley, but I do believe that Kazemi could be a very serviceable player in the NBA someday, as his basketball IQ and his relentless motor should more than make up for any weaknesses he may possess in the eyes of NBA scouts.
Joe Rampone is on Twitter. Follow him at @JoeRampone