Thunder's Abdel Nader is finding his place in NBA as he honors fallen teammates: 'It felt like I was like I was doing it for them'
Abdel Nader thought the Tweet was some sick joke. At least, he hoped it was.
Nader closed Twitter and called Bryce Dejean-Jones’ brother, who picked up the phone crying. A pain pierced Nader’s stomach and heart, like a small dagger.
“F---,” Nader thought. “This is true.”
Dejean-Jones, Nader’s former teammate and close friend, was gone.
Four years ago, on May 28, Dejean-Jones died from a gunshot wound to the abdomen. He had recently finished his rookie season with the New Orleans Pelicans.
Nader had lost friends without warning before. But that didn’t prepare him for Dejean-Jones’ death. The Thunder forward hasn’t found a blueprint for coping either.
“I don't think you really get over deaths like that,” Nader told The Oklahoman, “especially when they're unexpected and so young.”
But even as tragedy has bookended his journey to the NBA, Nader’s had basketball to turn to. The game he loves, and the game that introduced him to Dejean-Jones in the first place.
Nader met Dejean-Jones when the latter, a graduate transfer, was on a visit to Iowa State. Nader himself had just sat out a season after transferring from Northern Illinois.
“Me and him just clicked,” Nader said. “We were like brothers right away.”
They became roommates after Dejean-Jones transferred, and Monte Morris, who is now a Denver Nuggets point guard, lived across the hall from them.
“They were real tight,” Morris said. “You wouldn't see Abdel if you didn’t see Bryce. You didn’t see Bryce if you didn’t see Abdel. They say two birds (of a feather) flock together, and they definitely were together through the thick and thin.”
Morris described Dejean-Jones as smart, outspoken and someone he enjoyed being around. Former Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg, who is now at Nebraska, added that Dejean-Jones was a good teammate and caring person with a “big personality.”
“You couldn’t slow him down no matter what,” Nader said. “He thought he was indestructible.”
Take Dejean-Jones’ one-game suspension, for example. Jones sat out for the Cyclones’ in-state rivalry game against Iowa, after being arrested and charged with multiple misdemeanors. Charges were soon dropped.
“He was like, ‘I don’t give a f---, man. Next game, I'm going to go get 30 (points),’” Nader fondly recounted.
Nader said he wished he had a little more of Dejean-Jones’ ability to shake off things like that. Nader didn’t have to say much to cheer up his teammate. Maybe he also knew exactly what to say. Nader could relate, after sitting out three games at the beginning of the season for an offseason drunken driving arrest.
“It’s crazy how much we went through in a year and a half,” Nader said.
On the court, the Cyclones went 25-9 and won the 2015 Big 12 Tournament.
“When we needed him most to step up and win that tournament,” Hoiberg said of Dejean-Jones, “he was the one that really sparked us in those games. It wasn’t just doing it offensively. … He did so many things for us in that conference tournament. He’d had some ups and downs, but for him to stick with it and find a way to be a key contributor when we needed him most was great to see.”
The Cyclones earned a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament, but their March Madness run ended early, upset by UAB in the round of 64.
Dejean-Jones went undrafted that summer, but he signed a multi-year contract with the Pelicans after initially joining the team on two 10-day contracts. He started in 11 of his 14 appearances, until a wrist injury cut his rookie season short.
Some of Nader’s fondest memories of Dejean-Jones came during that season. Nader smiles when he recalls watching Dejean-Jones play with his baby daughter.
“There's just like this different energy about him,” Nader said. “You could just tell the way he was looking at her how much he loved her. It just changed him, literally overnight.
His Teflon exterior had melted away.
“At this time, I was thinking about death a little bit differently,” Nader said.
A year and a half before Dejean-Jones was killed, Nader’s best friend from Niles North High School died suddenly.
Nader, who moved from Egypt to Illinois as a young child, was familiar with transitions. But when he transferred high schools, John King’s familiar face at Niles North was comforting. Nader had met King in middle school. Basketball brought them together then, and they became high school teammates.
“He really helped me adjust and things like that,” Nader said. “So, he was my first friend I had there.”
King, a charismatic class clown, showed Nader around Niles North and introduced him to new friends.
“He was one of those guys, he came in and lit up a room,” Niles North basketball coach Glenn Olson said. “He just had this amazing smile. … He had personality for days.”
When Nader went through another transfer in college, King remained his hype man from afar.
Nader made his Cyclones debut at the CBE Hall of Fame Classic in Kansas City, Missouri. The game aired on ESPN2, a fact that Nader said King was especially excited about. King sent Nader a congratulatory text message along the lines of, “Yeah, bro, we’re on the way!”
Next stop, the NBA.
Late that night, Nader woke up in the team hotel to a long list of missed calls. A heart condition had taken King’s life, Nader was told.
He read King’s last texts to him over and over again.
“I was like, let me honor him in some sort of way,” Nader said. “I'm gonna make this happen. I'm going to put this chip on my shoulder and figure it out.”
Hours before sunrise on May 28, 2016, Dejean-Jones collapsed in a Dallas apartment building, one floor below the unit his girlfriend and 1-year-old daughter lived in.
Dejean-Jones’ agent, Scott Nichols, told the Associated Press later that day that Dejean-Jones had been in town for his daughter’s first birthday. When he returned to the apartment after a walk, Nichols said, Dejean-Jones must have gone to the wrong floor and thought his girlfriend had locked him out. ESPN reported that the couple had an argument earlier.
Dejean-Jones broke down the door, waking the resident inside. The resident grabbed a handgun and shot Dejean-Jones.
That was the news Nader saw on Twitter and at first refused to believe. He was on his way to Utah for a draft workout.
“I sucked so bad in that workout,” he said.
Next, Nader was scheduled to work out for the Bulls, his hometown team. Nader cancelled. He said he traveled to Dejean-Jones’ funeral but couldn’t bring himself to go inside.
When the initial shock subsided, Nader’s future NBA career was still on the line. He had scheduled predraft workouts with 19 teams, he said, and was only halfway through.
“It affected me more in a more positive way than letting myself sink into this hole,” Nader said of Dejean-Jones’ death. “I just got angry, but angry towards whoever was in front of me on that court.”
Nader’s second workout with the Celtics was his last before the draft, he said.
“It felt like I was like I was doing it for them,” Nader said of Dejean-Jones and King, “and for myself.”
On June 23, deputy commissioner Mark Tatum finally spoke those magical words: “With the 58th pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, the Boston Celtics select Abdel Nader.”
A couple weeks ago, Nader joined the Niles North boys basketball team on a Zoom call.
As Olson described it, Nader talked “about the process, overall development, and not getting caught with where I am today. Using his story as a guy who wasn't on varsity as a freshman, wasn't the star player in junior high, didn't play on the great AAU teams. Just a kid who got better by working every day and spending time in the gym.”
All applicable topics for the next generation of Vikings. And also qualities that Nader’s coaches and teammates have noted at every level.
“He’s one of the hardest workers that I know, for sure,” Morris said.
Nader’s NBA career hasn’t taken a linear path. In 2016-17, the D-League coaches named Nader rookie of the year. But a year later, the Celtics traded Nader to the Thunder. His usage waxed and waned over the next season and a half, usually surging in conjunctions with teammates’ injuries.
Since Jan. 31, however, Nader has played consistent minutes for the Thunder, adding much-needed floor spacing.
“I’m really proud of him and for him,” Hoiberg said, “that he’s made himself a fixture in that league now, and a rotation player, and I couldn’t be happier for him.”
When a reporter suggested to Nader earlier this season that he’d fulfilled the promise he’d made to honor King, Nader shrugged.
“For the most part,” he said with a sad smile.
His work wasn’t done.