How a 20-year-old, Las Vegas-born combo guard joined the Azerbaijan national team
- Born in the U.S. to American parents, Northern Colorado's Jordan Davis had one reaction to an invitation to join Azerbaijan's U20 national team: "You can just do that?"
GREELEY, Colo. — An abridged biography of Jordan Davis as of March 4, 2017, the final day of his sophomore season:
Davis is a 19-year-old American combo guard who plays for the University of Northern Colorado, where he was its leading scorer (at 19.3 points per game) in 2016–17. His coach, Jeff Linder, says that the 6'2" Davis "plays very similarly to Russell Westbrook"—a mid-major version of Russ, at least. Davis was born in Las Vegas to American parents, who also had American parents. He was raised in North Las Vegas, Nev., as one of seven siblings. The farthest away from home he's traveled is to Atlanta, for an AAU event in 2014. The only foreign thing about him is a tattoo of King Tut on his right arm. Davis holds an American passport, which he obtained in anticipation of Northern Colorado taking an exhibition tour of Italy in 2016—but the trip was canceled after the previous coaching staff was fired that off-season. The passport has been sitting atop the mini-fridge in his bedroom ever since, and has neither been stamped nor used.
An updated biography of Davis as of July 13, 2017:
Davis is a 20-year-old American-Azerbaijani combo guard who will be debuting on Friday for Azerbaijan's national team in the B Division of the FIBA U20 European Championship. Following the tournament, which runs from July 14–23 in Oradea, Romania, the dual passport-holder will be returning to college at Northern Colorado for his junior season.
Even Davis, as of a few months ago, was astonished that such a transformation was possible. In April, as he sat in the office of one of his Northern Colorado coaches, talking via speakerphone to an Azerbaijani basketball official who was 6,600 miles away in its capital of Baku, Davis asked, "So you can just do that? You can just get me a passport?"
"Yes," came the reply. "I can do that."
FIBA rules allow countries to suit up one, naturalized dual-citizen per competition. Countries with flexible naturalization policies have, in the past, used this allowance to add American pros to their senior squads. It's how Bucknell alum J.R. Holden played for Russia in the 2008 Olympics, how New Orleans alum Bo McCalebb starred for Macedonia in multiple European Championships, and how Alabama alum Chuck Davis and Utah State alum Spencer Nelson suited up for Azerbaijan in Euro qualifying events.
In 2010, when Nelson was playing professionally in Greece, he was approached after a game by a consultant/scout from Serbia. The consultant asked him if he was, by any chance, interested in becoming a dual passport-holder and joining the Azerbaijani national team. "I told him yes," Nelson says. "After being in Europe for a while"—'09–10 was his fifth season abroad—"you know that the [European] passport makes you more valuable, and it opens up opportunities in some countries that have limits on American players. I was looking to get into Spain at the time, and there were only 36 total roster spots available for Americans."
Nelson obtained his Azerbaijani passport in June 2010, signed a deal with a Spanish EuroCup team, Gran Canaria, for 2010–11 and played for Azerbaijan in his 2010 and '11 off-seasons. He returned to the U.S. in 2016 to take an assistant coaching job at Utah State, and in early March 2017, an English-speaking Azerbaijani basketball official reached out to him for help. Azerbaijan was looking for a playmaking combo guard for its Under-20 national team. Could Nelson recommend any American college guys?
This was a new concept—looking for unconnected, American amateurs to naturalize for non-senior competition. The first known example of it was Armenia, Azerbaijan's neighbor and longtime adversary, naturalizing UConn forward Steven Enoch for the 2016 European U20s.
On March 6, 2017, Nelson contacted DraftExpress.com's Jonathan Givony to ask if he had any ideas for the Azerbaijanis, who sit at No. 133 in the current FIBA rankings. Givony searched his site's database for the top scoring combo guards in college hoops who were born in 1997 or later. One of the top three was Washington's Markelle Fultz, who obviously wasn't an option—he was projected to be the No. 1 pick in the 2017 NBA draft. The other two, which Givony recommended, were Montana State's Tyler Hall and Northern Colorado's Jordan Davis. On March 10, Azerbaijani basketball official Bahram Abdinov sent back word: They were interested in Davis.
Northern Colorado assistant coach Ken DeWeese was driving back from a recruiting trip to a junior-college tournament in Wyoming on March 10 when he got a call from Givony. He was curious if DeWeese was open to the idea of Davis playing for Azerbaijan. It was such an off-the-wall proposal, DeWeese says, "That at first I kind of thought [Givony] was screwing with me."
It was a real thing. And after DeWeese did his due diligence—checking with UNC's compliance department, asking Nelson about his experience, talking to Abdinov, confirming that holding dual passports could benefit Davis's future pro career—and got the green light from Linder, they called in Davis to gauge his interest.
"I was like, what country is it?" Davis recalls. "And then it literally took us—me, [DeWeese] and another assistant, [Steve] Smiley—about 15 minutes to learn how to say Azerbaijan correctly. Someone argued that it was Azz-er-buh-jhan at first. Then someone said no, it's Azhur-by-junn. It was comedy that day." (The proper way, they eventually learned, is Uh-zher-by-jhan.)
Despite the initial lack of familiarity, Davis was intrigued. He and DeWeese kept discussing it. "We probably pulled Azerbaijan up on Google Maps 20 times, just looking at where it was," DeWeese says, "and then we'd look at images of Baku, the buildings, what kind of restaurants they had, so he could get a sense that it was a thriving, international city."
On April 4, they had a conference call with Abdinov. Davis asked about the passport situation, his potential role on the team and how the Azerbaijanis had even seen him play. (The answer to the latter: "We watched video of you on Synergy [Sports Technology].") And after Davis talked to his parents, assuaging his mother's fears about Azerbaijan's proximity to Afghanistan and Pakistan, he concluded within a few days that he was in. "The deciding factor," he says, given that European scouts would be in Oradea, "was that this was a way to get myself known overseas now, before my college career was up."
When Linder told the Northern Colorado team about Davis's plans during a spring workout, he could only laugh at the less-than-congratulatory reactions. "That is cheating," said Kyle Carey, a (since-transferred) freshman from London who's playing for Great Britain in the same division of the Euro U20s, and was not thrilled about Azerbaijan adding a ringer. An American teammate, Tanner Morgan, jokingly warned Davis, "You know you could go to jail for this, right?"
But Davis was already in the process of getting legal, authentic American-Azerbaijani dual citizenship. DeWeese emailed scans of the required documentation—passport, birth certificate, results of a physical—and Abdinov booked a flight for Davis to Baku. He finished his last sophomore-year final on May 4, spent a few days visiting his infant daughter, Jordynn (who lives with his girlfriend in Las Vegas), and then flew to Baku on May 10.
After deplaning a 14-hour flight out of New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport on Azerbaijan Airlines, Davis paid a visa fee, got his American passport stamped for the first time, and found Abdinov waiting for him at the arrivals hall. Abdinov drove him to a hotel downtown near the national-team office while an exhausted Davis gazed out the car window at glass skyscrapers and throngs of people in the streets.
They began the Azerbaijani citizenship paperwork the following day, and because the U20 team was away training in Georgia, Davis worked out with Azerbaijan's 3-on-3 entry in the Islamic Solidarity Games. Its roster included former Oklahoma State forward Marshall Moses, another naturalized American. "He'd gotten off a flight four hours before I did," Davis said of Moses, "and he told me he'd been playing for the Azerbaijanis for three years already."
Davis' biggest culture shock came at his first dinner, when he thought he was eating steak, only to have Abdinov inform him that it was lamb and goat, neither of which he'd ever before tried.
He and Abdinov filled the rest of the five-day trip talking about basketball. The Azerbaijanis, Abdinov said, wanted Davis to be a playmaker. They had qualified for the B-Division event and had a relatively talented roster, but needed a dynamic guard. They wanted Davis to start, play 25–30 minutes, score and assist. He had yet to meet any of his Azerbaijani teammates, although he was put in touch with two of them who spoke English, and they started exchanging messages through Instagram and WhatsApp.
During his downtime in Greeley, Davis studied footage of recent Azerbaijan U20 games online, hoping to get himself acclimated. "From what I've seen here and there on YouTube, I think we have a lot of potential," he said in mid-June.
Davis's new Azerbaijani passport was waiting for him in Baku when he returned two weeks ago for training camp. His first game for Azerbaijan is Friday against Russia in Romania. And if his mid-major Russell Westbrook act is a hit abroad? He likely won't be the last of the amateur ringers to get export-loaned from America.