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Awak Kuier Is Ready to Soar

The slam-dunking star out of Finland is a likely top-five WNBA pick.
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Awak Kuier dribbles in a Finland jersey

One evening late last June, Awak Kuier found herself on court in the Puotila region of Helsinki, Finland, eager to advise a group of more than two dozen young girls. While not much older than the majority of the participants at that night’s basketball camp, which was composed mostly of immigrants, Kuier, then 18, stood out among them.

Standing at 6' 5" with braids that sway as she glides around the court, Kuier (pronounced KU-ear) is tough to miss. Her accomplishments, to those in Finland, are also renowned.

At 16, she debuted with the senior national team, developing into the centerpiece of its roster. And for years, she has garnered fame for the ease in which she skies above the rim on dunks. On Thursday night, Kuier, 19, will hear her name called in the 2021 WNBA draft, very likely in the top five. If that happens, Kuier will be the first player not to have played in college selected in that range since 2011, and just the second since 2001.

“I think she has no limits,” says Vanja Cernivec, a scout for the Chicago Bulls, who worked with Kuier at multiple Basketball Without Borders camps, while serving as the director of operations for NBA Europe.

But among the girls that June evening, Kuier, who herself is the daughter of Sudanese refugees, doesn’t flaunt her résumé. Instead, she warms those in her presence with her calm demeanor. “Just be comfortable in your own skin,” she says, recalling her advice to them. “And it doesn’t matter that you might look different, because playing basketball is just playing basketball.” She arrived that day following one of her own practices. Throughout the remainder of the summer, she showed up three times per week, looking to better a future generation of Finnish basketball players. She wants to motivate others to fall in love with the sport the way she has.

Unlike most other prospective draftees, Kuier has already entered the professional ranks, having joined Virtus Eirene Ragusa in Italy’s top league last August. There, she’s been matched up against some of the WNBA’s best players, including 2019 Defensive Player of the Year Natasha Howard, and held her own. “She covers the court so quick,” says Mariella Santucci, a teammate at Ragusa. “She’s one of the most talented people I’ve played with.”

“She runs like a gazelle,” Cernivec says.

Those surrounding Kuier say she’s capable of being a WNBA star, possessing an ability to play above the rim in a way that few others can. But beyond the crowd-pleasing slams and blocked shots, there’s a deep appreciation for her family’s journey from Sudan and a desire to keep pushing both herself and others forward.

As a young girl, Kuier didn’t have her eyes set on the WNBA. She was more focused on daily competitions, like who among her six siblings could tie their shoes the fastest. “It was never boring,” she says of life growing up in her family’s two-story home.

Kuier’s four older brothers, ranging from two to eight years older than her, were born in Sudan. Her family left Khartoum, the capital, in February 2001 amid civil war, seeking a more stable place to raise their children. Kuier was born in Cairo, Egypt, but at age two moved to Finland with her family, settling in Kotka, a port city of around 50,000 people on the country’s southern border. The family was part of a larger movement of Sudanese refugees coming to Finland under the government’s resettlement quota system.

The city was fertile soil for her budding basketball career. While Finland is more widely known for its ice hockey success, Kokta is one of the country’s few hotbeds where hoops reign supreme. The game was introduced there in the 1940s, and its men’s and women’s teams historically excel in domestic competition. Today, there are more than 30 outdoor courts in Kotka, 10 of them full-sized, and three indoor basketball arenas.

At nine years old and already around 5' 9", Kuier tried basketball, playing alongside her second-oldest brother, Flemon, who had joined a local team. She played often at recess. And it was in a physical education class that Mikko Kokkola, the coach of Kotka’s lone girls' club team, Peli-Karhut, spotted her, already more than a head taller than her peers. Kokkola was immediately struck by not only Kuier’s agility and athleticism, but how she easily repeated the moves he demonstrated. Ahead of her 12th birthday she joined Peli-Karhut, and from there her game blossomed.

While U.S. games were difficult to watch live, Kuier studied Candace Parker highlights on YouTube, seeing a bit of herself in the MVP forward’s versatility and size. But standing above her classmates presented a different challenge. “It was difficult because even though my appearance was different than the other kids, I was tall on top of that. So I was drawing a lot of attention,” Kuier says.

“And I feel like when I was growing up, I didn’t really have an immigrant that looked like me to help me [in basketball].”

Pekka Salminen first heard about Kuier when she was 14. He says she was shy, super athletic and brimming with potential. “We immediately saw that she was born with something special,” he says.

Salminen was the head coach of the girls' high school program at the Helsinki Basketball Academy, the leading developmental academy for Finland’s top basketball prospects. He tried convincing Kuier and her family of the benefits of playing there. While initially hesitant to join, she moved to Helsinki shortly after her 16th birthday. The heightened competition marked the start of a key chapter in her development.

During the summer before her 15th birthday, Kuier threw down her first dunk. She had wrapped up a practice at the Karhula Liikuntahalli sports hall in Kotka when her teammate Amira Nyibong suggested she mess around and try jamming on one of its rims. Kuier missed her initial attempt but made her second—a one-handed dunk off one leg.

While at the HBA, she frequently lifted weights with Jari Nykänen, the strength and conditioning coach there, to build up her lower body and increase her jumping capabilities. As part of the team’s twice-daily practices, coaches helped her develop proper footwork when performing drop-step dunks and ran her through drills that involved dunking repeatedly from different sides of the basket. “I used to always do it to impress people,” Kuier says. “And it was a really cool thing that everybody used to be really hype about.” Whether she was jamming in international competitions, at NBA Academy camps or just in practice, people always took notice.

Nowadays, though, it’s very much just one part of her repertoire.

In addition to the strength training at HBA, Kuier took part in drills geared for both guards and bigs. There, she developed a better three-point shot, improved her ballhandling and solidified her presence around the rim. Salminen says that they allowed her room to grow from mistakes, not cutting her on-court action short because of an errant pass or sloppy dribble. “We wanted to make sure that we weren’t going to take the love for the game away,” he says.

Over the course of her three years at the academy, the work paid off. In July 2019, Kuier led Finland to its first title in FIBA competition as the Nordic nation defeated Greece to claim the U18B FIBA Women’s European Championship. For her efforts, Kuier, who topped the tournament in points (18.8) and rebounds (12.2) per game, took home MVP honors. That November, she starred as Finland placed as runner-up at the U20B FIBA Women’s European Championship and was named to the tournament’s All-Star five. She made a similar impact in domestic play with an HBA Marsky game in January 2020, in which she hit eight of her nine three-point attempts in a career-high 47-point, 19-rebound performance, a particular standout.

COVID-19 kept Kuier out of action in Finland’s November FIBA EuroBasket Qualifiers, but she returned in February and again thrived, recording a 30-point, 14-rebound double double vs. Ukraine and a 20-point game vs. Belarus. “We have a lot of solid players, but she’s the only winning matchup we always have,” says Salminen, who is also Finland’s senior women’s national team coach.

Kuier, though, downplays discussions of her personal accolades, electing more often to highlight the collective successes of her team.

“To her, it’s more important that somebody else plays well,” Salminen says. “But if she needs to play really well to help the team win, then she will. If she needs to take over the game, she will.”

“She’s magnetic in her game and in her personality,” says Chris Ebersole, the NBA’s senior director of international basketball operations and elite basketball. “She’s definitely a special talent.”

And Kuier knows she still has plenty of room for growth.

Kuier will enter the WNBA having charted a path drastically different from others in her draft class. Not since Liz Cambage in 2011 has an international player been selected in the top five of the event. More often, top foreign prospects elect to attend U.S. colleges before entering the league—a stark contrast from the recent trend in the NBA, which has seen 29 international players taken in the top 10 since 2010, including 16 in the top five.

Kuier would have been a college freshman next fall, and coaches from a number of the top NCAA programs around the country courted her services. But due to WNBA draft rules, she couldn’t have entered the draft until four years from now had she attended a U.S. school. Instead, she can make her impact felt this spring.

With Ragusa, Kuier has had to adjust to the physicality of her heightened competition. But adapting to new environments has long been a strength, whether in the form of improving her game or learning new languages (Kuier speaks Italian, Arabic, Finnish and English). Entering postseason play, which begins later this week, Kuier is averaging 8.9 points and a team-high 6.8 rebounds in 24.3 minutes per game.

Asked what she’s most proud of to this point, she reflects on how she has always believed in herself despite her atypical journey. She mentions her coaches, friends and especially family, whose journey to Finland inspires her own resilience.

“It would be really amazing if I could eventually get them a house in Sudan,” Kuier says.

For now, though, a new home for her awaits.