Jaime Echenique's unique journey towards possibly making NBA history

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Echenique's unique journey towards NBA history originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

WASHINGTON -- During Tommy Sheppard's three seasons as Wizards general manager, the franchise has over-indexed on international players, to the point they had more players born outside the United States entering last season than any other team. They currently represent four different continents and five non-U.S. countries on their roster.

But the Wizards do not and have never had a player from Colombia. In fact, no NBA team ever has.

That could change soon, however, if Jaime Echenique continues his unlikely climb towards NBA history. The 24-year-old, 6-foot-11 big man is currently playing for the Capital City Go-Go, the Wizard's G-League affiliate, with hopes of putting Colombia on the basketball map.

"It would be great for my country, I’m not going to lie. It would be a big representation to have a Colombian player in the NBA," Echenique told NBC Sports Washington. 

"To be honest, personally I’ve never took the emphasis of being the first, the second or the third because it doesn’t matter if you make it, it’s if you stay."

The city where he's from, Barranquilla, Colombia, is well-known for being the hometown of international pop star Shakira. Others to leave and find fame in the United States include actress Sofia Vergara and former MLB star Édgar Rentería.

Echenique's path is unique in its own right and one he had to travel alone for much of the time. His parents worked multiple shifts from 4 a.m. to 10 p.m. during his childhood; his father as a city bus driver and his mother as a chef.

Echenique describes his parents as "24-7 workers" and that family dynamic left him by himself as a young child. He got mixed up with the wrong people, including gang members, and was close to having a very different story to tell.

"I had to mature on my own and make the right decisions when I was really young. It wasn’t always good ones. Sometimes I didn’t make good ones," Echenique explained.

"When you are eight, 10 or 11 years old and, I don’t want to talk bad about my country or my city, but at that point when you are a little kid and you have a lot of freedom and you have nobody supervising what you’re doing, that’s when people get in trouble or make the wrong decisions. At some point in my life, I was around people that weren’t beneficial for me, not because I wanted to just because I had to. But I took myself out of it with sports and with basketball. Everything started working out."

Echenique didn't start playing basketball until he was 13 years old. He had a close group of friends that stuck together from kindergarten all the way through school. Collectively they got into the sport, which is not even listed among the most popular by the country's government website. The closest a Colombian basketball player got to the NBA was Braian Angola, who played for the Magic's G-League affiliate in the 2018-19 season. 

Echenique, though, sprouted up to 6-foot-11, big enough to first warrant attention from U.S. college programs. Those in his family believe he got his height from his paternal grandfather, whom Echenique never met and has never even seen a picture of, as it's believed none exist.

The only representation Echenique has seen of his grandfather was in a movie. His grandfather married a famous singer in Colombia and they were later portrayed by actors in a film.

"They put this big Black dude who was really strong and everybody said that’s how my grandpa was," Echenique said.

Echenique credits his high school coach for helping him realize his basketball potential. After high school, and not yet having learned how to speak English, he moved to Texas where he played some AAU and then at Trinity Valley Community College. From there, he transferred to Wichita State University where, in 2019-20, he was an All-AAC selection.

Echenique played briefly in Spain last fall before returning to the western hemisphere. He was back in Colombia, at a friend's house, when his agent called and said the Wizards had a spot on their Summer League team.

"It was a big deal," Echenique said. "I remember exactly where I was when my agent called me and said ‘you’re going to play in the Summer League with the Wizards.’ I was really, really happy because I knew it was the beginning of something bigger for myself."

Echenique, 24, would become the surprise of the Wizards' Summer League team. He averaged 7.5 points and 2.5 rebounds in just 9.3 minutes per game, as he exited his fourth game, against Milwaukee, with a knee injury. He had a breakout performance against the Bucks with 13 points in eight minutes.

"Against Milwaukee, the game he got hurt, he just kind of exploded," Go-Go head coach Mike Williams told NBC Sports Washington. "He was finishing in the paint, he made a bank three, he was making his free throws, defending really well. I was like ‘OK, this guy’s got some game.’"

Echenique caught on with the Wizards enough to earn a spot in NBA training camp where all of a sudden he found himself alongside Bradley Beal and others he had only seen play on TV.

"My first impression was like a little kid, as a fan. Like, they are for real. I am right next to them," Echenique said.

Echenique was cut from the Wizards and sent to the Go-Go, where he has been limited in camp due to a knee issue. But once he's healed, he has a chance to be one of their best players alongside point guard Cassius Winston and big man Isaiah Todd.

Williams said the Wizards understand his story is "incredible" and "will try everything we can do to get him [to the NBA]." Because Echenique started playing basketball so late, he's a raw talent with plenty to learn. Williams cited screen-setting and floor spacing as two areas, in particular.

"He’s really good for having played for such a short time. There’s no ceiling for him," Williams said.

If Echenique can fill in the gaps in his game, it's possible he could get a call-up. If that happens, whether it's in Washington or elsewhere down the line, it will be what he says is just the start of his ultimate goal, which is to carve out a long and successful NBA career.

"It’s just been a dream come true to be in this position," Echenique said. "I’ve been enjoying it. I’m grateful to God for the opportunity."