Freshman guard Ray Ona Embo is quickly establishing a home in the backcourt at Tulane’s historic Devlin Fieldhouse. It was a long road to get there.
“I started thinking of coming to the States when I was 13 years old,” said Ona Embo, a native of Marne-la-Vallée, France, outside of Paris. “I went to the Adidas Nations Camp in Long Beach, California. I really loved the environment and the atmosphere of American basketball.”
Following the camp, the notion grew in Ona Embo’s mind of attending high school in the U.S. to face some of the world’s best players at the scholastic level.
For Ray, high school basketball in the U.S. was a goal in and of itself, not necessarily a platform for a college basketball career abroad. “I really wasn’t thinking about American colleges because in France it was a big deal, and [U.S. basketball] was far away. But it was always in the back of my mind.”
His dream became a reality when Ona Embo began his high school career at Las Vegas’s Findley Prep, before moving on to the Balboa School in San Diego. He ultimately found his high school home at Quality Education Academy (QEA) in Winston-Salem, N.C., graduating a year early.
All three schools are best described as heavily basketball-centric in their athletic focus, and each has a roster dappled with international players. As a result, Ona Embo, who turned 18 on Oct. 20, brought on-court talents that far exceeded his age to Tulane.
In truth, his intense preparation for college basketball began years earlier than his stateside playing career. Ray’s father, Mathias, coached him from his start in the game through his middle school years. He still coaches in the family’s hometown.
His brother Carl is a well-traveled professional player with an impressive international résumé. His most recent experience was as a point guard for the NBA D-League’s Santa Cruz Warriors.
“He’s older than me and I always looked up to him. He’s basically taught me everything that he’s learned,” said Ona Embo.
Ray’s older sister Cassandra plays semi-professionally in France.
While at QEA, his college plans began to take an American turn as Ona Embo drew the attention of several Division I programs, including VCU, Ole Miss, and UC Santa Barbara, as well as his ultimate choice, Tulane.
“I came on a visit after I graduated, and I just liked the environment. The thing that I liked most about Tulane was that no one ever promised me anything,” said Ona Embo. “I came here, and Coach Dunleavy was honest with me and told me, ‘I don’t know if you’re going to play. We’ll see. I just want you to come out here and compete.’”
Tulane’s first-year head coach Mike Dunleavy Sr., is new to coaching in the college ranks, but is anything but new to coaching. He’s played, coached and been a general manager in the NBA.
“Everything about Coach Dunleavy is really detailed. So you get a very detailed plan from him every time you talk to him,” said Ona Embo of playing for one of the game’s most experienced mentors at any level.
Ona Embo has proven a quick study under Dunleavy. He opened his career with an exhibition against the NAIA’s Loyola University of New Orleans and had three points and four assists in a convincing win. The Green Wave faced far stiffer competition in their regular season opener when they met then #6 UNC. In a losing effort, he had five points, making three of four from the charity stripe and adding one from the floor.
By Dec. 12 he was named the American Athletic Conference Rookie of the Week. During that week he averaged 14 points per game and 4.5 assists. He also had three steals in a Green Wave road victory against Southern Miss on Dec. 10.
“I feel I like I’ve gotten more comfortable as we’ve played more games,” said Ona Embo.
Despite his progress, the 6-5 freshman is disappointed with the Green Wave getting out of the gate at 3-9. “We’re not satisfied with our wins. I know we’re better than our record shows. We’re going to keep working and get better as a team.”
To his credit, when asked about his individual and team goals, Ona Embo makes no distinction between the two. “My goal is just to win games, period. I don’t really care about individual statistics and that stuff. I’m a team guy — I want us to win as many games as we can and be ready once we get to conference play.”
That conference play begins Wednesday on ASN at home against UCF.
Tom Flynn is a freelance writer based in Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter at @tomflynn51.