MINNEAPOLIS — This 19-year-old truly enjoys going to museums all over the globe. This fashion aficionado wore a lilac Indochino suit with a Van Gogh-inspired lining on NBA draft night. The self-described “citizen of the world” asked legendary San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich to dinner, and he accepted. And this NBA rookie actually cares more about playing defense than scoring.
Say hello to the NBA’s most interesting rookie: Spurs forward Jeremy Sochan.
“I hope NBA fans learn that I am a free spirit,” Sochan told Andscape after a 115-106 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves on Oct. 24. “Someone that has positive energy and likes to grow on and off the court.
“Seeing the world has opened up my eyes to different people and cultures, food, music. It has really made me really open and creative and helped me on and off the court. It’s been great and matured me. I’m not a normal 19-year-old.”
The 2022 NBA rookie class is led by Orlando Magic forward Paolo Banchero, the top overall pick. Much ado has also been made about some of the other heralded rookies in injured Chet Holmgren, Jabari Smith Jr., Keegan Murray, Jaden Ivey and Bennedict Mathurin. Overlooked in all the rookie hype was the Spurs’ selection of Sochan out of Baylor University with the ninth overall pick.
While Sochan isn’t the scorer that some of the aforementioned rookies are, the Spurs hope that he will grow that skill, and he is likely the top defensive newcomer in the NBA.
“I’m different on the court. I still talk my stuff. I am annoying,” Sochan said. “I am still figuring stuff out. But as the season goes along and as I get older, people will find out what I’m about.”
While the Spurs jumped out to a surprising 5-3 start, there has been some dark news of late with the franchise due to former guard Josh Primo.
On Thursday, Dr. Hillary Cauthen, a Spurs consulting psychologist, and her attorney Tony Buzbee filed a lawsuit against the franchise and Primo over their lack of action following her allegations that Primo exposed himself to her nine times beginning in December 2021. The Spurs selected Primo with the No. 12 pick in the 2021 draft but released him Oct. 28 despite previously picking up his option for a third year at $4.3 million for the 2023-24 season.
“We disagree with the accuracy of facts, details and the timeline presented today. While we would like to share more information, we will allow the legal process to play out. Our organization remains committed to upholding the highest standards and will continue to live by our values and our culture,” R.C. Buford, CEO of Spurs Sports and Entertainment, said in a statement.
The keys to Sochan defensively are his 7-foot wingspan, athleticism, a never-ending motor and the ability to defend all five positions. His favorite NBA player is Draymond Green, the Golden State Warriors’ defensive-minded forward. The Spurs play Green and the defending NBA champs on Nov. 14.
“The way he plays, his energy is annoying,” Sochan said. “He’s definitely one of the players I look up to, but there are a bunch of different players. I like his fire and how smart he is. He doesn’t [let his] fire distract him from playing with a good IQ and as a team. That’s what I see in him and in myself.”
Sochan received respect quickly from Popovich due to his defensive play in training camp. He ultimately named Sochan a rookie starter entering the 2022-23 season.
How hard was that for Sochan to do?
Sochan became the first Spurs rookie to enter the season as a starter since Hall of Famer Tim Duncan 25 years ago in 1997. Sochan is averaging 7.1 points and 4.0 rebounds in 21.6 minutes per game.
“It was like an oh wow moment just seeing the NBA logo,” Sochan said. “Seeing the NBA logo everywhere is crazy. At Baylor, I didn’t even start. Then, that one preseason game [against the New Orleans Pelicans on Oct. 9] and I have been starting ever since. It’s been crazy.”
Popovich, however, didn’t have high hopes for the Spurs, saying on media day that “nobody here should go to Vegas with the thought of betting on us to win the championship.” The expectation was that a rebuilding San Antonio was chasing the first overall pick in the 2023 NBA draft in hopes of landing 7-foot-3 Frenchman Victor Wembanyama. The Spurs, however, have surprisingly looked like a possible playoff team.
Sochan says he’s not surprised by the start.
“We came into the season with the mentality to try our best to win every game,” Sochan said. “Never stay too high. Never stay to low. Trying to find the right balance and win.”
Popovich won five NBA titles with Hall of Famers Duncan, David Robinson and Manu Ginobili and future Hall of Famer Tony Parker. Today, Popovich said he is having fun teaching this young, confident, and humble bunch.
“You have to be happy for them,” Popovich said. “They play hard and they’re happy to play with one another. They’re learning how to play the game. Several guys are getting more and more confident in playing the game. If they play like that, they show they can win basketball games. They’re humble and confident.”
Sochan was born on May 20, 2003, in the small town of Guymon, Oklahoma, which is known for its cattle, poultry, natural gas, and wind energy production. The Spurs also won their second of five titles in 2003. His Polish mother, Aneta Sochan, and late father, Ryan Williams, an African American, played Division II basketball at Panhandle State (Oklahoma). Sochan was raised by his mother and stepfather, Wiktor Lipiecki.
Along with teaching him to take pride in defense, Sochan said his mother helped his mentality of dealing with the challenges that come from being biracial.
“Racism is not good. It’s disrespectful,” Sochan said. “We are all connected in some way. I just try to share love with everyone. I never get angry. I try to help people as well.
“My mom used to tell me, ‘We are all the same. You have to make friends with people of every different color and race.’ I was always open-minded and a guy everyone can talk to and be friends with.”
After leaving Oklahoma, Sochan lived as young child in France with his family before they moved to England. He began playing basketball as a youth in Southampton and Buckinghamshire and loved it most after trying rugby, badminton, soccer, and the long jump. While England isn’t a hotbed for hoops, he played basketball for Itchen College at age 15 before being promoted to play with grown men with the semipro Solent Kestrels.
Sochan finished his high school basketball career playing for prep power La Lumiere School in Indiana and Orange Academy in Germany. He also became the youngest player in Poland national team history at just 17. He returned to America to play for Baylor University during the 2021-2022 season. The 2022 Big 12 Sixth Man of the Year and Freshman of the Year averaged 9.2 points, 6.4 rebounds and 1.8 assists in 25 minutes last season. He also leaned on defense to help Baylor to a 27-7 record and a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
“He’s an extremely versatile forward with great size and strength for a young player. He was also beyond his years defensively as he could switch guarding point guards through power forwards,” said Norfolk State men’s basketball head coach Robert L. Jones. Sochan had 15 points, seven rebounds and three assists in a 2022 NCAA tournament first-round win against Norfolk State.
Sochan has quickly made his presence known with the Spurs on the court as well as off the court.
Popovich has been the Spurs head coach since 1996, led the franchise to five NBA championships and coached USA Basketball to a gold medal in 2020. The outspoken 73-year-old also has a reputation for being intimidating. That didn’t keep the teenager from asking Popovich to go to dinner during training camp. Popovich also got a chuckle when Sochan ordered a glass of wine at a seafood restaurant, which is fine in Europe but not at his age in America.
“He is a legend, and I had dinner with him as well,” Sochan said of Popovich. “A person like that you just get to know everything from him on and off the court. You ask a ton of questions. I wasn’t nervous to ask him to dinner. It is what it is. If he says no, it happens. If I don’t ask, you never know.
“I just wanted to get to know him and the lifestyle for basketball players at this level. On the court. Off the court. Dig deeper into his lifestyle and his history. It was really good.”
Said Popovich: “He has personality, for sure.”
Sochan once described himself as a “citizen of the world” to BasketballNews. He says he has been to more than 25 countries. He has an English accent and claims to be from Milton Keynes although his Spurs teammates aren’t buying it.
“I am a citizen of the world from how much I’ve traveled and where I come from,” Sochan said. “Of course, I was born in Oklahoma in the middle of nowhere. My mom is Polish. I’ve been England most of my life. It shows that I’m a citizen of the world. Plus, I’ve played in Germany and played with the Polish national team where we traveled to multiple countries to play games. All of that helped me be a citizen of the world.”
Spurs forward Doug McDermott and center Jakob Poeltl both had jokes for the rookie.
“We give him a lot of stuff that he’s from Oklahoma and not England,” McDermott said.
“He has his little English accent,” said Poeltl.
One of Sochan’s pastimes is attending museums no matter where he is. He has already visited The Alamo, the historic Spanish mission and fortress compound founded in the 18th century by Roman Catholic missionaries, and two other museums in San Antonio. Sochan said he has already learned to adore San Antonio’s Mexican American culture, most notably the importance of family and food, in particular birria tacos.
“I was really surprised because people say there is nothing in San Antonio,” Sochan said. “But when you dig deep and look, San Antonio is a great city. There is a lot of stuff to do. The museums. The Alamo as well. I really enjoy it.
“I’ve done a lot of stuff like going to restaurants, museum and driving around checking out different places. I’ve been meeting different people. Everyone is so friendly. They love the Spurs. All of that has really helped.”
When asked about what type of art Sochan likes, he said: “I’m into different art. Music is art. Fashion is art. Nature is art in my eyes. I enjoy stuff like that and chilling at home.”
Sochan is also famous for his hair colors as he donned a short grey haircut against the Timberwolves. He says he puts “quite a lot” of energy into his hair and that a barber helps him take care of his look.
So what color is next?
“I get ideas from everyone on Instagram,” Sochan said. “People around are asking questions about whether I will do different colors. I’m probably going to make one or two a month.”
Orange Academy head coach Anton Gavel described Sochan as “one of the funniest guys on the team” during his time, The Ringer reported. Popovich and Spurs players are also getting familiar with Sochan’s sense of humor as well. Sochan has also found a partner in silliness off the court in Spurs forward Keldon Johnson, who is averaging 23.9 points.
“I’m loud, especially with Keldon. We’re loud together,” Sochan said.
On and off the court, it’s safe to say the Spurs already love the worldly rookie. Expect the NBA world to follow.
“Off the court, he is a superlighthearted guy,” Poeltl said. “He’s funny. He’s outgoing. He’s all over the place. What impresses me on the court is on offense and defense he’s going to give his all to it.”