Before he became Sacramento State’s starting point guard, Izayah Mauriohooho-Le’afa, a native of Wellington, New Zealand, had to overcome two major challenges. He had to prove he was worthy of a Division I scholarship and then teach coach Brian Katz how to pronounce his name.
Good luck with Door No. 2.
Katz, who functions at three speeds – fast, faster, faster still – mangled the sophomore’s name for the better part of six months. These days the words roll off his tongue easily, and, yes, with a modicum of pride.
“Mo-DEE-oh-ho-ho Lee-ah-fuh,” instructed Katz the other day, “but we just call him Izayah or Zay.”
The fact Katz and the Hornets are learning about New Zealand and their lead guard’s Maori and Samoan roots is a testament to their innate curiosity, as well as the 6-foot-2, 200-pound former rugby player’s tenacity. Blood, sweat and tears need no translation. After graduating from high school in 2014 and receiving no scholarship offers, Mauriohooho-Le’afa played pro ball for the Wellington Saints of the National Basketball League (NBL) and refused his salary in order to maintain his amateur status.
He desperately wanted a college scholarship. He just needed to find a college that desperately wanted him.
When an acquaintance in New Zealand contacted the program in April 2016, Katz, who was impressed after viewing the NBL game tapes, made no promises, but invited Mauriohooho-Le’afa to Sacramento for a workout. What transpired was enough to ruin everyone’s night. The coaches half-joked that the flattering game tapes had been sent to the wrong school.
“It was the worst workout of my life,” Mauriohooho-Le’afa admitted, wincing. “I had gotten off a 12-hour flight, got to San Fran, flew to Sacramento. I was tired, nervous, jet-lagged. Then to play like that? I was so mad at myself and so sad for my mom, who had come all this way with me. But I tried not to make any excuses. I just figured I would go home empty handed.”
Katz took the wannabe recruit out to dinner and uttered the grim news. He didn’t think Mauriohooho-Le’afa had the quickness or the skill set to play in the Big Sky Conference, but wanted to sleep on it before making a final determination. Emotionally devastated, Izayah and his mother, Dana, immediately started crying, even while thanking Sac State for their interest.
But there is this about Katz: He studies the stats, utilizes analytics, gorges on game tapes, but relies heavily on his own instincts. And there was something about this kid that he really liked.
“When we met the next day, I wanted to see if Izayah would make excuses and whether he would buy into Sac State 100 percent,” said the coach. “I couldn’t get past what I saw on tape, the quick feet, the pass-first mentality. In the end I took a chance and just went with my gut.”
Mauriohooho-Le’afa, who started but struggled as a freshman, has improved dramatically, most notably of late. After scoring in double figures four times in his first 36 games, the player named for former Detroit Pistons star Isiah Thomas has scored in double-digits in nine of his last 13 games, including career highs in four consecutive games. During that stretch he is averaging 12.0 points, 4.2 rebounds, 3.7 assists, while shooting 48 percent from the field and 49 percent from 3-point range.
His emergence and the continued strong play of senior Justin Strings, at the very least, have kept the injury-depleted Hornets from flatlining. They take a 5-15 overall record and 2-5 conference mark into Saturday’s league match at Portland State.
Katz, who says he has never experienced a year when so many key contributors were injured, among them senior Marcus Graves (back surgery), ranks Mauriohooho-Le’afa’s rapid development as one of the Hornets’ few feel-good stories. And even that doesn’t come pain-free. Mauriohooho-Le’afa suffered a herniated disk during the summer, and though surgery was not warranted, he spent three months recovering and avoiding the gym. Sharp pain still occasionally shoots down his left leg, and he spends 40 minutes stretching and receiving treatment before games and practices, but he says he feels better by the day.
“Izayah was really forced to grow quickly, especially with Marcus out,” said Katz, “and he made a big jump. He is our best defender and is really shooting well from 3. But he’s kind of a throwback. He is a pass-first point guard. He just loves setting up his teammates.”
Mauriohooho-Le’afa, who is much faster than his thick body type would suggest, attributes his assist-over-points mentality to the influence of his father, who played semi-pro ball in New Zealand. One of Izayah’s first memories is holding a ball in his crib. When he was a little older, he would accompany his father to practices, then shoot around with the players afterward.
Another New Zealand product – Oklahoma City center Steven Adams – attended a nearby high school and is another influence. “Steven played on my dad’s team for a year,” continued Izayah, in his strong Kiwi accent, “and I got to know him because we all work out in the same gym during the summer. He’s a great guy. And ever since he made it big in the NBA, basketball in New Zealand has gotten much bigger. It’s not like Australia, because rugby for us is still No. 1, but you can really see a difference. We have players at Arizona, Miami, Kentucky. Scouts are starting to look at us a lot more closely.”
While Mauriohooho-Le’afa, 21, is eager to spread the word, about both his country’s basketball and culture, the one thing he hasn’t done is introduce his teammates to the haka, the traditional Maori dance that New Zealand teams perform at competitions. Originally popularized by the All Blacks rugby team, the colorful performances, which feature loud chanting and powerful, stomping, rhythmic movements, have become highlights on national and Olympic basketball tournament telecasts.
Izayah, whose mother is Maori and father Samoan, isn’t ready to go there yet. “I’d feel a little silly getting out there by myself,” he said, with a grin.