Ailene Voisin

Ailene Voisin: Freshman Jeff Wu gives Sacramento State global flair

As he straddles a wooden bench outside the Nest, his uniform sweat-soaked following another practice, Jeff Wu smiles and shakes his head.

Appropriate to the premises – that cozy ancient facility – he is a hive of activity. His long legs bounce under the table. His hands clasp and release. He leans to one side, then to the other.

Constant movement and dramatic change. This is his life.

Four years ago, the Sacramento State freshman was a ninth-grade phenom in Taipei City, Taiwan, a youngster who idolized Allen Iverson and Tracy McGrady, and was soon to be swept into the Jeremy Lin “Linsanity” craze. Now he’s the first Taiwanese native playing basketball on an NCAA Division I scholarship.

How all this happened – how the talented young guard found his way to Brian Katz and Sacramento and into the Hornets’ rotation – is a story of fortuitous timing, an athletics program’s demise, the tightknit Sacramento coaching fraternity, and the lingering allure of California.

“Sometimes I feel pressure because people are paying close attention to me now,” Wu said. “When Jeremy Lin visited Taipei City when ‘Linsanity’ was going, I was called up to the stage to sit with him. Now when I go home, everyone knows who I am. Reporters are outside my house; cars are parked there. I have to tell myself, ‘Just be yourself.’ 

And take deep breaths. And enroll in a yoga class. And go see “Spotlight” for a third time. And remember that, at 19, you’re still a kid adjusting to mid-level college competition. Mistakes come with the job.

But if Wu’s role this season and Katz’s assessment are accurate predictors, this is the beginning of a very productive pairing. Wu might not be the next Lin – who was born in the United States and is of Taiwanese descent – but he emulates the Charlotte Hornets veteran, including his frequently altered hairstyles.

A sinewy 6-foot-2, with 180 pounds packed onto his long limbs and unusually large feet and hands, Wu attacks from all angles. Active and lively, he launches deep threes, slices between defenders for windmill dunks, penetrates and finds open teammates, harasses opponents into turnovers. Though a natural right-hander, he is more comfortable dribbling with his noticeably larger left palm.

Wu is averaging 6.3 points in 17.5 minutes – the most time among reserves – for the Hornets, who are preparing for the Big Sky Conference tournament in Reno that starts Tuesday.

“Jeff is very dynamic,” Katz said. “When we heard about him, we had this image of him being just a shooter. But he’s got some real pop. He’s far from being a one-dimensional player and he’s quicker than you think. His minutes haven’t been consistent, but I’ll be very surprised if he doesn’t start for us next year.”

Wu, whose birth name is Yung Cheng Wu but goes by Jeff because it’s easier to pronounce, discovered basketball while watching older players at a park near his parents’ Chinese restaurant in Taipei City. Intrigued by the skills and personalities of NBA stars, he searched the Internet for YouTube highlights and instructional videos.

“I would memorize everything, and even though I was only 7 or 8, then go to the gym on my own,” he said. “I didn’t like school. My two brothers were great in the classroom, but I wanted my own (identity). Basketball became everything.”

After being named the top ninth-grader in his homeland, an island of approximately 24 million residents off the coast of China, Wu made his first difficult decision. Only 15, and with limited English language skills, he enrolled at Union High School in Vancouver, Wash., on a yearlong exchange program, then transferred to powerhouse Modesto Christian for his junior and senior years, with plans to play at BYU-Hawaii.

This is where Katz’s deep local roots and coaching connections worked heavily in the Hornets’ favor. When BYU-Hawaii announced in 2014 it would phase out athletics over three years, David Evans, an assistant at the time who once was a Sacramento Bee All-Metro player at Ponderosa, contacted Katz and encouraged him to take a look at his once prized recruit.

Katz was immediately smitten. Wu’s Mandarin-accented English had improved dramatically, the Crusaders’ weight-training program had added almost 30 pounds to his wiry frame, and he was an energetic, charismatic presence on the court.

“I said, ‘Holy moly, this kid can play,’ ” Katz said. “I’m like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ We went at him hard his junior year, and we got lucky. He signed with us early.”

Wu also was pursued by Eastern Washington, but he said he committed to the Hornets because of his fondness for the coaches, the campus and California. A warm, expressive conversationalist, he enjoys the simple things: a good movie, the unusually dry climate, birds chirping while he sits on an outdoor bench in late February, detailing his global journey while still wearing his sweat-soaked uniform.

And about Lin? Take another look. Any resemblance, Wu admits with a grin, is by design. His current hairstyle is a Lin throwback: a fade on the side, thick on top, and left-to-right comb-over for games.

“No comment about his hair (currently),” Wu said with a laugh, dismissive of Lin’s slick brushback effect. “But I love Jeremy. We usually work out when he visits Taiwan in the summers. He gives me advice about what to expect. People don’t think Asians can play basketball.”

Wu, who returns home only in summers, calls his parents a few times a week and stays connected with friends and fans via social media. He proudly estimates he has 17,000 followers on Instagram and 19,000 on Facebook, and he credits Lin for providing a boost during that inaugural nationally televised news conference.

“And, of course, I would like to follow him to the NBA,” Wu said. “But right now I just want to get better at everything. People know about me, and since I’ve been playing more, they’re coming at me. I didn’t shoot very well last month. But I just keep working because I have a lot to learn.”

Big Sky Conference tournaments

  • Where: Reno Events Center
  • When: Monday-Saturday
  • Men’s championship: Saturday, 5:45 p.m., ESPNU
  • Women’s championship: Saturday, 12:05 p.m.