JONESBORO — Arkansas State coach Mike Balado figured there would be nights when Norchad Omier would dominate the boards this season, but he also expected others when Omier would finish with maybe five or six rebounds.
After all, while the 6-foot-7 Omier is well defined physically at 230 pounds and has explosive leaping ability, he’s also 19 years old and relatively new to basketball. Some ups and downs would be understandable.
But Balado has yet to see inconsistency in the freshman forward from Bluefields, Nicaragua.
Omier has grabbed 10 or more rebounds in 12 consecutive games going into ASU’s home game tonight against Louisiana-Lafayette. He leads the Sun Belt Conference and ranks third nationally with an average of 12.2 rebounds per game.
Balado said Omier reminds him of the Los Angeles Lakers’ Montrezl Harrell, a forward of similar size who played at Louisville when Balado was an assistant for the Cardinals.
“He has an unbelievable knack for rebounding, something you can’t teach. It’s just something that he has, a great second jump, and he’s still learning,” Balado said. “He’s getting his skills better and understanding the game better through film, so he’s got a long way to go, but he’s only 19 and we’re looking forward to him having a great four years.”
Believed to be the first player from Nicaragua to play in an NCAA Division I game, according to research by ASU athletic media relations, Omier started playing basketball five or six years ago. Baseball is more popular in Nicaragua, Omier said, and he played that sport, too.
“I started playing basketball when I was 13, 14 years old. When I was younger, I loved playing every single sport, soccer, baseball, basketball, everything,” Omier said. “I really liked sports so much. At one point, my dad told me to pick one sport and basketball was the sport I really loved, so I decided for this one.”
Omier’s journey to ASU began with a trip to a camp in Miami operated by Art Alvarez, founder and president of Miami Prep School. He earned a place on the team at Miami Prep and averaged a double-double in 46 games, including 40 points and 17 rebounds against IMG Academy.
Balado, a Miami native, learned of Omier from Alvarez, whom he considers one of his mentors.
“He has a camp every year for international kids, kids from Colombia, Chile, Nicaragua. He’s big into the international Hispanic basketball scene,” Balado said. “One of (Omier’s) mentors from Nicaragua brought him to the camp because he thought he had a lot of talent, they just don’t get exposure down there.
“When Coach Alvarez saw him play, it was quick that he kept him and he called me right away. He said, ‘Look, I know you trust me. There’s a kid who has some special talent. He hasn’t played for a long time organized, but you can see he’s got something special.’ I went down to see him against IMG and in five minutes, I knew what I had.”
A close relationship developed through the recruiting process. Omier said Balado is “the closest thing to my second dad that I have here,” while Balado said he considers Omier to be like a son and wants to make sure his family knows he is being taken care of at ASU.
“He’s unbelievably humble. When you talk about a person who is thankful for everything he has, he’s multiply thankful,” Balado said. “He always thanks repeatedly for the things he already has. He never takes things for granted.”
While Omier said he has always spoken English as well as Spanish, Balado said his fluency in Spanish has probably aided Omier’s transition to Division I basketball.
“Basically every time in the huddle I’ll repeat whatever I told the other four guys in Spanish,” Balado said. “I think it’s allowed him to be more comfortable and learn the game quicker. If he had to translate, then learn and understand and try to go out there and do it, I think it would be harder. I try to tell him in a way where he understands quickly. I think we’re communicating in Spanish the entire game, and I’ll talk to him in English so he works on it.”
Balado describes Omier as being something of a sensation in Nicaragua as a Division I basketball player. The ASU coach said he also receives frequent friend requests on social media from fans following Omier.
“Nobody has ever signed a Division I basketball scholarship from Nicaragua, he’s the first one, so he’s kind of a trailblazer for all the young kids,” Balado said. “He likes the fact he can help his country and develop basketball there, and I think that’s something he’s going to do when he leaves here.”
Omier remains in close contact with his family. He talks to them before and after games, which they watch online.
“I don’t even feel that we’re so far apart because we talk so much,” Omier said. “I feel like we are right together with each other.”
Even with the Red Wolves playing fewer games this season because of COVID-19, Omier is on track to finish among ASU’s all-time single-season rebound leaders.
He is one of 10 Division I players with 20 or more rebounds in a game this season after grabbing 20 against Texas-Arlington a week ago. He had 19 against Arkansas-Pine Bluff, 17 against Louisiana-Monroe, 16 against Champion Christian and 13 against UL Lafayette.
Omier has also emerged as a scorer with 13.2-point average and double figures in each of the last five games, including 22 points against ULM.
Statistics aren’t his concern, though.
“I’m never concerned with where I am because I want to keep getting better every day,” Omier said. “I want to keep advancing, learning more from my teammates and my coaches. I just want to get better every day.”