Gophers assistant coach Kyle Lindsted took a quick recruiting trip to Germany right in the middle of the basketball season earlier this year. Yet after watching just one practice, the trip already seemed worthwhile.

Lindsted got on the phone immediately after that practice to call his boss, Richard Pitino. He wanted to extend a scholarship offer to an intriguing 18-year-old prospect in Munich, one who stood 6 feet 9, had a 7-4 wingspan and guard skills.

Isaiah Ihnen was a showstopper then, and he is a soon-to-be Gopher now.

“Isaiah was a really good get for us,” Pitino said about his top-rated incoming freshman. “I really believe if Isaiah were in the United States, he’d be a top-50 kid in the country from a ranking standpoint. He’s got great talent and is very, very skilled.”

With Ihnen and Drexel graduate transfer Alihan Demir, a versatile 6-9, 230-pound forward from Turkey, the Gophers went international this spring to bolster the roster for next season.

Ihnen and Demir were introduced to basketball and learned the game 1,600 miles apart in different countries. The pursuit of a college basketball career at the highest level will bring them both to Minnesota next month.

“It was always my dream to play college basketball,” Demir said. “I took baby steps when I came to the United States.”

German ‘KD’

Growing up in Boeblingen in southwestern Germany, Ihnen didn’t pick up a basketball until his mother pushed him toward the sport in high school.

“I wasn’t really interested in basketball,” Ihnen said. “All my friends in Germany were playing soccer or handball, but it became pretty fun.”

Ihnen’s footwork was advanced from soccer. He was taller than most 14-year-olds, but being rail thin made him lack the confidence to play near the basket.

His youth coaches decided that Ihnen’s best position was on the wing instead of the post, so that’s where he first learned to play.

Watching NBA games to gain more knowledge, Ihnen was quickly drawn to a player he felt resembled his body type. He modeled his game after Golden State Warriors superstar Kevin Durant.

“I always had a great shooting touch,” Ihnen said. “So that’s why coaches thought I had great potential to play outside.”

Early competition for Ihnen in recreation leagues was suspect, so he never knew how he stacked up against the best players his age in Germany. Not until Ihnen was 16 and invited to join the International Basketball Academy of Munich (IBAM) did playing college basketball and in the NBA become goals.

German basketball legend Dirk Nowitzki, who retired with the Dallas Mavericks this year after two decades in the NBA, never played college hoops. Others did, such has Moe Wagner, who was drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers after leading Michigan to the national title game in 2018.

“Germany has a lot of basketball talent,” Ihnen said. “They just don’t get the exposure. My ultimate goal is the NBA. I just thought college basketball would be the easiest way to get there.”

Culture shock

Five years ago, Demir left his family in Ankara, the capital of Turkey, with hopes of earning a college basketball scholarship in America. He was a “skinny kid” barely speaking English.

After playing for West Oaks Academy in Orlando, Demir didn’t receive any Division I offers, so he signed with a junior college in Wyoming. It wasn’t the path he expected, but he was determined to make it work.

“I had a lot of room to grow basketball-wise and off the court,” Demir said. “In Turkey, you become a professional when you’re 17 or 18, so there’s no real time to go to college. So I thought it was more beneficial for me to come to the United States.”

The biggest culture shock came when he spent his freshman year at Central Wyoming College in Riverton. The town’s population was 10,000, compared to 5 million in Ankara.

“It was nothing but just open land,” Demir said. “It was a real different experience for me. I think it helped me with my academics and basketball, too. There was nothing to distract me. I would just train, study and play games.”

After transferring to Drexel, Demir improved in two seasons from 10.7 to 14.8 points, 5.4 to 6.5 rebounds and 1.9 to 2.9 assists from his sophomore to junior years.

He attributes his fluid perimeter game to following a path paved by countryman Hedo Turkoglu. Demir would wake up in the middle of the night to watch Turkoglu’s NBA games.

“They made him play the point guard, so when he grew up he would have good size, with fundamentals, with dribbling and court vision,” Demir said. “In high school, I ran the point sometimes. I think it helped to develop my dribbling and passing skills.”

Why Minnesota?

Pitino sold Ihnen on the Gophers because of the success of junior Amir Coffey, who was a big guard at 6-8 and earned All-Big Ten honors this year. Coffey recently declared early for the NBA draft but could return to the U.

“He’s a great player and played at a high level,” Ihnen said. “Hopefully, I’ll be that kind of player.”

Ihnen, 18, might need time to develop. Demir, however, has played three years in college. He was persuaded to join the Gophers to potentially fill Jordan Murphy’s role as the starting power forward next season.

In June, Demir and Ihnen will move into their new digs in Minnesota for summer school. Demir will fly back to Philadelphia to graduate at Drexel on June 13. His parents will make the trip from Turkey to see that (his father works for Turkish Airlines), and then come to the Twin Cities once before going back overseas.

Demir and Ihnen both came a long way to pursue their college basketball dreams. For one of them that journey is just beginning; for the other this is the final chapter.

“To be honest, I didn’t expect this many schools to reach out to me,” said Demir, who received interest from all six major conferences. “It was overwhelming. For myself and for my game now, I’m ready to take another step.”

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