(Editor's note: University of Providence press release)
HELSINKI, Finland – Former University of Providence men's basketball standout Zaccheus Darko-Kelly has signed a professional pro basketball contract with the Helsinki Seagulls in Finland, the team announced last Friday.
Darko-Kelly, a three-time All-American who helped lead the Argos to their first conference championship since 1983 last season, arrived to Helsinki on Thursday. Once his paperwork got cleared, he was allowed to play in the team's first regular season game on Saturday.
"When I arrived, they had already started practicing so I got to watch a little bit of a practice," Darko-Kelly said. "I practiced the next day while waiting to get cleared, and luckily I got cleared right at the deadline so I was able to play on Saturday."
Darko-Kelly recorded seven points, two rebounds, an assist and a steal in his professional debut, a loss against Kovout. He went 3-6 from the field, including 1-3 from beyond the arc in 16 minutes.
"I was basically just getting my feet wet," he said. "Every day I'm getting more and more comfortable. We have another game coming up so I'm interested to see how it goes."
The news of Darko-Kelly signing doesn't surprise any Frontier Conference basketball fans that have seen him play. The 6-foot-6 guard from Great Falls had a decorated collegiate career. Initially playing at Montana Western before transferring to Providence, Darko-Kelly was a three-time All-American, including being named a 1st Team All-American twice during his two seasons with the Argos.
He was named the Frontier Conference Player of the Year in both his seasons at UP, and led the team to their first Frontier Conference Championship since 1983. During his junior season, he became the first player in NAIA history to win three straight NAIA National Player of the Week Honors, averaging 30.8 points, 10.7 rebounds and 7.7 assists during that span. He was a finalist for the Bevo Francis Award as a junior, given annually to the top small college collegiate basketball player. If his senior season wasn't shortened due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Darko-Kelly likely would have eclipsed the 2,000 point mark in his career. He finished at 1,881.
That kind of career garnered the attention of lot of eyeballs. After Darko-Kelly signed an agent, he received immediate professional interest. Before the NBA Draft occurred on July 31, Darko-Kelly had workouts with six NBA teams, including the Denver Nuggets and the Golden State Warriors.
He didn't get his name called during the draft, but was extended an offer to play in the NBA Summer League by the Toronto Raptors, which he accepted. He didn't see the court in the first few games, but got more minutes towards the end of the tournament, playing 22 minutes in the team's final game against the Brooklyn Nets, where he had four points, two assists, two steals and a board.
"It was super surreal," Darko-Kelly said. "The 14 days that I was there with the team, I got to meet so many people. There were former players that are now coaches for them, players that are currently there that I got to meet. Just seeing random NBA players in the hotel, it was very surreal. I'm very grateful for that opportunity. It was a great experience."
His head coach with the Argos, Steve Keller, went out to Las Vegas to see him play against NBA competition.
"I've never coached a guy that had the NBA look at him," Keller said. "It was pretty amazing. He didn't look out of place. He looked like he belonged there."
Once the Summer League concluded, the process of finding a team ramped up. Darko-Kelly hung around the States for a bit, waiting to see if a spot for him would open up in the NBA G League or an invite to an NBA team's training camp. Once those spots filled up, he flew out to Germany for some tryouts with teams in the Basketball Bundesliga (BBL), the highest professional basketball league in Germany. He tried out for multiple teams in both Germany and France before ultimately signing with Helsinki.
For Darko-Kelly, the process wasn't as stressful as he initially anticipated. He credits being under recruited out of high school when asked about the mental toughness required to try to stand out during these tryouts.
"Obviously going from being the best player on your team to maybe not, it's difficult at first but then you realize that this is pretty much what every rookie goes through," Darko-Kelly said. "It's all a big learning process. You have to be able to get better every single day, consistently. Making that transition hasn't been that difficult because I always felt like I needed to prove myself in high school and college."
A lot has been thrown at Darko-Kelly since arriving at Helsinki, but his new coach and teammates have been extremely welcoming. He plans to lean on several of his older teammates, who have years under their belt internationally, as he continues to get acclimated to a completely new culture. One area that Darko-Kelly is struggling the most with however, is figuring out what to eat.
"The biggest problem I've had is the food," he said. "There's good food, but it's hard coming over here and food that you're used to eating over in America isn't even a thing over here. Being able to fill my diet in different ways has been challenging."
He also has noticed the difference in competition.
"One thing I've noticed since I've been over here is just how detailed offensive schemes and defensive schemes are," he said. "It's a lot more fast-paced in terms of offensive flow. Players are better obviously, it's harder to score. In terms of that it's been an adjustment. I think I've been adjusting well, it's just going to take some time to get fully acclimated."
Since he announced he wasn't going to return to Providence and play professionally, Darko-Kelly has felt a lot of love from his friends and family back home.
"People are constantly hitting me up," Darko-Kelly said. "When they announced that I had signed over here I had so many people reach out to me from Montana. Friends, family, former teammates, coaches. It's been great. It makes me really proud to be from Montana because you can really tell that they care about their people."
"I've always been proud of him," Keller said. "He started where he wasn't recruited and he showed everybody that he should have been recruited. I'm proud of the person he's become. He's not only a good athlete and basketball player but he's a good person too. That's what most important."
For now, the Darko-Kelly has one goal: help his team win a league championship.
"I think we're capable of winning the league," he said. "It's early to tell, but that's my goal coming here. I want to do whatever I can to help make that happen. I want to be the best teammate and player I can be for the team. Individually I want to learn as much as I can. I want to get better every day. Everyone I've been around on the organization and team, they speak basketball. That's all that really matters."