Wael Arakji, a Decorated Champion and Business Owner in Lebanon, Gets First Taste of NBA in Las Vegas
LAS VEGAS -- The most decorated player at this year's NBA Summer League in Las Vegas isn’t Chris Boucher, Jordan Loyd or Malcolm Miller, each of whom was on the Toronto Raptors’ roster during the team’s first championship run this past season. Nor is it De’Andre Hunter, Ty Jerome or Kyle Guy, who together led Virginia to its first NCAA tournament title in the spring. That tag doesn’t even belong to Zion Williamson, who won three straight South Carolina state championships in high school and pretty much swept the individual awards as a freshman at Duke before his brief debut for the New Orleans Pelicans.
Instead, that crown belongs to none other than...Wael Arakji, a 6’4” guard who went undrafted out of Lebanon in 2016 and latched on with the Dallas Mavericks’ Summer League squad this year.
By his own count, Wael has won a total of 17 trophies during his seven seasons with Al Riyadi, one of the top professional clubs in the Lebanese Basketball League. Ask him to name all 17, and he’ll list off his four Lebanese championships, five Al Hariri Basketball Championships, two Dubai International Basketball Championships, (that’s 11 so far, for those keeping score at home), one apiece from the FIBA Asia Championships Cup and WABA Champions Cup, one each of the Lebanese Cup and Super Cup (that’s 15), one from a friendly tournament he won with Al Riyadi and...
“The last one I can't remember,” Wael tells CloseUp360 after a Mavs practice at Summer League. “It's hard to remember because we play the same championships every single year. We've won the same championships over and over again.”
“If he was in Dallas playing with the Mavericks,” Tony Ronzone, the Mavs’ longtime director of player personnel, tells CloseUp360, “we'd probably have a statue for him.”
How is it, then, that someone known as the “Lebanese Goran Dragic” is only now getting his first taste of the NBA?
Wael Arakji joined the Mavericks in Las Vegas Summer League as a 17-time champion during his seven pro seasons in Lebanon. (Amir Ebrahimi)
Like many countries in the Middle East, Lebanon loves soccer above all other sports. But in Tripoli, Wael was practically destined to hoop.
It helped that his parents were both managers at sports academies in the coastal city. When he was four years old, his mom, Zeina, enrolled him in the one where she worked.
It didn’t take long for Wael to find a fit on the basketball court.
“It was kind of natural, but when you start getting older, people have higher expectations for you,” he says. “This is why I have to work hard and not just let this natural thing come along. I had to work hard for it.”
As a lefty, Wael came to admire Goran and San Antonio Spurs legend (and fellow left-hander) Manu Ginobili. With his love of and dedication to the sport, he was able to not only emulate the wily style of play that led Goran and Manu to become All-Stars in the NBA, but also become the starting point guard on Lebanon’s national youth team.
In 2012, Wael made his first big splash when he helped Lebanon finish in seventh place at the FIBA Asia Under-18 Championship in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. There, the then-17-year-old caught the eye of Slobodan Subotic, a Montenegrin-born Slovenian coach who had recently been hired to guide Al Riyadi. Shortly thereafter, Wael signed his first professional contract with the basketball club, tipping off a run that would see him take part in those aforementioned 17 championships.
If there’s a place on Earth where a basketball has ever bounced, odds are, Tony Ronzone has been there. He has played in New Zealand, was the first American to coach the Chinese national team, won gold medals as an assistant coach with USA Basketball at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and the London Olympics in 2012, conducted clinics in more than 55 countries, and scouted players all over the world on behalf of the Detroit Pistons, Minnesota Timberwolves and Mavericks.
Tony’s travels have often taken him to the Middle East, be it to coach the national teams in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates or run clinics in Kuwait, Qatar and Lebanon. Along the way, he befriended two of the best Lebanese players ever: NBA big man Rony Seikaly and international legend Fadi El Khatib.
In 2015, Fadi returned from China to join Al Riyadi for his third stint with the Beirut-based club. The team went on to win the Lebanese Basketball League title that year, with Fadi, then 36, leading the way and Wael, at 20, showing promise as a future star.
That spring, Wael put his name into the NBA draft pool, but ultimately withdrew to return to lead Al Riyadi to another Lebanese championship. In 2016, he jumped back into the pool, but wasn’t selected.
Still, through visits of his own to the Middle East and conversations with Fadi, Tony kept tabs on Wael. He watched while Wael emerged as Lebanon’s brightest prospect since Fadi on the court, and saw the shifty guard’s profile grow off of it.
“They look up to him,” Tony says.
Last year, Wael took his talents overseas to play for Beijing Beikong. That made him just the fourth Lebanese player to set foot in the Chinese Basketball Association. The contract was short, but during that five-game stint, he shined averaging 16.6 points, 4.8 rebounds, 7.2 assists and 1.4 steals in nearly 35 minutes a night.
Mere months after returning from China, Wael tore his ACL during a playoff game in Lebanon. Al Riyadi would go on to win its third straight Lebanese Basketball League championship in 2018 without him, and a fourth straight this year with Wael back on the court.
That performance, along with Fadi’s continued support of his former mentee to Tony, earned Wael an invitation to a mini-camp in Dallas earlier this summer.
“I told him that, ‘If you play well, you’ll have an opportunity,’” Tony recalls. “We didn't think we were going to bring him in.”
But after watching Wael compete and reviewing their potential Summer League roster, the Mavs decided to save a spot in Sin City for their visitor from the Middle East.
“It's been an honor to be a part of the Dallas Mavericks’ Summer League team,” he says. “I'm enjoying the moment.”
Wael first tested the NBA draft waters in 2015, then re-entered the pool the following year. (Amir Ebrahimi)
On its own, being a basketball star in Lebanon isn’t nearly as lucrative as sitting on the end of the bench in the NBA. But for Wael, his victories with Al Riyadi and on the Lebanese national team have afforded him his fair share of spoils.
He is sponsored by Nike and Careem, the Uber of Lebanon. He has starred in commercials and other advertisements across the country. At 24, he’s already a two-time business owner in Beirut with a rehabilitation facility and gaming center, where he and others can get their fix of FIFA and Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG).
And, as a 17-time champion for Beirut’s biggest basketball club, Wael can’t walk for long through Lebanon’s capital city without being recognized.
“Beirut is very small, so like everybody knows everybody,” he says. “So I'm thankful that I'm kind of famous in Lebanon.”
In Las Vegas, Wael doesn’t have to worry much about fans accosting him, much less paparazzi chasing him. Through Dallas’ first four games, he scored nine points and logged two assists in 18 minutes across two appearances. He doesn’t mind not having to stop for pictures and autographs, but, well, “I want like this anonymous thing to turn at some point,” he says. “I want to prove myself and I want to show everybody what I can do.”
To be sure, Wael hasn’t lacked for an audience. Scores of fans back home have stayed awake through the wee hours of the morning to watch his games on television in Lebanon. For them, the 10-hour time difference is worth working around to see one of their own become the first Lebanese player to appear in the Las Vegas Summer League, and the first to compete in an NBA summer league of any sort since Fadi suited up for the Los Angeles Clippers in 2002.
“It's something nice to know that you have a fan base behind you trying to support me,” Wael says. “I'm just trying to put Lebanon on the map.”
For now, the most likely outcome for Wael appears to be a return to his home country, where he can continue to work on his game and add to his trophy collection, while building his businesses. He’ll share what he’s learned about basketball with his younger brother, Ramzi, who also likes to hoop, with an eye towards growing the game among Lebanon’s youth in the future.
“We don't have the facilities that the states have. We don't have the help and the importance that people give for young generations to get better,” Wael says. “We don't have this in Lebanon, so I had to do it on my own with a couple of close people.”
Wael is the first Lebanese player to ever compete at the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas. (Amir Ebrahimi)
Whenever Wael heads back home, he will do so with his own Mavs gear, an unforgettable basketball experience and a renewed hunger to bring Lebanon back to the NBA.
“You see you're close to your dream,” he says. “You're on court, everyone's watching. So, of course, it's like closer. But you need to grab a chance and just do the best you can to reach where you want to be.”
Josh Martin is the Editorial Director of CloseUp360. He previously covered the NBA for Bleacher Report and USA Today Sports Media Group, and has written for Yahoo! Sports and Complex. He is also the co-host of the Hollywood Hoops podcast. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.