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From Barreiro to Boston: Neemias Queta’s journey as Portugal’s first NBA player

The two-way center has excelled in his limited preseason minutes with the Celtics.

NBA: Preseason-Boston Celtics at New York Knicks Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Ten-year-old Neemias Queta tagged along to his older sister’s basketball tryouts in Barreiro, Portugal, when Barreirense Basket, the city’s professional basketball team, spotted the unusually tall kid hanging out at the gym. The pro team was practicing on the other side of the court when they recruited the Queta — who, like most classmates, grew up primarily interested in soccer — to join their workout.

That moment marked an important turning point in Portugal’s basketball history. Queta had a surprising amount of fun playing this new sport with the adults, and by the time he was a teenager, became an elite prospect.

About a decade later, Neemias Queta was drafted by the Sacramento Kings with the 39th overall pick, becoming Portugal’s first-ever NBA player, a distinction that has made him hugely popular in his home country.

Queta now enters his third season in the league, and while he only saw the court for 20 games throughout his two years in Sacramento, he excelled in the G League, coming second in MVP voting last season. This summer, he signed a standard contract with the Kings, but was waived just a few weeks after, when the Kings signed Javale McGee. The Celtics picked Queta up soon after.

“It’s always tough when those situations happen, but I’ve always had a good support system with my family, my friends,” Queta said. “It didn’t really take much time before Boston called up, and I picked up my phone and knew I was in a good situation from that point on.”

In his first two preseason games, Queta has shown flashes of athleticism and a high motor that has turned heads, albeit in limited bursts. He’s not expected to crack the rotation, but Celtics have developed other young prospects, like Sam Hauser and Luke Kornet, into valuable bench pieces.

Could Queta be next?

Coming into his own at Utah State

Queta spent three seasons at Utah State before beginning his professional career, where he averaged 13.2 points and 9 rebounds per game. There, joining the team as a raw but intriguing prospect, he impressed teammates and coaches with his work ethic, including then-assistant coach Eric Peterson, who recruited Queta from overseas.

“Some kids you coach, you have to say, ‘Hey, let’s get in the gym’ or ‘hey, do you want to get in the gym today?’,” Peterson said. “Nemi was just constantly, ‘Coach, you got film for me?’ ‘Coach, can we shoot this morning at 7 am?’”

Defensively, the seven-footer thrived at Utah State. In his junior season, he was one of four finalists for the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year award, and ranked third nationally in blocks per game.

Marco Anthony, one of his college teammates, told me that playing with the Queta in the frontcourt elevated the type of pressure he was able to apply on elite guards he was matched up against.

“Our defense was basically sending them to the rim because he’s gonna block, or he’s gonna alter, every shot,” Anthony said.

Queta was drawn to Utah State in part to a roster already boasted one Portuguese player, Diogo Brito. Brito helped make the transition to the US a little bit easier; the two often spoke in Portuguese and became close friends. And in time, Queta grew increasingly comfortable and vocal.

“He’s an unbelievable human being, a tremendous leader,” Peterson said. “I couldn’t be more proud of him.”

Anthony, who said Queta remains one of his closest friends, chuckled when asked to describe him.

“He is just a funny dude, like he is a loud, funny dude. I don’t know if he’s showcased a little bit of that [with the Celtics] or if he still needs to break out of his shell a little bit, but he is hilarious.”

Transitioning to the pros

Queta spent most of his two years with the Kings playing on their G League affiliate, the Stockton Kings. Last season, Queta came second in MVP voting, and was named to the G-League All-Star and All Defense teams. He averaged 17.7 points per game, 8.7 rebounds, 2.8 assists, and 2 blocks, while shooting 68% from the field.

Notably, Queta has significantly improved his free-throw shooting in recent years. When he first got to Utah State in 2018, he shot just 56.5% from the line. Four years later, Queta converted on 80.3% of free-throws in the G League, a remarkable leap that many seven-footers never make and a promising sign that the big man can reach his potential.

”I tell people he made himself a pro just by his work ethic,” Peterson said. “I was just there along the ride to kind of mentor him a little bit and just do the skill work with him.”

While Queta often served as a go-to scorer in college, he knows his role in the NBA is to do the little things.

“I’ve got to come in there and just play hard, get rebounds, go fight for loose balls, get my teammates open,” Queta said in December, while still a member of the Kings.

“It’s the intangibles. What got me here to the league is rebounding, setting good screens, being a force down in the paint.”

So far this preseason, Queta has played only 22 minutes. In that limited time, he’s scored 17 points on 7-of-9 shooting and grabbed 7 boards. Queta has shown flashes of athleticism and high energy, and a couple of highlight plays spurred fans to wonder if he could break the rotation.

After trading Robert Williams to Portland earlier this month, the Celtics could certainly use the additional frontcourt depth and that x-factor element that Williams provided. Al Horford, Kristaps Porzingis, and Luke Kornet are the only other big men on the roster at the moment.

He’ll have to stay out of foul trouble, something that has been his Achilles heel in the NBA. In his preseason debut, he picked up five quick fouls in just 14 minutes of play.

“I feel like I can contribute on both ends of the floor — being big, being active on the glass, just trying to make plays for the team,” Queta said. “It’s always good to dunk, get a good offensive rebound, and make energy plays. I feel like that’s what I’ll be able to thrive on. I just want to lean into that and be more consistent with those kinds of things.”

Representing Portugal as a Boston Celtic

Neemias Queta is not a household name in the US, though his early preseason performances have raised some eyebrows in the Celtics world.

But in his home country, everyone knows Queta.

“I didn’t know how big he was in Portugal until the year after he declared for the draft and they had paintings of him all around Portugal,” Anthony said. “He’s pretty big-time, but you’d never guess it with how he carries himself.”

No matter what jersey he dons, the Portuguese basketball world tunes in to support.

“It’s always good to be representing the country you grew up in,” Queta said. “You’ve got so many people looking up to you. At the same time, it’s even a bigger responsibility in terms of what I’m representing, and how much they believe in me.”

Now, with another opportunity in Boston, Queta has a chance to make them proud. So far, Joe Mazzulla has liked what he’s seen and the Celtics head coach expects Queta to see additional floor time over the final two preseason games.

“He’s earned minutes, he’s earned opportunities,” Mazzulla said after Saturday’s practice. “He’s done everything we’ve asked him to do. He’s come in every day and has worked, and I really liked how he’s gotten better and better each time he’s been on the floor.”

On the Celtics, Queta will have the opportunity to pick the brains of elite big men like Horford and Porzingis: “I want to be able to learn from them and kind of be like them,” he said.

Most importantly, Boston gives him another chance to make it in the league, an opportunity he is not taking for granted.

“I feel very wanted over here,” Queta said. “So, I’m really excited to be able to showcase what I can do on both ends of the floor.”

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