Through fire and flames: Tyson Etienne’s winding journey has him poised to be a breakout star

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Through fire and flames: Tyson Etienne’s winding journey has him poised to be a breakout star

Freshman guard Tyson Etienne poses for a picture during media day Oct. 15 inside Charles Koch Arena.

Freshman guard Tyson Etienne poses for a picture during media day Oct. 15 inside Charles Koch Arena.

Khánh Nguyễn

Freshman guard Tyson Etienne poses for a picture during media day Oct. 15 inside Charles Koch Arena.

Khánh Nguyễn

Khánh Nguyễn

Freshman guard Tyson Etienne poses for a picture during media day Oct. 15 inside Charles Koch Arena.

Basketball goes into limbo from late June until the end of October, and not just at the professional level. Basketball in America comes to a halt during that time — or at least that’s what people think.

Portland Trail Blazers’ superstar CJ McCollum dribbled up the court in late August. He’s in a Twitter-famous Manhattan gym as part of NBA trainer Chris Brickley’s Black Ops open gym runs.

Cross, dribble, cross.

McCollum had the ball on the string. He took one step back and rose over the 6-1 player in front of him.

Swish.

Tyson Etienne isn’t a household name across the country — not yet, at least. He’s a Wichita State freshman who hasn’t played a minute of collegiate basketball. Yet, he still got the opportunity to run with the best in the world. Most importantly, he was able to prove that he belonged.

He wouldn’t let McCollum’s bucket stop him in his tracks. He doesn’t let anything stop him — not the death of his best friend, family hardships, or the constant travel that pulled him away from that family. He kept pushing.

A few possessions later, McCollum had the ball again. Etienne stepped forward. The superstar backed the freshman down into the paint and turned around with a fadeaway shot.

 Swish.

 “Sometimes in basketball, great offense trumps tight defense,” Etienne said. “You can’t let any bucket get to you. You can’t let anything get to you. I mean, basketball is a game. This game, it’s all about the life experiences it teaches you.”

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Growing up, Etienne went through hell.

In eighth grade, he developed the closest bond of his young life with Armoni Sexton.

Etienne and Sexton met at school, the Paterson Charter School for Science and Technology. The two quickly bonded over basketball.

“We definitely created a bond together, and he was the closest I have ever gotten with a teammate in my life,” Etienne said. “He’s the best young player I’ve seen. That man was a one-and-done type player, and I’m referencing that when he was an eighth grader.”

Sexton was a menace. In eighth grade, he was playing on his high school varsity team, averaging 16.3 points and eight rebounds per game. Sexton was so talented that his head coach was pushing him to transfer to either Oak Hill in Virginia or Montverde Academy in Florida. He was already a nationally ranked prospect.

But Sexton wouldn’t budge. He wasn’t going to leave New Jersey. Then, on Saturday, April 18, 2015, everything changed.

Sexton was with a group of friends, walking home to make their 9 p.m. curfew. At 8:40, Sexton and his friends got caught in the line of fire of a drive-by shooting. Four people were shot, including the prospect.

By Sunday morning, Sexton had been pronounced dead at the hospital. The other three, two males and one female, all survived.

“Still to this day, I’m just like, ‘Why him?’” Etienne said.

Sexton’s death took a monumental toll on Etienne, and it was compounded by other hardships.

The freshman has had to leave his support system multiple times in order to chase his dreams of playing basketball for as long as he can. Etienne ended up going to four different high schools, which included a post-graduate year.

“I had to go all over the East Coast to play basketball. I’ve had to leave my friends. I’ve had to leave my family,” Etienne said. “I have had family issues, lost multiple friends — it’s been a hard road.

“There’s been a lot of days where I didn’t think I was going to make it.”

But no matter what, the death of his friend still lingered. After losing Sexton, Etienee considered giving up the game. He said he just kept thinking to himself:

Why him? What’s the point anymore?

But a switch soon flipped for him.

“All the sudden, it just clicked for me,” Etienne said. “It was like he got his life taken away from him and I’m fortunate enough to wake up every day, and why not do it for him? Why not work just a little bit harder? As I started to work, I started to find my love for the game — true love for the game.

“I found the true passion I once had when I was little, and from that moment, I just looked at life very different and just not taking anything for granted.”

Today, the guard credits these hardships to his drive to succeed in the game.

“I definitely do it to honor my friend, definitely for my family, and I believe I was called to do something special in this world, and basketball is the vehicle that takes me to it,” Etienne said. “It’s much bigger than me, but I love the game of basketball. That’s why I do it.”

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Etienne wasn’t just in Manhattan for late August. He was actually there for a majority of the summer. Over several months, the young star showed out in front of Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell, Orlando Magic center Mohammed Bamba, Suns guard Kelly Oubre, and free agents J.R. Smith and Carmelo Anthony.

Renowned hip-hop artist J-Cole was also in attendance.

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Tyson Etienne at media day.

The opportunity for Etienne to participate in these runs arose from his EYBL summer teammate Cole Anthony. Anthony, now a point guard for North Carolina, was the No. 2 high school prospect in the country, according to ESPN, and is the son of former 11-year NBA veteran Greg Anthony.

Anthony is a projected top-five pick in the 2020 NBA draft, too.

Through his father, and natural talent, Anthony started to make professional connections and even got the opportunity to receive one-on-one work from the famed Brickley. Then, Anthony gifted his former PSA Cardinal teammate with the opportunity of his life.

“We just kind of know the same people,” Etienne said. “Cole (Anthony), he’s my boy. I was able to go to a couple of workouts with him, and from that, me and Chris (Brickley) formed a relationship. That’s how I was invited to play in his NBA runs.”

Over the course of a few weeks, Etienne got in a flow. Corner three? Bucket. Dribble pull-up? Bucket. Screen and pop? Bucket.

He was proving he belonged, and he knew it.

“It was a boost because I saw in my game that I belonged,” Etienne said. “I belonged and hung around with those guys, and just to play with them and learn from them was mind-blowing.”

Etienne had another major takeaway from New York. It was the mental aspect of the game he holds closest to his heart.

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Etienne has used his support system and faith to get him through the trials and tribulations of life.

He’s a devout Christian. As a kid, he recalls his mother’s faith to be the building block for his day. It never mattered what he was going through — his mother was always there to point her son’s head towards the heavens.

“Growing up, my mom had always demonstrated faith. We may have not gone to church every single Sunday, but God and faith was daily in our house,” Etienne said. “I’ve gone through a lot of storms — a lot of times I didn’t know if I would make it through. My mom’s faith was a good building block.

“And God, He never left me alone.”

The guard also credits his religion with keeping him on track to pursue basketball after Sexton’s death.

“Everything is a blessing because you’re building yourself, you know — you’re growing, you’re getting better,” Etienne said. “[Sexton’s] death took a toll on me and made an impact on me, but as far as I go in this game and the thing that God wants me to accomplish in this game, I do it partly to honor him.

“And because he’s not here anymore, that doesn’t mean his legacy died. His legacy will live forever.”

Now that he’s a college athlete, Etienne said he knows making it to church every Sunday could be difficult. That’s why he’s turned to prayer and meditation to help fill that void and satisfy his spiritual needs.

Etienne said he has a strict schedule for his day. A day without early morning workouts still starts at 6 a.m. for the freshman. In the offseason, before official practice kicked off in late September, Etienne was usually at the gym before the usual 6 a.m. start time.

On top of his workouts, he meditates three times per day. Sessions mostly revolve around prayer and relaxation.

“It’s taking care of my mind and needs,” Etienne said. “I meditate a lot.”

Since he’s arrived in Wichita, after practices he likes to unwind and relax with a book or other reading materials in his hands to help stimulate his brain. Another form of relaxation and emotional expression he mentioned is photography.

“If I was back home, something that helps me free my mind is, I like to take pictures. I use photography as a hobby,” Etienne said. “I just like to analyze different situations in the city that are unique, and I may interrupt it in a different way so I try to capture it. Just different things — I’m much more than a basketball player. It’s just, basketball is what I want to do.”

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Etienne has taken to heart feedback from professionals at the NBA run — most notably from Mitchell.

Mitchell, like Etienne, is an undersized two-guard. But his athletic attributes and relentless mentality have helped him reach new heights as the face of an NBA franchise. He also become an NBA slam dunk champion and was runner-up for the league’s Rookie of the Year award. He’s also someone who sees a bright future in the young Etienne.

Their conversation went a long way for Etienne. Mitchell told him he saw similarities between their games. He gave Etienne insights to take back to Wichita and work on his game on a whole new level.

“He gave me insight to his own tactical and his own strategic ways on how he made the jump from college to the NBA in two years,” Etienne said. “We talked a lot about breaking down film and learning to study opponents and learning to study body placement — body geography, as Coach (Gregg Marshall) calls it on the court. It was just great learning from him.”

Etienne said his conversations with Mitchell were validating.

“It’s kind of like, well you’re a freshman kid, you’re just focused on playing in college. Donovan Mitchell is a star,” Etienne said. “It’s more validation. You always need self confidence — you need to believe in yourself.

“But you can’t see that you actually belong until you’re actually put in that situation, and I was just truly humbled and grateful that he saw something in me.”

The Jazz superstar wasn’t the only professional who gave Etienne tips and tricks. Brooklyn Nets guard and NBA champion Kyrie Irving worked with him after the open gym, specifically on keeping the ball on certain parts of the hand for ball handling and putting a spin on the ball off of the backboard for circus-type layups.

McCollum too said he saw himself in Etienne’s game.

“I was just blessed and humbled, and it tells me that even though they see that in me, I still have a lot of work to do in order to get to that level,” Etienne said.

Marshall Sunner
Wichita State freshman Tyson Etienne passes the ball during the Black and Yellow Scrimmage on Saturday inside Charles Koch Arena.

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Not a moment goes by during the day that Etienne isn’t thinking about the game of basketball, he said. It’s in his blood. For him, it’s not just about playing the game — it’s about studying it.

When Etienne is in the basketball facility, he’s asking for film. In between classes, you can find him around campus on YouTube or other video-streaming websites watching NBA film to decipher moves and incorporate them into his own game.

His favorite athlete of all time is Kobe Bryant. His favorite current player is Daminan Lillard, another undersized, underrated guard.

Earlier in the offseason, the freshman strolled into the film office looking for film on two Shocker greats: Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker. But it’s not just highlights — he wanted montages of VanVleet’s ability to use ball screens at a smaller size, and Baker’s tenacity on the defensive end of the floor.

“When it comes to studying the game, I want to learn from the best,” Etienne said. “Fred (VanVleet) and Ron (Baker) were the best. I wanted to see what those guys did — how they moved on the court. What were the shortcuts they took? What were the things they did to thrive and eventually make it to the next level?”

Etienne sees an endgame with these efforts. He said passionately that he wants to continually learn about the game so that one day, “God-willingly,” he can make it to the next level.

Etienne knows it’s not just constant film work that will help him in his professional quest. It’s the physical work, too. But he knows the mental aspect will ultimately elevate his game. That’s the most satisfying part, he said.

“For me, the physical work — I don’t want to say it’s easy, but for me, what I really wanted to do is just get into my mind,” Etienne said. “I simply want to be able to be the smartest player on the court.”

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New York City brings individual opportunities to millions of people. Etienne got his shot with Brickley.

He didn’t just participate in the runs. He also got one-on-one work with the Puma-sponsored trainer, which mainly focused on creating shots off of the bounce. He knows his strengths, one being his ability to catch and shoot off of a pass. Now, he’s focused on creating an all-around game that’s physically imposing on his opponents.

“Before I came down here, they had a lot of workouts, and I just wanted to start working off of the dribble, because I’ve always been a pretty good catch and shoot player,” Etienne said. “I wanted to really create my own shot off of the bounce, and as I came to school and started doing our hour workouts with Coach Marshall, I really started learning the concepts.”

Brickley’s information would transfer over for Etienne, and he has continued to put those skills to action back in Wichita. When given a break from active duty for the Shockers, Etienne flew back and participated in more runs and training in New York.

“When I got out there and played in the NBA runs, I saw the work we had put in during the summer,” Etienne said. “I saw it come out, and I just wanted to play. It didn’t matter if I didn’t score — I just wanted to play and compete against the best.”

And he did compete against the best. But most importantly, he learned from the best.

Marshall Sunner
Freshman guard Tyson Etinnee goes up for a reverse layup during the Black and Yellow Scrimmage on Saturday inside Charles Koch Arena.

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Everyone’s writes their own life story through the decisions they make. At 20 years old, Etienne has been tested with fire, but he maintains that one of the hardest things to cope with on the basketball court is doubt.

It’s in Etienne’s blood to play basketball. It’s also in his blood to be a star — his mother was an Emmy-nominated makeup artist and his father played college ball for Maryland from 1988-1990. He’s also the nephew of 17-year former NBA player Marcus Camby and award-winning actor Omari Hardwick. Not to mention that Nets center DeAndre Jordan is his cousin.

But Etienne isn’t necessarily like the rest of his family. He’s a rather quiet kid who’s on a mission — a mission to reach the highest level that any basketball player can. The doubt, mixed with his humble personality, is what led him to WSU.

“You just go for fit,” Etienne said. “If you look at Wichita State’s lineage, and look at history over the last 10 years, they’ve had like seven NBA players in the past 10 years. Those numbers outweigh those other schools.”

The guard also credits Marshall’s development as one of his main reasons for committing to the program.

Etienne had other offers from Oklahoma, Auburn, Illinois, Minnesoata, Seton Hall, and the defending national champions, the Virginia Cavaliers.

But Etienne is drawn to honesty. And Marshall’s bluntness drew him in even farther. Etienne admitted that no matter where Marshall was — a different state, country, or planet — he’d follow him there.

“It didn’t matter if I had to go to Alaska — I wanted to play for someone who was going to get me better, and he was going to prepare me for the next level,” Etienne said. “People may say he yells a lot, or gets super intense, but that’s passion.

“Most importantly, that’s love.”

Etienne continued pledging his allegiance to the Shockers’ skipper, saying he only recruits players that he “sees something in.” When Etienne came on his official visit to Wichita last school year, he wanted Marshall to be blatantly honest with him. He admitted that he asked the “hard questions.”

What do you see in my game? Where do you think I can go in this game?

According to the freshman, Marshall responded honestly.

You have potential, but there’s work to do.

Etienne was satisfied. On Nov. 13, 2018, he committed to the Shockers.

Now, Etienne is days away from his first official collegiate basketball game, and he’s fully committed to the team. Marshall expects him to come in right away and fight for minutes and make an immediate impact. For his part, Etienne said he wants to help the team any way he can.

“Whatever coach needs me to do, I’ll do it,” Etienne said. “If it’s grabbing the ball and running in transition, I’ll do it. If it’s stepping in and taking nine charges, I’ll do it. If it’s nine threes a game, I’ll do it. It doesn’t matter to me. I want to win.”

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(1) Tyson Etienne.

Etienne has high expectations for this year’s team. He understands the program’s NCAA Tournament history and said he sees no other outcome than a return to the big dance.

“We are a tournament team. And we are a deep tournament team,” Etienne said.

He also credits the team’s early cohesiveness as a boost towards success for the upcoming season. Etienne claimed he is gelling well with his new teammates, all while learning quality information and strategic ways to learn the game from the veterans and coaching staff.

“It’s good to build that camaraderie, because when you get out on that floor, it’s a war,” he said. “The other team doesn’t like you. And we don’t like the other team, so you got to be able to fight with your brothers and build those relationships before you step out in the court.”

Whatever adversity comes Wichita State’s way this season, Etienne plans to ride a wave of positivity. He knows the game poses its fair share of struggles, but with his life experiences, one thing is for certain:

Nothing will stand in his way.

“I’m not the most physically attributed player, and I’m not the most naturally talented,” Etienne said. “I’ve been through it all — adversity isn’t going to knock me down. I truly believe if you’re disciplined enough and you sacrifice, put in the work, and be patient, then you can do anything that you put your mind to.”