It’s around a 12-mile drive from Long Island Lutheran’s campus in Brookville to NYCB Live’s Nassau Coliseum. On a good day, it’s doable in less than 20 minutes.
Ash Yacoubou’s journey took a bit longer.
About a decade after the former LuHi star first ran circles around opposition in gyms across the area, he now returns to LI to continue his basketball career in the NBA G-League with the Long Island Nets following a journey that took him across the country and around the globe.
“It's ironic how everything works,” Yacoubou said. “I always have to say everything happens for a reason and God works in mysterious ways.”
Yacoubou, 27, participated in a local tryout last month and earned his way onto the opening-night roster for the LI Nets, who begin their season on the road Saturday against the Fort Wayne Mad Ants before their home opener Monday against the College Park Skyhawks.
“On the defensive side of the ball, it stuck out to us that he could guard multiple positions,” said LI Nets head coach Shaun Fein. “He’s physical. We think he can guard on the ball, point guard, really the 1-through-4 positions.”
Yacoubou first came to the island as a sophomore in fall 2008 and slotted immediately into Lutheran’s starting lineup, winning the 2009 Federation Class A championship alongside current 76ers forward Tobias Harris. The Bronx native committed to Villanova soon after and added another Federation title to his resume as a senior in 2011, earning both New York’s Mr. Basketball and Gatorade Player of the Year awards. He also won Newsday’s Sandler Award for Nassau’s top boys basketball player in both 2010 and 2011.
At Villanova, things didn’t go quite as well. In two seasons with the Wildcats, Yacoubou averaged about a bucket a game, starting just three times before making the decision to transfer.
“I just felt it was the right move for me to transfer and go to another university. I felt like I was getting a better opportunity to play,” Yacoubou said.
During a tournament in his freshman season at Villanova, Yacoubou was introduced to the program at Saint Louis University, then led by the late Rick Majerus.
“We went into that tournament 4-0 and Saint Louis University basically upset us,” Yacoubou said. “They beat us and I remember [Villanova] coach Jay Wright was giving Rick Majerus high praise, saying he's a great coach. That next year, Saint Louis kept winning and they ended up being top 15 in the nation. I just saw it as an up-and-coming program.”
After sitting out a season due to transfer rules, Yacoubou once again was back in a featured role with the Billikens, starting 61-of-64 games over two seasons. In his final season, he averaged 11 points with 5.7 rebounds. But most importantly to Yacoubou, he earned his college degree.
“It was always important for me to get my degree because I'm the first person in my family to get to college, first generation,” said Yacoubou. “So, I always said to myself, no matter what I'm gonna get my college degree.”
Upon graduating, Yacoubou had a few tryouts with NBA teams, but nothing panned out. Over the next two seasons, he worked out with as many players as he could while making connections across the basketball world. He trained at the Impact Academy in Las Vegas and spent time working with former first-round pick and fellow Saint Louis product Larry Hughes.
Ahead of the 2018-19 season, Yacoubou was connected with an overseas agent, who found him an opportunity in Europe with Croatian club KK Škrljevo, where he averaged 11.9 points and 4.6 rebounds in 32 games.
“European basketball, their style of play, they're more tactical. They don't like the run-and-gun style of play. They like to slow it down and run through their sets,” Yacoubou said. “There's some really good players out there. It was good learning different ways of playing. Going there I just learned maturity. Learning not to always go fast but changing speeds and stuff like that. I picked up a lot and learned a lot overseas, and I'm learning a lot here as well.”
While he’s thankful for the opportunity to play in Croatia, Yacoubou was often frustrated with that slower style of play.
“Sometimes overseas when we're running a set, you could be open initially on a shot and they say, 'no, we don't want that first shot, run the play,' but then when the shot clock runs down, you might have to take a poor shot, but a couple possessions before it was open.”
That’s no longer an issue for Yacoubou now that he’s with the Nets organization.
“It's up-and-down, they like to shoot threes, attack the basket, play hard defense,” Yacoubou said of the organization’s philosophy. “And I feel like that fits my style of play, too. So I figured this is a good opportunity and I won't take it for granted.”
While getting back to his preferred style of play is a big bonus for Yacoubou, he’s happy to be back home playing in front of family. He splits his time between Long Island and the Bronx, and thanks to the LI Nets’ strong relationship with the NBA team, he’s learning as much as he can from watching the team at Barclays Center.
“I like to watch [Brooklyn] and see the plays that we're learning here implemented in the game, seeing each player in different positions and the timing of the movements and stuff like that. I like to learn the game. I like to watch the game. So seeing them play it also helps me as well,” Yacoubou said. “Seeing what Kyrie [Irving] does with the ball, the decision making that he does. You know Taurean Prince, Joe Harris, [Caris] LeVert, [Spencer] Dinwiddie, all those players, they're guards just like me, so I like to see what they do on the court and pick their brain.”
Yacoubou isn’t quite sure what his role will be with the LI Nets this year, and given the deluge of quality guards at Barclays Center, a cameo with Brooklyn seems highly unlikely in the near future. But getting to the next level remains an eventual goal.
“To be honest, my dream is always to play in the NBA, but I'm just focused on just winning games and getting better, and whatever happens, happens. I'm not even thinking about NBA right now. I'm just thinking about the season,” Yacoubou said. “NBA is a dream, but I'm just focused on just winning games and helping the team anyway that I can.”