LAS VEGAS — Zaccheus Darko-Kelly flew into Las Vegas on Thursday night. He met and practiced with his new teammates on the Toronto Raptors Summer League team, went to sleep and practiced again the next morning.
After running through an afternoon physical with team medical personnel, the Great Falls native went back to his hotel room and finally had time to reflect.
“It really hasn’t sunk in yet,” he told MTN Sports on a Zoom interview Friday night. “I feel like the first game, the first time I step on the court, it’ll really hit me.”
The past few months have been a whirlwind for the two-time Frontier Conference Player of the Year. Following the end of his senior season with the University of Providence in March, his professional prospects picked up.
He participated in pre-draft workouts with the Cleveland Cavaliers, Golden State Warriors, Oklahoma City Thunder, Minnesota Timberwolves, Phoenix Suns and Denver Nuggets.
“It's surreal, like seeing guys you grew up watching and you step up onto the floor and they're like practicing and stuff like that,” Darko-Kelly said. “You meet coaches, and players and GM’s, it’s kind of crazy.”
Most times, Darko-Kelly was the only NAIA player in attendance. He’s the only small-school player on the Raptors Summer League roster, and he’s certainly one of the only players from Montana playing at this level.
“Most of these guys are Division I obviously, so there's a little bit more respect that has to be earned,” he said. “It’s definitely a whole different ball game from the NAIA. I’m not saying there isn't talent in the DNA, but in terms of size and athleticism, it's just completely different. So you definitely got to have that little bit of extra chip on your shoulder and got to be super hungry, super competitive if you want to survive.”
That last part shouldn’t be a problem for Darko-Kelly. His story is well documented at this point. He was a star for Missoula Sentinel in high school, but only received one college scholarship offer from coach Steve Keller at Montana Western.
After two years developing and improving with the Bulldogs, he followed Keller to the University of Providence in Great Falls and sat out a year due to transfer rules.
When he returned to the court for the Argos in 2019 - Darko-Kelly was bigger, stronger and faster than most everyone on the court. In addition to the measurables, his basketball IQ was off the charts which led to numerous triple doubles, countless accolades, and highlight reel plays.
As a junior, Darko Kelley averaged an absurd 22.5 points, 8.0 rebounds, 5.7 assists, 2.2 steals and 1.3 blocks per game and the Argos finished third in the Frontier Conference. His numbers dipped slightly as a senior, but that’s due to his selfless style of play. It paid dividends with a talented team that earned both the Frontier Conference regular season and tournament championships.
While Darko-Kelly starred at Providence, it’s hard for players at that level to break into the highest levels of professional basketball. But when you’re a 6 foot, 6 inch guard that shoots a high percentage from the field, scouts will notice. That potential is what earned him the NBA workouts, where he made the most of his opportunity.
“You hear about a lot of the guys you work out with and seeing them on TV is one thing, but once you step on the court I'm a confident player,” Darko-Kelly said. “So I believe that I could compete with them when I stepped out there. And as the workouts went on, I just felt like I got more confident and some of the feedback definitely let me know that I belong at this level.”
Though Darko-Kelly didn’t work out with the Raptors, he had developed a relationship with one of their scouts through his agent.
“So the scout that introduced me to my agent, he's kind of been in their ear going back to my junior season, telling them about me,” Darko-Kelly said. “Just discussing things with my agent as well. And I guess it was working, they decided to take a chance on me. So I'm just super grateful.”
It's the next step on an improbable basketball journey, but one he’s more than ready for.
“I want to prove myself. Not only showing the Raptors that I can compete and can play, but I'm possibly showing other teams that I can play at this level too. And like my agent says, it looks good on the resume too, just playing in the summer league,” Darko-Kelly said. “So whether or not I get that NBA offer after Summer League from a G-League team, it would be good for my overseas resume as well. So, I’m just trying to prove myself and just do whatever I can to contribute to a winning team.”
The Raptors beat the Knicks on Sunday 89-79, but Darko-Kelly did not get any playing time. Toronto's next game is Wednesday against the Golden State Warriors.
Darko-Kelly has been inundated with well-wishes and words of encouragement from friends, teammates, coaches and even complete strangers from all over. But he knows he wouldn’t be where he is today without the support from his home state.
“Definitely not. In Montana, sports are huge. So it's like a tight, super tight knit community when it comes to that type of thing,” he said. “So all the love, all the support I've gotten. It just makes me proud to be from Montana.”