Let’s start with the hair. That’s where everyone else does.
For Jeremy Sochan, it comes in many different hues. In a bleached blonde, in blue and sometimes in pink.
When he interviewed with the Celtics last month at the NBA Draft Combine, a Boston executive led the session by asking him why he hadn’t dyed it green.
The hair has become an identifying trait for him. Sochan was conspicuous during his one year at Baylor, a vibrant force on the court who could not be ignored. There is no shortage of irony to this. Sochan is a chameleon in some ways. His look is loud, but his game allows him to fit in seamlessly wherever he goes. He is a 6-foot-9 jack of all trades who can shape-shift on defense. That’s part of his appeal in the upcoming draft, where his blend of savvy and defensive versatility are likely to make him a lottery pick, and perhaps a high one at that.
But it’s his story, too. The hair leads to inferences that don’t apply. John Jakus, a Baylor assistant coach, said he got questions about whether the hair was some kind of Dennis Rodman-like flair from Sochan; he assures those asking that they’re overthinking it.
“A lot of people might get wrapped up in the hair, but if you get to know him, there’s this larger expression of art and culture and fashion that’s important to him,” Jakus said. “Long-term, as he gets deeper into his career and the money comes, people will discover it’s much deeper than the hair color.”
It is just a piece of his identity, one he has already put thought and care into. One that bridges cultures and countries, that mixes European grit with American flexibility. Sochan is unique, with a personality as different as his game.
He was born to an American father and a Polish mother, who met at a Division II school in Oklahoma, and grew up in the United Kingdom. He lived in Milton Keynes, a mid-sized city northwest of London, until he was 15, with his mom, Aneta, and stepfather, Wiktor Lipiecki, and spent his summers in Poland. As a teenager, he played high-school ball at an academy in Southampton, a prep school in Indiana, and then when the pandemic started, he decamped for a basketball program in Germany associated with Ratiopharm Ulm.
Sochan is a fit for the modern NBA, in which teams value adaptability and players are now multi-hyphenates. He emulates his game after Draymond Green, and favors Salvador Dalí and surrealism.
He has come up with a handy answer whenever he’s questioned about his background. It is just one of many lessons his mother has doled out. If someone asks where he’s from, he cites the response she taught him: “I’m a citizen of the world.”
“He’s the kind of guy who can live in Tibet for six months,” Jakus said. “And then turn around and live in Croatia on a lake with his family for six months.”
When Sochan traded all that in to go to Waco, he sprouted into a full-fledged NBA prospect.
At Baylor, he was a do-it-all and defensively dexterous. Jakus pointed to Sochan’s moonlighting at center as the reason Baylor beat eventual champion Kansas in February, and then complimented his passing skills.
Bill Peterson, another Baylor assistant, cited a slew of NBA comps that run the gamut, from Green to Aaron Gordon. “Maybe even a young Boris Diaw,” Peterson added.
Sochan’s family, Jakus said, was insistent he wasn’t a center. Sochan doesn’t even list a spot for himself.
“I don’t put one position in my name,” he said. “Because I feel like I can do everything that a point guard can do and everything that a center can do on offense, but also on defense.”
Sochan’s game is an outgrowth of his first coach, Aneta. She was a pass-first point guard who left Poland for a junior college in Missouri before she landed at Panhandle State. She met Sochan’s father, also a basketball player, there, but he flittered out of his son’s life by the time he was seven, Sochan said, and died in 2017. Aneta moved to the UK when Sochan was a toddler and connected with Wiktor.
They didn’t push Sochan into basketball but created space for him to search it out. They let him go to sleep early so he could wake up in the middle of the night to watch NBA playoff games. He was a soccer goalkeeper but landed on the court.
Aneta started coaching Sochan when he was about 11. She let him have fun, but she was strict, and she kept boundaries. During practice, he was only allowed to call her “Coach.” If he called her “Mom,” he was penalized with push-ups and forced to run. Still, he remembers this fondly.
Sochan’s coaches at Baylor point to Aneta as his largest influence; Sochan plays like her most of all. He embraces that, too, and it’s why even at his height, he also has a point guard’s mentality.
Aneta said she tried to pass on a few key points to her son: the feel for the game, the passion for it and the love of teamwork.
“Although we’ve seen potential in him, he never was put on, like, a pedestal, but he was always a part of the team,” she said. “I think you can see this. Sometimes I reflect on it and I would say, ‘Oh, gosh, I wish I could put him more where he could be selfish.’ But I think that’s what he says and he recognized as well. So that awareness, I play as a point guard, so I always kind of empower him to see the vision, the intelligence, IQ.”
“There’s one thing that you’re missing,” Wiktor chimed in when she was done. And Aneta knew what was coming.
“The joy in shutting people down,” he emphasized.
A love of defense might just be the family’s ethos. Aneta was taught it by her coaches and wanted to pass it down. She wouldn’t let Sochan stay up late to watch many NBA games, but Wiktor would sometimes, and he mentioned the mid-2000s Pistons and Ben Wallace as among his favorite teams.
Aneta ingrained in Sochan that defense comes first. He hears her voice to this day. He uses it to ease into every other part of the game.
It has become his calling card. His jumper needs work — he was a 30 percent 3-point shooter in college and shot 59 percent from the free throw line — and there are concerns about how he could impact spacing. But his defense is so transcendent that it erases most doubts about him.
Sochan is a volume defender. He guards any position and can go from hounding the ball at the point of attack to causing trouble in the paint. Baylor would throw him in at center to jumble opposing offenses, and he allowed just 0.67 points per possession when caught in isolation, which is in the 72nd percentile, according to Synergy. Sochan has the ballhandling skills to lead the break after turnovers and the distribution skills to make the right decisions in transition.
He models his game after players of a similar sort. He finds pieces in Green, Gordon, Mikal Bridges, Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo to pick from and integrate into his own.
Green, perhaps most of all, seems to be a kindred spirit. Sochan values his willingness to fill a role as an energizer and a defender. And as a nuisance. Being a plague can be a virtue.
“I want to annoy you,” Sochan said. “I want to get under your skin. Be that type of guy. He’s vocal, very vocal.”
It’s a fine line, Sochan admitted, but it’s a way to draw an advantage. He likes to needle opponents. He enjoys trash-talking a little and getting into their airspace. He likes to seek out the toughest assignments and challenge himself.
He bristles when he thinks his own team isn’t playing how it should. This past season, he grew frustrated at his teammates during a practice when the ball stopped moving and they stopped passing. He walked over to Peterson and told him they were not playing right, exhorting him to keep making one more pass.
At Baylor, they preach the 95 percent rule — that no matter how long someone is on the court, he’ll only have the ball 5 percent of the time. Coaches track what players do without the ball; they monitor it and break it down into 15 categories, from taking charges to setting screens. Sochan was among the best on the team.
“The more we talked about it, the more Jeremy grew into it,” Peterson said. “That comes from his foundation. That came from his mother, what she put in his belief system when he was young. So here’s mom talking to him as a young kid about being a point guard and moving the ball and doing the little things to win.”
Sochan knows that when he gets to the NBA, at least initially, he won’t come in with a huge offensive role, no matter how high he’s drafted. He has prepared himself for that.
At 18, he’s one of the youngest players in the draft, but he already has a grasp on introspection.
He is adept at the skills that could make that transition smoother — the desire to defend and to pass, the ability to play inside the 3-point line and to slide up and down a lineup. When he talks about NBA teams with his former coaches, he doesn’t just hang on the stars; he name drops Bobby Portis and Grayson Allen with the Bucks and Bruce Brown with the Nets. He has already had to assimilate into a veteran team; last year he became the youngest player ever on the Polish national team at just 17.
“I think self-awareness is important,” he said. “And just being realistic. I’m going to be a rookie, I’m going to go to the team (that) has some established players already in that organization and coaches. You really have to mold into that organization in a right way, in a positive way. And that’s just being a sponge. And I think as time goes, people will know and understand that I can be that guy. I can be that main guy. So it’s just a matter of time.”
What Sochan is now is not indicative of what he can become. Jakus, the Baylor assistant, warns against categorizing Sochan into any one archetype.
He believes a team with creativity could open up Sochan and unlock his potential. Baylor did not have time to do that in the one year he spent there; that is the limitation of college basketball with one and done. Jakus thinks Sochan can grow into a Diaw-type, who can create offense from the elbow, or follow Pascal Siakam’s trajectory from New Mexico State.
“That’s what the NBA is becoming: a bunch of people that you don’t need to pigeonhole anymore,” he said. “As long as you can switch and guard one through five, you’ll figure out the offense. Jeremy’s an elite switcher, a fantastic defensive player. He provides vertical contests, rim protection, but he also has an ability to guard a point guard. Because of his defensive versatility, as long as the shot comes along offensively, it’s going to be fun for him to discover. It’ll come down to who he plays with, you know?”
This spring, after the Baylor season ended, Sochan went back to England. One day, he and a few friends bought tickets to Barcelona and rented an AirBnb. In Spain, he visited the Sagrada Familia and an art museum. He tried paella.
He has been interested in art since he took a course while attending an international school in Germany. He tried his hand at a few pieces — “I wasn’t great.” — but it stuck. His schedule, littered with trips to tournaments and different countries, allowed him to explore and to seek out new experiences.
That permeates every aspect of his life. He sometimes acts on a whim and other choices are pre-determined. He shaved his head for the first time last season while on the team plane on a trip to Kansas State. He sensed his team had hit a rough stretch and needed an emotional boost. When a teammate dared him to lose the hair, he did. When he dyed it blue and yellow in March, he did so as a sign of solidarity with Ukraine.
His coaches and parents prod to ask about his fashion sense, though no one can quite define it. But his creativity shows itself most often in his tattoos. He wanted them at 15, but Aneta made him wait. He got his first two years later on a vacation in Croatia. He got the sun tattooed on his left thigh; Wiktor got a matching one on his arm.
Sochan uses the tattoos to relay messages to others and to himself. They are the outlet for self-expression he had been seeking. It’s his way of tying together the different strands of him in one place.
“That relates to my fashion, my kind of style; just like my basketball,” he said. “I think it all connects with everything.”
(Top photo: Ron Jenkins/Getty Images)