Nisine 'Wooga' Poplar is the third player from either the Philadelphia Public or Catholic League to go to the University of Miami since 2013. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Mitchell Gladstone (@mpgladstone13)
Nisine Poplar doesn’t remember the day he flipped that proverbial switch.
For Math, Civics & Sciences head coach Lonnie Diggs, though, it’s a game he won’t soon forget.
“When [Nisine] was in 10th grade, we played at Lincoln,” Diggs recalled. “He was already playing pretty well for us through the first part of that season, probably 10 or 12 points a game, but in the first half of that game we were down 15 points and he was playing terribly.
“So at halftime, my coaching staff and I really dug into him — mainly about his effort. Then in the second half, he came out and scored 27 points [total] and we wound up winning the game pretty easily.”
That 93-79 victory was just one of the Mighty Elephants’ 23 that season — en route to a PIAA Class 2A state title — but it was the start of something so much bigger for Poplar, whose rapid ascent saw the three-star combo guard commit to Miami last month. Although the first-team Public League honoree didn’t play organized hoops until the 2018-19 season, athleticism and work ethic quickly shone through.
And that’s when the offers started rolling in.
“I didn’t even know of offers,” Poplar said, remembering when Mississippi Valley State gave him his first offer late in that sophomore season. “It was basically just like, ‘Oh, they want me to come play on their team.’ So that’s when it started coming constantly.”
More low- and mid-majors then started to show interest, with programs like La Salle, Old Dominion, St. Joe’s and VCU throwing their hat in the ring for Poplar.
Still, it took until last season for big-time programs to get in the mix. Virginia Tech was the first, and soon thereafter, more than a dozen power conference schools had hopes of reeling in the emerging talent.
But it was the Hurricanes and Jim Larrañaga that ultimately edged out Georgia and St. John’s for the Philadelphia native. And luring some of southeastern PA’s best to South Beach is something the 10th-year head coach has done often in recent years, collecting a pair of Catholic League standouts in Isaiah Wong and Ja’Quan Newton as well Reading’s Lonnie Walker IV.
“They stood out the most,” Poplar said. “They just did the little things that nobody else did. … They wanted me, and it was the best decision I could’ve made.”
Part of that involved putting together a clear plan for how Poplar can contribute to Miami right away. At 6-foot-4 and 180 pounds, the swingman will certainly need to add to his frame if he’s going to be able to mix it up in the ACC, but there’s no question he can score — Wooga, as he’s known to most, averaged 21.2 points per game to go along with 5.0 rebounds last season, showing off a steady jumper from deep to go along with a nose for the rim.
Last season, Miami went 15-16 and was on track to miss the NCAA tournament for a second straight year after trips in four of Larrañaga’s first seven seasons at the helm.
Although he’ll be at least one of three incoming freshman guards — the Hurricanes already have two other backcourt pieces verbally committed for the Class of 2021 in Jakai Robinson of Maryland’s National Christian Academy and Bensley Joseph of Connecticut’s Putnam Science Academy — Miami could graduate as many as seven after this season, including starting guards Chris Lykes and Kameron McGusty.
The opportunity for Poplar’s progression to simply continue should be there, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if the lanky wing made it hard for Larrañaga to keep him on the bench, even as a freshman.
“He’s just a really competitive kid. He wants to win at everything he does,” Diggs said. “In practice, he wants to win every running drill. If we’re doing a shooting drill, he wants to make the most shots. He’s just that type of person — if we were playing marbles, he’d want to win.”
But progression isn’t a straight line when it comes to Poplar.
With a prospect who went from never playing anything but pickup until a little less than two years ago to averaging 21.2 points and 5.0 rebounds a game in the Philadelphia Public League last winter, it’s certainly fair to call the rising senior “a developmental outlier,” as Elite High School Scouting director Ari Rosenfeld put it.
Fortunately, the pandemic hasn’t slowed that growth. Poplar has continued to work out individually with his trainer, and he’s also participated in a handful of open runs with some of the area’s high-level high schoolers as well as college players.
Poplar even spent some time out west, training at The Sports Academy in Southern California — the same facility that bore the late Kobe Bryant’s ‘Mamba’ nickname until March.
But the pandemic did throw a wrinkle into Poplar’s recruitment. Given how late it began, especially with the majority of his 30-plus offers not coming in until last season, Poplar wasn’t able to visit any of his top choices and had to sort things out over Zoom.
“It wasn’t really hard,” Poplar said. “I just wanted to see those places in person.”
Fortunately, he got just that chance before officially announcing his decision on Instagram Sept. 15. Poplar, along with his parents, younger brother and a crew of about a half-dozen friends, flew down to Coral Gables — both to fully take in the Miami campus and also to film Poplar’s commitment video.
“I can’t explain it,” Poplar said when asked about the feeling of getting to see his future home. “I’m happy, but I’m not satisfied. I haven’t gotten to where I want to yet.”
Whether that’s competing with the ACC’s best in Duke, North Carolina and Virginia or making it to the NBA — a lofty goal that Poplar is set on ultimately achieving — given how far Poplar’s come in 24 months, it’s hard to imagine anything would be a huge shock to Diggs.
“I wouldn’t say [I always knew], but I think after a while, just the progression he was making in such short periods of time, eventually I could tell he was going to be the type of guy that could play at the highest [collegiate] level,” Diggs said. “Once he started seeing some progress and what he could become, he just poured more and more work into it.
“The results have shown it — he’s gotten better and better and immersed himself in the process of getting better and wanting to see how far he can take it.”