East Noble’s Ali Ali growing into an impact prep basketball player

East Noble junior Ali Ali rises for a lay-in after driving to the basket against DeKalb last Friday at East Noble. (Photo by Reggie Hayes of news-sentinel.com)
East Noble's Ali Ali, right, defends DeKalb guard Dalton Smith during a game last Friday at East Noble. (Photo by Reggie Hayes of news-sentinel.com)
East Noble junior Ali Ali passes the basketball during a game against DeKalb last Friday at East Noble. (Photo by Reggie Hayes of news-sentinel.com)

KENDALLVILLE – The comparison is a leap, a stretch, and somewhat unfair considering one player is a high school kid just tapping into his potential and the other is an NBA superstar.

But if you ask East Noble junior Ali Ali to name a basketball player he admires and emulates, you’ll likely nod in agreement.

“Probably Kevin Durant,” Ali said.

Was there ever any doubt? Ali has blossomed this season into one of the best players in the Fort Wayne area and he checks off a ton of similarities with Golden State Warriors star Durant: Slender as a telephone pole, comfortable on the perimeter shooting three-pointers or driving to the hole for a dunk, and possessor of a wing span that gives him a defensive presence anywhere on the court.

Off the court, he’s completely unassuming.

“He has always been a kid who had the physical tools,” East Noble coach Ryan Eakins said. “He has the things God gives you: great body, 6-foot-8, long arms, athletic and quick. And the thing that catches your eye is how smooth he is. You see a 6-8 guy that can handle the ball. He had seven assists (in a recent game) and some of the passes you see a 5-10 point guard make.”

Ali is also still growing. That’s growing in the figurative sense of a player developing his game, and growing in the literal sense, too. He was 6-5 last year. He’s 6-8 this year. He might not be done growing yet.

His transformation into a dominant player has helped East Noble produce a tremendous first half of the season. The Knights beat Central Noble 80-51 on Wednesday to improve to 13-1. They have a 3-0 mark in the Northeast 8 Conference. Their only blemish was a 54-53 loss at undefeated Westview on Jan. 2. East Noble faces a major test at Leo (9-4, 1-1 NE8) on Saturday night.

Ali has become a focal point of opposing teams, as would be expected for a player averaging 17.4 points, 5.1 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game. He’s shooting 59 percent from the field and 53 percent from three-point range.

Eakins points to Ali’s work in the weight room (he’s up 20 pounds to 180 pounds) and his improved confidence from playing with his AAU Team (Indy Heat) as being two of the biggest reasons for his increased production this winter.

“He came to me this fall and said, ‘Coach, I’m going to score the basketball this year,’ ” Eakins said. “That was music to my ears. I had been talking to him about how unselfish he was, but he was too unselfish. He figured out scoring the basketball wasn’t a selfish thing to do if he wanted our team to be successful.”

Ali said his East Noble and AAU coaches have been pushing him to be more aggressive on the offensive end.

His increased aggression, along with the additional three inches of height, helped Ali to blossom as a scorer. He averaged only five points per game last season.

“Just putting time in the gym over the summer made my confidence way higher than it was last year,” Ali said. “Being a 6-8 wing and being able to play any position is something I take pride in. I feel I can get my shot off a lot easier (with the extra height) and that’s another reason I’m scoring more this year.”

Ali’s parents Youssouf and Zeneba were originally from Chad, although they moved to Kendallville in a professional career move and for “greater opportunities for the family” in the late 1990s, his mother said. Ali was born in Kendallville. He has four siblings: Mahamat, Manal, Salah and Omar.

He is now drawing attention from college scouts that should only increase after this breakout season.

“I need to get stronger in the weight room and our strength coach is helping me this year, and I’ve felt it on the court,” Ali said. “I need to get better with ball-handling, shooting, playing the post, everything it takes to become a complete player.”

While Ali seems most comfortable on the perimeter, he is increasing his skills as an inside player, where he can use his size and vertical leap to score, and to be a defensive impact player.

“In the past, he’s been hesitant to go down on the block and maybe some of that has been his physical strength,” Eakins said. “Almost every team guards him with a wing. It’s hard to put a post player on him because he shoots so well and handles the ball so well, he’ll put it on the deck and go to the rim.”

“When you put smaller guys on him, he’s really good in the that post. You can’t double-team him because he’s a really good passer and he’ll find the open guy,” Eakins said.

Ali is developing into the type of player that – when he reaches his potential – will be the toughest player on the court to guard. Not unlike Kevin Durant.