Basketball remains a constant across borders for ASU guard Iris Mbulito

A native of Spain, Mbulito needed to adjust to a new culture and style of basketball in the states

Iris Mbulito has always been around basketball. It wasn’t the kind of basketball that we are accustomed to, but it was basketball, nevertheless.

“It was different how they were playing defense on me or how everyone was moving," Mbulito said. "I can’t say. I don’t know. It was just different.”

That’s because Mbulito, a sophomore guard at ASU, is from Spain, more specifically growing up in the town of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, a Spanish island off the coast of Western Africa.

Mbulito’s mother, Puri, played basketball professionally for Spanish club CB Islas Canarias. Even in a country that puts soccer first, Mbulito hasn’t known anything else.

“I have siblings, so we all started playing basketball when we were little,” Mbulito said. “I’m playing because of my mom.

“She said that I was special.”

Prior to coming to the desert, Mbulito played both professionally and for Spain's national team, where she continues to compete.

At the U20 European Championship, Mbulito’s 21 points and 12 rebounds led Spain in the championship game against Serbia. She also hit the game-winning shot in a quarterfinal game earlier in the tournament against France.

Appearing in numerous World and European Championship tournaments from 2013-2017, Mbulito is accustomed to playing games in the spotlight. Coming to the states wasn’t a level up, it was an evolution in her journey.

“She probably has the best awareness of any player that I’ve ever coached,” ASU head coach Charli Turner Thorne said. “She sees the floor well and knows the game. When we have her on the floor, usually fun and good things happen.”

But that’s not to say that there were adjustments needed along the way, both on and off the court.

For one, Mbulito didn’t know any English before joining the Sun Devils a season ago. In fact, she spent an entire year before arriving in the states learning the language.

And secondly, the style of play in America was not what she was accustomed to. Despite being named a Pac-12 All-Freshman Honorable Mention, Mbulito felt uncomfortable with the pace and style of play.

“They allow contact more, it’s more physical. It’s a little bit slower,” Mbulito said about the way basketball is played in Spain. “Here, it’s really fast.”

But with a full season under her belt, Mbulito has fully embraced the quicker tempo and culture of ASU women’s basketball. The role change she underwent in her freshman campaign is now the new normal for her.

“The coaches and the players help that,” freshman forward Eboni Walker said. 

Thanks to that added comfort, Mbulito has become a Swiss Army knife on the defensive end for the Sun Devils. Turner Thorne has deployed the Spanish native in multiple roles, guarding point guards, power forwards and everything in between.

And offensively, she adds much-needed length and flexibility to a Sun Devil team that's guard-heavy. 

“She sees the floor well and knows the game,” Turner Thorne said.

Mbulito has fully blended with the American style of basketball and even with the American culture. She even admitted recently that, given the amount of time she’s now spent in the states, her ability to speak in Spanish has slipped a little bit.

“I’m just noticing that since I’m speaking English all of the time, I’m kind of forgetting Spanish,” Mbulito said. “I was doing an assignment last night and I was struggling to speak Spanish.”

But of course, there was a process that got Mbulito to that point. It’s a process that she is now nurturing as an elder to freshman guard and Finland native Sara Bejedi.

“Making sure she’s wearing the right clothes for when we have practice or making sure she’s not late and she has to be five minutes early,” Mbulito said. “I try to help her by texting.”

But from being nurtured to now nurturing, one thing is clear for Mbulito: her surroundings may be different, but the game is still there for her.

No matter where it is being played.


Reach the reporter at kbriley@asu.edu and on Twitter @KokiRiley.

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