After a high school career in Canada that netted him zero U.S. college scholarship offers, Mfiondu Kabengeleheaded in the summer of 2015 to Don Bosco Institute — a prep school in Indiana with a reputation for helping connect players and colleges — hoping to increase his exposure and his opportunities.
Suffice it to say he was a bit anxious.
So, when his first offer — from a mid-major school — came when the recruiting period opened in September, Kabengele, at the time a 6-foot-6 forward, wanted to jump on it. Luckily for Kabengele, cooler heads prevailed. Dave Maravilla, Don Bosco’s founder, convinced him to be patient, that his game was certain to improve and bigger schools, maybe even from power conferences, would take note. Maravilla was right.
Florida State assistant coach Dennis Gates, who played at Cal and earned a degree there in three years, has staked his reputation as a sharp and relentless recruiter by keeping his eyes and ears open and staying mobile: “always going into different gyms, just looking,” he says.
In 2015, Gates got tipped off about Kabengele — whose uncle is NBA Hall of Famer Dikembe Mutombo — so he trekked to his native Chicago to see the player square off in a game against Kennedy-King, a junior college in the city’s South Side.
“I get there and see this kid, never backing down against tough, inner-city JUCO kids,” Gates says. “He was shooting, diving on the floor, rebounding, posting up. He had an inner toughness, resiliency and creativity. At 6-6, I thought he could make a good forward in the [Atlantic Coast Conference].”
FSU coach Leonard Hamilton gives his assistants unilateral authority to offer scholarships. Gates quickly decided Kabengele was worth pursuing.
“But I didn’t want anybody to know,” Gates says, laughing at the recollection. “I know the coach at Kennedy-King, Da’Veed Dildy, and after the game, he asked me what I was doing there. I said I was just checking guys out, and he said, ‘man, you’re here to see that kid we just played. Nobody comes to the Englewood community just to check guys out.’ ”
Gates was busted, but it didn’t matter. Other power conference schools eventually noticed Kabengele, too, but Florida State was the first to offer a scholarship, and that’s where he ended up.
“After our game, I see coach Gates in the locker room,” Kabengele says. “He said, I want to offer you a scholarship to FSU. My jaw dropped. You visualize this your whole life. I was shocked, frozen. That hit Twitter and my name got out there and bigger schools started recruiting. But coach Gates put his trust in me. His job was on the line if I’d turned out to be a bum. Of course I was going to go to FSU.”
By the time he showed up in Tallahassee, Kabengele was a different player than the one Gates first spotted. He’d grown four inches to 6-10 and weighed more than 250 pounds.
“So he gets on campus,” Gates says, “and the first thing he said to me is ‘coach, I’m better than Jonathan Isaac [a 6-10 freshman who would become just the second FSU one-and-done player and was eventually the No. 6 pick in the 2017 NBA Draft].’ So I say have you ever played against him, and he says, no, but I’ve watched him on YouTube. I thought, oh no, here we go again, another millennial.”
Eventually a one-on-one match was arranged between Kabengele and Isaac.
“Fi sprains his ankle trying to play Jonathan, who crossed him over. Fi couldn’t keep up. He comes back to my office and says, ‘coach, Jonathan’s a good player.’ ”
The lesson Kabengele learned that day was stored away and helped propel him to the brink of this week’s NBA Draft, where he’s been predicted to be taken anywhere from the late lottery to early second round.
Florida State was so flush with talent when Kabengele was a freshman Hamilton and his staff encouraged him to redshirt. Suffice it to say Kabengele was reluctant.
“It was a hit to the ego,” he says. “You tell your friends you’re going to be the next superstar at Florida State, but we had Jonathan Isaac and so many pros on that team. The coaches knew redshirting would be better than playing one minute a game. You’re fragile at that stage.”
Fragile, and not in good enough physical condition to play in the ACC.
“He got here carrying too much weight,” says Stan Jones, a Florida State assistant and respected tactician who coaches the post players. “The first workout we did dunk drills. He couldn’t finish. We never quit here, so we made him finish the drill with a tennis ball. But even though he had to get in elite shape and had some skill improvement to do, you could see Fi was ready to accept challenges.”
Jones worked individually or had heart-to-heart conversations with Kabengele every chance he could, tweaking his jump shot mechanics, working on post moves, and perhaps most important, getting inside his head.
“We talked a lot about the mental game,” Kebengele says. “Stuff some of his players had trouble with in the past. But he let me figure things out for myself. He’d tell me a story about a player’s trials and tribulations and ask me, ‘what do you think he did right? What do you think he did wrong? What should he have done? I learned so much.”
He also learned a lot mimicking the opposing team’s best player while practicing as part of the scout team. “One time I was Jayson Tatum [Duke], another time I was Bonzie Colson [Notre Dame],” Kabengele says. “That was fun. [Clemson’s] Jaron Blossomgame was my favorite. I learned a lot of iso plays and guys zeroed in on me.”
Kabengele was ready by time he became eligible for the 2017-18 season. He became a key reserve on an NCAA Tournament Elite Eight team, averaging 7.2 points and 4.6 rebounds and shooting .385 from 3-point range in 14.8 minutes a game.