John Andrzejek will be the first to confess it was a shot in the dark. Even with all the channels of communication available to college basketball coaches and the players they recruit in 2020, there’s no handbook for how to track down a 17-year-old kid who grew up in the Delta State of Nigeria, moved to Senegal to polish his game at the African branch of the NBA Academy, then hopped across the Indian Ocean to train at the Centre of Excellence in Canberra, Australia.
Washington State’s pursuit of Efe Abogidi, who has blossomed into of the most promising young players in school history as one of two freshmen in college basketball averaging 10 points, nine rebounds and two blocks, unfolded the same way many middle school-aged relationships did during the dawn of the social media age.
“What I did was, I hit him up on Facebook,” WSU assistant coach Andrzejek said. “I Facebook messaged him and just said, ‘Hey, I’ve heard great things, want to introduce myself.’ It was a little bit of a stab in the dark, to be honest, but you do some of those things.”
And you tend to do a few more when you’re recruiting to a place like Pullman. It could’ve easily been a dead end. Instead, it wound up being one of the most fortuitous recruiting moves made by a WSU coach in recent memory.
“If he becomes a great player, it’s quite a storybook tale for him,” Andrzejek said in a phone interview this summer. “He’s maybe the most unique story of anybody I’ve recruited.”
At first, Andrzejek was under the impression Abogidi was still living in the Petite Côte region of Senegal, home to one of the globe’s six NBA Academy facilities designed to provide resources and opportunities for promising international players. For six months they traded the occasional Facebook message, but the recruiting process didn’t escalate until Andrzejek realized Abogidi was in Canberra, developing his game under Marty Clarke at the NBA Global Academy, which pulls 12 elite players from the other academies every year to train “under the supervision of NBA-hired coaches.”
Recruiting is a relationship-driven business. Next to relationships with recruits themselves, nothing is more important than the networking done between college coaches looking for their next hidden gem and the high school, AAU or prep academy coaches who feed them names they wouldn’t know to look for otherwise.
Second-year WSU coach Kyle Smith and assistant Jim Shaw had history with the Global Academy and Australian Institute of Sport (AIS), recruiting Australian-born standouts like Patty Mills and Matthew Dellavedova at Saint Mary’s. During an interview, Smith flashes back to when he visited Mills in Canberra. The future San Antonio Spur was already committed, but Clarke, a former SMC assistant who now oversees the Global Academy, said he ought to check out another up and coming Aussie: a rim-ripping center named Aron Baynes.
“I was like, ‘Take him, take him if we can get him,’ ” Smith said. “Then obviously Washington State ended up getting him.”
Smith lost out to his future employer on Baynes, but years later he worked his connections in Canberra to track down more information on Abogidi, who became an internet sensation at 15 years old when a video of him taking off from the free-throw line, gliding through the air and finishing a one-handed dunk at an event in Dakar, Senegal, collected nearly 2 million views on Instagram and garnered reactions from Dikembe Mutombo and Joel Embiid.
Interest in Abogidi as a college prospect tapered when the high-flying center tore an ACL, MCL and meniscus while soaring for a dunk during an NBA Academy game, requiring three surgical procedures and nearly three years of recovery. While other programs pulled back, the Cougars pushed forward, acknowledging the risks you have to take in a place like Pullman.
“We’re looking for value,” Smith said. “How are we going to get high-major, NBA potential athlete or something? They missed an important part of the recruiting process and people just become a little unknown.”
The Cougars had another ace up the sleeve. Abogidi had a relative living in the United States. Rather, Abogidi had an uncle living in Washington. Rather, the African-born center who’d spent his childhood living in three countries, two continents and trotting the globe to play basketball had an uncle living in Pullman – yes, Pullman – and working at Schweitzer Laboratories.
“I don’t know how that happened,” Andrzejek said. “I’m expecting the NCAA to investigate it at some point, but it really is just the flukiest, most random thing of all time.”
Smith made the trip to Australia’s capital city to meet Abogidi in person, but it wasn’t until that December, one month after signing the 6-foot-10, 225-pound center to a letter of intent, that a member of WSU’s staff, Shaw, had a chance to see him play in person.
“I saw Efe play his first three games he’d played in three years,” Shaw said. “… The risk was all the injury history and if it all goes south on him that way, but he just felt the reward would be far greater than the risk if he’s able to stay healthy.”
Shaw’s visit to Vegas reaffirmed everything the Cougars thought they knew.
“He’s just a guy who’s in the gym, standing under the rim in flip-flops or whatever,” Andrzejek said. “Then he jumps up and throws it between his legs and tomahawks it.”
Smith said Abogidi has hands “bigger than Kawhi (Leonard),” and calls him “the best athlete I’ve ever recruited.”
When he signed with the Cougars, Abogidi, a three-star prospect who earned a .880 grade from 247Sports.com, was the top center recruit in program history. That only lasted a few months, though, because in the spring Smith’s staff nailed down a signature from California’s Dishon Jackson (.893), who became just the fourth four-star recruit to sign at WSU. But Jackson’s time as the top prospect in the recruiting class was brief, too. WSU eventually secured signatures from fellow four-stars Carlos Rosario (.934) and Andrej Jakimovski (.947). Coupled with three-stars TJ Bamba (.880) and Jefferson Koulibaly (.867), the 2020 class was ranked No. 4 in the Pac-12 and No. 34 in the country by 247Sports.com.
On paper, there hasn’t been a WSU class more impressive. On the court, where the Cougars are unbeaten at 8-0, three of their six freshmen are in the top eight for minutes played, and another has played in five games .
From Smith’s standpoint, there’s not much sense in paying much attention to how his recruits are perceived by scouting services – it was news to him a few of his recruits were pegged so high – but it also validates the moves and maneuvers his staff made on the recruiting trail.
“It’s a little like Columbia, so I think it helped us as far as, Columbia, you’ve got to recruit the globe because there’s only so many academic students and you’re competing with seven other schools that have the same academic profile, so you’ve got to be really fluid,” Smith said. “Here, we just don’t have a good local base but we need elite prospects, so we kind of have to cover the globe and look in different places.”
It was the summer of 2019 and Smith was whizzing around Atlanta. Things can get frantic when Nike, Adidas and Under Armour are all hosting AAU events in separate parts of a city on the same weekend, and choices have to be made for the sake of efficiency. Smith should have been in another part of the city, watching another player, when he decided to stay put and track down the court on which Bamba was scheduled to play.
When Smith puts it all into context, he finds some humor in the fact he was watching a New York native play for a Colorado-based AAU basketball team, against an opponent from Milwaukee, from the confines of a warehouse in Georgia’s capital city.
“It’s just weird how we do this. We’re chasing these guys all the way to Atlanta,” Smith said. “It’s like, there has to be an easier way for us to get an evaluation.”
Bamba’s frame and athleticism were befitting of a high-major college basketball player, but there weren’t any high-major coaches watching. Smith was there, an assistant from Pepperdine was there, but nobody else cared to check out the 6-5, 200-pound combo guard.
“Immediately, I looked around and I was like, ‘Where are all the other coaches?’ ” Smith said. “Because it was just his body and his athleticism. It’s like, ‘Wait a second, this guy’s a high-major athlete right away.’ But I only got to see him play one game and I remember calling back in. I said, ‘Hey, I really like Bamba. Let’s recruit him.’ ”
At some point, the AAU Colorado Hawks, based out of Denver, switched shoe affiliations, from Adidas to Under Armour, and Smith reasons “people get lost in the shuffle, so I think that’s kind of how it happened,” speaking of Bamba’s recruiting obscurity. Although Bamba’s family left the bustling basketball scene of New York for the Colorado suburbs while he was in high school, Bamba’s ties to the Big Apple were key in his recruitment to WSU.
How do you get a big combo guard from New York to play college basketball in Pullman? You send another big combo guard from New York to go recruit him.
Derrick Phelps, who followed Smith to WSU, was one of the top players to emerge from the New York borough of Queens in the early 1990s. Phelps played at an esteemed high school, Christ the King, and earned McDonald’s All-American honors before moving on to the University of North Carolina, where he helped Dean Smith capture the 1993 national championship.
Bamba was born well after Phelps finished his career at UNC, but he could relate to the coach’s upbringing. Phelps’ recruiting network in New York helped the Cougars gather information on Bamba.
“I think New York players are more grind-it-out, gritty, like something to prove, but very competitive,” Phelps said. “We feel like coming from the mecca that we always got to show and prove. Back in my days, New York was one of the top cities with a lot of talent coming out of the city. Nowadays, it’s not like that, so now you’ve got to prove yourself again as New Yorkers. Hey, we’re still the tough, physical, going-to-come-at-your-face-and-compete type mentality.”
It didn’t hurt Smith spent seven years coaching at Columbia, or that Andrzejek, while working as Smith’s director of operations at the NYC-based Ivy League, resided in Harlem “within two blocks of (Bamba’s) house.”
It’s a running joke among WSU’s staff that Andrzejek, a 27-year-old who’s proficiency in analytics helped earn him a spot on ESPN’s “40 under 40” college basketball list published in May, keeps unusually late hours to feed his various obsessions: reviewing film, crunching numbers, putting in calls to recruits across the globe.
During an interview with Andrzejek, it’s inferred the coach habitually stays up later than his colleagues, and he knows exactly where it came from.
“Did Kyle say that?” Andrzejek laughs.
It’s not uncommon for Andrzejek to get off the phone with a foreign recruit and relay part of the conversation in the coaches’ group text message chat, sometimes as early as 3 or 4 a.m.
“He’s on a different clock, we all know that,” Smith said. “I’m the early riser and sometimes I think when I’m waking up, he’s going to bed.”
There’s another perk to having Andrzejek on staff.
“He’s got no family (in Pullman),” Smith said, “so he would sit in Europe for two weeks if he had to.”
Last summer, Andrzejek made one of those trips to Romania, which was hosting the FIBA U-18 European B Championships. While he was at Dartmouth, Andrzejek identified Jakimovski during a trip to Europe for a U-16 event, but got the sense “he would’ve signed pro well before going to the Ivy League.” Even as Andrzejek moved on to WSU, Jakimovski wasn’t a top priority, but the skilled Macedonian forward commanded so much attention in Romania, scoring a tournament-high 18.4 points per game and leading the event with 7.1 defensive rebounds per game, that the Cougars felt it was worth making a push.
Jakimovski was still weighing a pro contract in Europe against the chance to play high-major college basketball in the United States, which is why he signed in late spring rather than the fall. But Smith’s staff knew “of the 353 Division I programs, if he was coming to play (in the U.S.), it was going to be with us.”
“Kind of the pitch I give to every European kid I recruit is, the special thing about the Pac-12, about this level of high-major basketball, is you get a chance to play with NBA talents and Euro league talents and really special guys while they’re your age,” Andzejek said. “Whereas if you go pro in Europe, you don’t really get that opportunity. You’re a 19-year-old playing with a bunch of 33-year-olds that played at Xavier 12 years ago or played at wherever a long time ago.”
On June 21, Jakimovski signed his letter of intent with the Cougars. A few days later, 247Sports.com classified him as a four-star prospect and the fourth-best prospect in school history, behind only Klay Thompson, Michael Harthun and Xavier Thames.
If Michael Plank wasn’t in the business of college basketball, he’s sure he’d be a travel agent. The position of recruiting coordinator can be misleading. When he tries to explain it to the layman, Plank often gets a quizzical look.
“It’s kind of bizarre, and a lot of people are taken aback by it,” he said, “but I can’t actually recruit.”
In years that aren’t impacted by a national pandemic, much of Plank’s role revolves around coordinating travel plans for Smith, Shaw, Phelps and Andrzejek. When he’s not doing that, he’s identifying potential prospects or staying in touch with people close to WSU’s recruits. If he had to give a short synopsis, Plank would describe his job as “keeping the coaches organized.”
“(Plank) is just like having somebody in an auto garage, for lack of a better term, that can just help with a lot of things,” Shaw said. “Whether it’s fix a tire or tune an engine, so he can get you information quickly.”
He’s the one booking flights for WSU’s coaches and rerouting them when plans go haywire. Once last year, Smith phoned Plank at 3:30 a.m. – or 6:30 a.m. in Atlanta, where Smith had been recruiting – to get rebooked after a flight home was canceled.
In 2019, many of those flights carried WSU’s basketball coaches to Canada’s basketball hotbed: Toronto. Andrzejek recalls one such trip. Koulibaly had been on WSU’s radar, but the 1½-hour drive to Lincoln Prep in Hamilton, Ontario, was going to be somewhat of a drag, and the WSU assistant had to consider his options. When a friend in the Toronto area insisted it would be worth the miles, Andrzejek gave in.
“I was definitely going to make a car ride that day,” he said. “You have options and you’ve got three or four guys and it’s, ‘Who do you see? Well, all right, it’s this sophomore everybody says is going to be a top-50 player. Do we just go check that out? Or there’s this somewhat unknown senior that only has some high-major interest and some midmajor offers?’ And I’m just very thankful I chose to go see Jeff.”
Shaw had intel on Koulibaly from a good friend, Todd Lee, who’s the head coach at South Dakota. Lee hosted the Canadian prospect on a visit, but it was clear Koulibaly had designs on playing high-major basketball. Still, he worked out for the coaches at South Dakota and Lee told Shaw the Cougars should follow up on the explosive guard.
For someone like Shaw who’s been in college basketball for three decades, recruiting trips start to blend together at a certain point and most don’t distinguish themselves. But with impressive detail, Shaw remembers a trip to Cleveland to watch Koulibaly play in a tournament – because of the player’s raw talent and ability, yes, but also because of the circumstances around the trip.
“I can vividly remember because it was the day Kobe Bryant died and we had played down at Utah and I jumped on a quick flight after the game from Salt Lake to Vegas, then I flew on a red eye from Vegas to Cleveland and saw Jefferson play in a tournament,” Shaw said. “… I thought for us, what we have, what we don’t have, what he is, what he isn’t, he’s a really good fit and more of a recruiting need than a want.”
Smith has gone on record discussing the importance of recruiting Seattle and the Pacific Northwest, but he also believes the San Francisco Bay Area can also be a bountiful region for the Cougars.
Nearly half of Smith’s career was spent between Saint Mary’s and San Francisco. Shaw was with the Gaels for two years and recruited the West Coast while working at Oregon State and Washington, among other places. Phelps, Andrzejek and Plank all worked under Smith at USF and the latter is a native of Stockton, California.
“We’ve got a good ear to the ground on (the Bay),” Smith said.
The area is rich in talent, but academic standards at Cal and Stanford often prevent those schools from keeping local players home. Just browse the rosters: The Golden Bears have just two scholarship players from the Bay Area while the Cardinal have zero.
“You have to be a pretty elite student,” Smith said. “There’s a high-major talent there – again, this is part of our game plan. If there’s a high-major player there that’s not an elite student, well that’s game on.”
Jackson was a late academic qualifier whose recruitment was also stunted by injuries sustained while he was at Saint Patrick-Saint Vincent of Vallejo. In other words, someone most high-major schools weren’t willing to take a flier on, but a perfect fit for the Cougars.
Smith had known about Jackson since he was a high school freshman, but even with the successful midmajor program Smith had constructed at USF, conversations with the four-star prospect didn’t get serious until Smith traded his green and gold for crimson and gray.
“He never recognized me with the USF (apparel),” Smith laughed.
WSU’s staff didn’t realize Jackson was pegged as a four-star prospect by the major recruiting services until after he signed. From an evaluation standpoint, those ratings have little to no value, but Smith is hopeful bringing four-star caliber players to Pullman may prompt others to consider the Cougars down the road.
“Having DJ come in and saying he’s a four-star, it’s OK to come here,” Smith said. “That’s what I said, like shouldn’t we be getting four stars?”
On that note, Smith still draws from a lesson Bennett taught him at Saint Mary’s while the two worked to rebuild a program that had fallen to the depths of the WCC. Occasionally, Smith would identify a prospect who seemed obtainable for a rebuilding program like SMC, only to have it vetoed by the head coach.
“We walked into a 2-27 program and I’m like, ‘Hey this guy will come,’ ” Smith recalled. “He’s like, ‘Kyle he’s not good enough.’ I’m like, ‘Randy we were a 2-27 program. Almost anyone’s good enough.’ … He always said, we’re going to compete against Gonzaga and Gonzaga was not what they are now, but they were close enough. They were perennial top 20 and reached top 10. He was right. He’s right. We could get good players there.”
When Rosario sat down at a plastic table in mid-June, Smith and his three assistants tensed up as they watched an Instagram stream of the forward’s commitment ceremony in Southern California. Rosario had three finalists and one black hat, which was intentionally placed backward so viewers weren’t able to see the emblem on the front.
When Rosario turned the hat around, it would either reveal the logo of WSU, Utah or Boise State. The Dominican Republic native hadn’t given WSU’s staff a strong indication he was leaning toward the Cougars and the Utes had made a late push that had Smith worried.
Larry Krystkowiak’s program had a stronger track record than Smith’s albeit the second-year WSU coach was just getting started and the Utes had sent players like Kyle Kuzma, Jakob Poeltl and Delon Wright into the NBA. To worsen WSU’s chances of landing Rosario, the Cougars didn’t have any Spanish speakers on staff, whereas Utah employed Henry Martinez, a former Costa Rican national team player. Ian Martinez, Henry’s son, is a freshman guard for the Utes and senior guard Alfonso Plummer is a native of Puerto Rico.
“My hablo Espanol muy pequito,” Smith cracked. “We have a graduate manager, Anthony Lorenzo, his dad’s Dominican, he doesn’t speak Spanish. Down the stretch I was like, ‘We’re doing well, but I don’t see how we beat the Spanish-speaking staff.’ ”
“I’ll be honest,” Andrzejek added, “we’re a little short on Spanish.”
But loyalty was a priority to the 6-7, 180-pound forward who 247Sports.com considered the No. 14 overall prospect in California, and the Cougars had been around Rosario longer than the Utes.
“He’s one of the first guys we identified,” Smith said. “I remember being punch-drunk, just tired, in like April last year and someone pulled me aside and said, ‘Veritas is this up-and-coming thing and they’ve got some good young guys.’ ”
“I’m like, ‘Great,’ ” a disinterested Smith said.
Smith went through the motions anyway, watching a clip of Rosario and coming to the conclusion “that guy reminds me of Trevor Ariza, just kind of the way he moved around.”
Rosario wasn’t ready to make a decision early, so while the Cougars kept communication lines open, his recruitment didn’t truly to begin to ramp up until May or June. Shaw was the first coach to see him in person, diagnosing Rosario as someone who wouldn’t elicit “a lot of immediate return, but I thought he had a lot of upside, lot of length, desire to be a player.”
At another event, Phelps watched Rosario go toe-to-toe and hold his own against Prolific Prep (Fresno, California) phenom Jalen Green, a five-star prospect and the nation’s second-rated recruit in the 2020 recruiting class.
“We were fortunate to get him, but hopefully he’s with us two, three years in the program where there’s going to be guys like (Stanford freshman) Ziaire Williams and Jalen Green that come in the league, whatever,” Smith said.
“But when he’s older, those guys are going to struggle with him. Because he should be maturing, but he’s been in a program, and that’s how you win at Washington State, I think.”
The Cougars hope to have long-range success with their prized 2020 class and the early returns are promising. Rosario hasn’t seen the court yet and Koulibaly is out for the season with a shoulder injury, but the other three have played and two of them – Abogidi and Jakimovski – have carved out places in the starting five.
“We’re just building a base and contacts. I got all three (of the assistants) hitting me with players all the time,” Smith said. “So it’s hard and they’re aggressive salesmen … but that’s just the way it has to be. You’ve got to get people interested in a program. … I don’t put a lot of stock in the rankings.”
Not that Smith’s disputing them, either.
“It came out great,” he laughed. “It came out great for us.”
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