On Point Scouting Exclusive written by Aaron Shore
Last week I started this feature with a first post that covered a few young Canadian professional players who could help the senior national team down the line. In this current post, I’m going to take a look at a few college prospects.
Some of the most promising young Canadian bigs are currently playing in the NCAA. I’ll stay true to my former criteria for larger center prospects: guys who are 6’10 or bigger, with some bulk and length, who feel most comfortable playing in the paint.
With these criteria in mind, I’ll start with 5 upperclassmen (all juniors) before moving on to talk about 5 underclassmen (sophomores and freshmen) in the next post. As a reminder, I’m writing about guys who might become relevant for Team Canada in the coming years. Naturally, not all of them will make it and developmental trajectories differ significantly. Nevertheless, the current depth in this position is quite encouraging given how thin it has been over the years.
FARDAWS AIMAQ | Junior, Utah Valley | 23.0yo | 6’11, 250lbs, 7’3 wingspan | Vancouver, BC
Fardaws Aimaq Photo (Courtesy: pbs.twimg.com)
Overview: Last year was a breakout year for this unlikely success story, whose parents fled Afghanistan and resettled in Vancouver. He led all of college (!) in rebounds per game by a significant margin and was the first to average 15 rebounds or more in more than 40 years (!!), while adding nearly 14 PPG. Still, doubts remained about the level of play at which he was doing all of this. Utah Valley plays at a low-major conference and its schedule includes games against non-D1 teams. In his 6 games against stronger rivals last year (BYU, Utah, St. John’s, and New Mexico State) Aimaq put up just 4.5 PPG, shooting 24% from the field. He also coughed the ball nearly 5 times per game and Utah Valley lost all but one of these games, mostly by a large margin. A case in point was last season’s game against BYU, where Aimaq finished with 3 points and 7 rebounds on 1 of 9 shooting and had 6 TOs. BYU beat Utah Valley by 22 and Aimaq looked like he might be merely a big fish in a small pool.
How about this year? A few weeks ago, the two teams met again, with BYU considered even stronger this year (was ranked #12 in the country at the time of the game). However, this time around, things looked vastly different. Aimaq finished with 24 points (including two 3-pointers), 22 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 blocks, and 5 steals (with 4 TOs), leading Utah Valley to a shocking overtime upset. As the icing on the cake, he was selected as ESPN’s player of the week, quite a feat for someone playing at a low-major conference team.
Aimaq is currently averaging close to 20 points and 14 rebounds per game, leading all Canadians in college in both categories. The latter figure would again be enough for first in college if not for the explosion of Kentucky’s Oscar Tshiebwe, who is currently averaging 15rpg and just had 28 in a recent game (I think it’s still an open race though). Unlike last year, Aimaq has put up these stats consistently against both weaker and better teams. In fact, in the four games against high and mid-major rivals (Washington, Boise State, Pepperdine, and BYU) he’s averaged 23 PPG and 15 RPG.
All this goodness should be credited to the huge improvements Aimaq has made to his game after a pedestrian freshman year with Mercer (only 5 PPG and 5 RPG in 15 minutes of play). He’s been working relentlessly on his body and game, shedding extra pounds, building muscle, and has significantly improved his skill, mobility, and conditioning. So much so that his coach at Utah Valley, former leaguer Mark Madsen, called him “the most skilled, well-rounded big-man in the country. Period.”
Now, does all this mean that he’s on his way to the NBA?
If you ask Madsen, the answer is a resounding yes: “One hundred percent. Fardaws is an NBA player. Scouts ask and I tell them, ‘We have a serious talent here at UVU.”
Madsen might be right but I’m much less confident. In fact, I still think it’s the less likely outcome, just as it is for most of the guys on this feature. To be sure, it’s not for lack of talent, character, or work ethics. Rather, it’s simply because the demands from modern NBA centers in order to see consistent playing time have become quite absurd. On defense, you need to be an elite rim protector and while Fardaws has shown flashes, he’s not quite that. You also need to be able to contain guards in the P&R, at least for short stretches, over multiple possessions. There lies another skill I’m not sure that Aimaq possesses. He hasn’t been tested much at this level (Utah Valley plays mostly a “drop-big” P&R defense) but he’s not the quickest guy around even after improving his lateral movement considerably.
Offensively, you need to be a good perimeter shooter (not the case for Aimaq at this point, though he’s been working on it) or have the foot speed to blow by slower defenders (haven’t seen that either). Alternatively, you might have the size, strength, skill, and shooting touch of a Jokic/Embiid, or to a lesser extent someone like Valanciunas in the post. Aimaq does have very good footwork but his finishing is not even close to this level. Otherwise, you’re mostly relegated to being a rim runner. From what I’ve seen, Aimaq is a good but not an elite athlete with only average touch around the rim and from the mid-range (He’s consistently shooting around 50% from the field throughout his college career, not a great number for a big who lives in the paint). He’s also very turnover prone, with more than 3 TOs per game over the last two seasons.
In short, I’m fairly confident that Aimaq will become a successful pro somewhere. His knack for grabbing boards is uncanny and he brings excellent size, strength, paint presence, commitment, skill, and many other wonderful qualities. Nonetheless, being 23.5 years old on draft day, it would be a tall task to carve out a niche at the highly competitive and demanding NBA center position. Sticking at that level might prove to be an even tougher task.
Team Canada outlook: Aimaq does not need to be an NBA player to become an important player for Team Canada in the future. His presence and rebounding acumen paired with the traditional skills of a big can be huge assets in the FIBA game. He should definitely be in the mix for the national team once he finishes his college career. At first, he could be tested in the qualifying windows. If he plays well and continues to progress, he might be able to help in bigger competitions.
NICK ONGENDA | Junior, DePaul | 21.3yo | 6’11, 210lbs, 7’4 wingspan | Mississauga, ON
Nick Ongenda (Courtesy depaulbluedemons.com)
Overview: Off the radar, Ongenda has been having somewhat of breakout season. DePaul, picked last in preseason Big East poll, has also looked better than expected, starting the season 9-1 before health and safety issues derailed them (and Ongenda) a bit. They posted big wins against Rutgers (who beat Purdue), Louisville on the road, and lately Seton Hall.
Ongenda has had a significant role in this success, although in recent games his role has diminished, perhaps due to some COVID issues. In November and December, when he was starting at center, he more than doubled his offensive production from last year, putting up nearly 12 points, 5 rebounds, and 2.5 blocks per game. January has not been kind to him but hopefully he can regain the momentum.
Ongenda is a late bloomer. He was not part of any Canadian junior team and only showed flashes in his first two college years. While a bit on the lighter side, he might be more in the mold of what the NBA is looking for these days than players like Aimaq or Zach Edey. Listed at 210lbs, his strength is clearly not in banging in the paint and putting a body on big guys, though he’s not that easily pushed around. He is not a very strong rebounder, but he’s very light on his feet and mobile, easily switching on ball-handles in the P&R. An excellent leaper with quick twitch athleticism and great timing, he’s also a terrific shot blocker (5 blocks per 100 possessions).
His offensive game has been mostly limited to rim running and standing out as an alley-oop threat. He finds it hard to muscle his way in the paint and doesn’t have the widest array of moves or an exceptional shooting touch. However, he’s been trying to expand his offensive repertoire and has looked a bit more versatile and comfortable creating for himself and posting guys up this year, though there’s still a lot of work to do on this front.
Team Canada Outlook: I like Ongenda quite a bit for the team down the road and can see him getting an opportunity in the coming years. He’s the youngest guy on this list of college juniors (only turned 21 recently), seems to be on a nice upward trajectory, and I expect him to break out even more during his senior year in college. His body type and style of play are somewhat in the Kyle Alexander mold. Accordingly, I think he can potentially be a good piece of the puzzle in a couple of years, especially if he manages to bulk up a bit.
TYRESE SAMUEL | Junior, Seton Hall | 21.8yo | 6’10, 235lbs, 7’1 wingspan | Montreal, QC
Tyrese Samuel (Courtesy www.wsou.net)
Overview: The only guy on this list who’s not really a classic center and actually also feels quite comfortable playing on the perimeter (sometimes too comfortable for my liking). As I predicted before the start of the season, he’s been having somewhat of a breakout year. However, much like Ongenda, he’s cooled off (and also plays fewer minutes) since the start of Big East Conference play so it remains to be seen if he can bounce back. He’s still coming off the bench and playing only a couple of extra minutes compared with last year. However, he has nearly doubled his production from last year: 9.0 PPG (5.8 last year), 6.3 RPG (3.3), and 1.2 BPG (0.3). After two seasons with less than 50% from the FT line (30% last year) on very low volume (one shot per game), he’s going to the stripe more often this season (2.5 per game) and has been making 63% of them.
His outside shooting is not falling so far and he hasn’t taken that many threes, but I’m actually not too worried about that. Partly because it’s a small sample and he’s been shooting over 30% in his first two seasons in college. More importantly, however, I think he’s more efficient when playing in the paint and should concentrate on that with the outside shooting being a bonus rather than a main dish.
Samuel is arguably the most talented and versatile guy on this list of college juniors and the one most suitable for how the NBA is played these days. From a physical standpoint, he has it all – size, strength, and good athleticism – while also possessing an intriguing skillset, being able to put the ball on the floor and shoot from the perimeter. However, his intensity level, while looking better this year, continues to waver between games and within them. At times, he looks locked in and fully committed. At other times, his body language still conveys a lackadaisical approach to the game and he’s too often caught ball-watching or giving up on hustle plays. When fully engaged, he actually looks the part of a modern small-ball center. But he needs to bring this intensity and commitment much more consistently and not take plays off. If he can bring himself to make this mental switch and be fully engaged, he has NBA talent, but there’s no guarantee this will happen.
Team Canada outlook: Though he might be the best NBA prospect on this list (at least in theory), from the point of view of Team Canada, and specifically the deficiency in the center position, I’m a little bit less sure how valuable he would eventually be. Currently, Samuel does not bring the same level of intensity, toughness, and bulk in the paint as some of the other guys mentioned in this series of posts. He remains more of a finesse player, who does not consistently put a body on big opposing centers, even though he’s been doing it much better this year. As a player, he’s more in the mold of Trey Lyles, though it remains to be seen if he can get to Lyles’ level of play. Team Canada would surely not mind getting another guy like this in the mix but I don’t think he’ll be the solution to the center woes that triggered this center series.
KAOSI EZEAGU | Junior, Kansas State | 22.1yo | 6’10, 255lbs, 7’1 wingspan | Brampton, ON
Kaosi Ezeagu (Courtesy www.gannett-cdn.com)
Overview: On to a guy who does fit the profile (more bulk and size) of a traditional FIBA center. Up until recently, I wasn’t sure if he has it in him. After showing some promise in high school, Ezeagu did not impress during his first two college seasons (one at UTEP and last year at Kansas State). However, he might be starting to turn the corner. He’s still playing less than 15 minutes per game (less than last year) with modest production (5.3 PPG and 3.6 RPG) But he’s been quite efficient so far, shooting a remarkable 71.4% from the field. This number is bound to regress a bit (only shot 56% in his two first seasons) and he’s still not quite providing the defensive presence that I’ve seen from him in high school. Like Ongenda and Samuel, he’s also lost playing time and has been less productive since the beginning of conference play, perhaps also due to injuries or COVID. Still, he’s been playing well enough this year to have me intrigued. And he’s doing it for a good Kansas State team, who just beat #19 ranked Texas Tech and nearly upset #7 Kansas.
Team Canada Outlook: If the previously-mentioned prospects continue to build on their upside, I believe at the moment that they would have the edge over Ezeagu. He’s a somewhat limited offensive player and not as big (Edey), nimble (Ongenda), or versatile (Samuels; Aimaq) as some of our other college players. Ezeagu has never played for a Canadian junior team, though he was invited to one of the junior training camps a few years ago. He’d have to continue growing and improving to be considered for the big stage. Nonetheless, he’s certainly another name to keep in mind for the smaller tournaments and the qualifiers once he becomes a pr0.
JADEN BEDIAKO | Junior, Santa Clara | 21.4yo C | 6’10, 240lbs, 7’3 wingspan | Brampton, ON
Jaden Bediako (Courtesy i.ytimg.com)
Overview: Coming out of high school with some promise, the older Bediako brother has never quite been able to find his footing in college. After a decent rookie year (6.5ppg and 5.2rpg), he’s been drifting both as a sophomore and a junior without the ability to make perceptible progress. He does shoot the ball better this year (65% after less than 50% in his first two seasons). However, the volume is low (less than 3 shots per game) and he hasn’t improved on other statistical aspects since his rookie year. Watching him in one of Santa Clara’s games this year, he did look significantly lighter on his feet and more coordinated than he did at a younger age. Yet, he doesn’t quite manage to translate it into better offensive or defensive production.
Team Canada Outlook: At a younger age, Bediako was considered a promising center prospect by Canada Basketball. He played for no less than 5 different Canadian junior teams, from U16 to U19. And while he never quite excelled in these tournaments, his length and big body were always considered intriguing. I wouldn’t be shocked to see him get an invitation to the senior team at some point in his career, as he can certainly put a body on rival centers. However, for top competitions one hopes that the other options will be available.
In the next feature, I’ll write about a few notable college underclassmen.