TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Mfiondu Kabengele spent his first year in Tallahassee learning to defend against future pros Jonathan Isaac, Dwayne Bacon and Xavier Rathan-Mayes.
At the other end of the court, he learned to drive to the basket against – and shoot over – 7-foot-1 center Michael Ojo.
There were times when the redshirting freshman wished he could be out on the floor during games, especially as the Seminoles racked up 26 wins and ended a five-year NCAA tournament drought.
But the lessons learned and experience gained on the practice floors proved to be invaluable.
“I learned how to be more mature,” Kabengele said. “I learned how to stay competitive, because those guys are really great players. It was really beneficial for me.”
A year later, both Kabengele and his teammates on the Florida State men’s basketball team are reaping the rewards.
A 6-9, 235-pound forward, Kabengele can eat minutes (he’s averaged more than 17 per game in ACC play), grab rebounds (5.3 per game, fourth-most on the team) and give the Seminoles a physical post presence who isn’t afraid to get his hands a little dirty.
“I kind of test how the officials are going to call the game, if they’re going to let us go or be more (tight),” Kabengele said with a slight smile. “…I’m very aggressive on my box-outs or I’m pushing and shoving so I can get through. And the referees will let me know what I can do.”
But perhaps the most impressive thing Kabengele can do, at least for a player of his size, is shoot.
He connects at a 50-percent clip (54 of 108) from the field, has shown that he can consistently knock down mid-range jump shots and is accurate (47.1 percent) from 3-point distance as well.
It all adds up to make Kabengele a prototypical – if not a little raw – modern basketball player: A big-bodied athlete defined more by his wide range of skills than by a traditional position label.
“He’s a perfect example of a player who is tall, 6-9, and can do basically everything,” junior forward Terance Mann said.
If Kabengele looks like a guard in a big man’s body, that’s because for the first few years of his basketball life, that’s exactly what he was.
Not until a major growth spurt prior to his senior year of high school, and then another one after that, did Kabengele reach his current stature.
Kabengele said his coaches at Corpus Christi High in Burlington, Ont., told him to expect a spurt, but, at 16 years old and 6-foot-4, he never believed it would come.
“I was like, ‘I don’t know, I think this is it,’” Kabengele said. “Then it hit. And my coach was like, ‘You’re not done.’”
He wasn’t. After surging from 6-4 to 6-7, Kabengele later grew another two inches to 6-foot-9.
And FSU coach Leonard Hamilton believes that Kabengele may still grow even taller.
“That’s why we have those knee braces on him,” Hamilton said. “We’re trying to protect his growth patterns.”
Kabengele’s role naturally changed when his coaches moved him from the backcourt to the post, but rather than completely reinvent his game, Kabengele instead tried to apply his previous skillset to his new position.
The experiment turned out just fine. He averaged 14.5 points and 6.7 rebounds per game as a senior at Corpus Christi, then upped those numbers to 19.0 and 10.0 during a stint at Don Bosco Prep outside Chicago.
“I was always a physical guard or a physical wing player,” Kabengele said. “So when I came to be a ‘big,’ it wasn’t that much of a change.”
Sitting out a year, however, was. While he had no qualms about redshirting, Kabengele admits now that he had a few things to learn about adapting to life as a high-level collegiate athlete.
Especially when it came to creating healthy eating habits.
“I wasn’t playing and I wasn’t burning the calories that I would get,” Kabengele said. “So we’d go out to eat and the guys would play and burn all the energy. But I’d be there and sitting, and it was all accumulating.”
Things were at their toughest in March, when Florida State arrived in New York for the ACC tournament. Kabengele tipped the scales near 270 pounds and found that, all of a sudden, his knees ached in ways they hadn’t before.
That’s when he knew that he had to make a change.
“Going into that summer, I took dieting more seriously,” Kabengele said. “I cut my portions down. I worked out a lot. …
“I was crazy. I was super dedicated.”
Kabengele’s dedication was rewarded a few months later, when much of the buzz surrounding FSU’s preseason practices centered around the redshirt freshman forward with the surprisingly lethal jump shot.
He began the season by scoring at least 10 points in four of FSU’s first five games, and he earned his first career double-double with a 16-point, 12-rebound outburst during a win over The Citadel in November.
Kabengele has managed to put that aggressive streak to work, too. While his personal foul numbers are among the most on the team, he’s fouled out only once.
And Hamilton believes that kind of attitude, paired with Kabengele’s physical gifts, is what will propel him into a promising future.
“He plays with such passion and reckless abandon,” Hamilton said. “He’s extremely competitive and physical. We know that with that type of demeanor that he’s going to reach his full potential. And he does have some potential that we see growing every day in practice.”