Nov. 9, 2015
By Jon Cooper | The Good Word
Sylvester Ogbonda just can’t enough when it comes to basketball.
That’s understandable, as the game is still relatively new for the 19-year-old native of Port Harcourt, Nigeria, who didn’t touch a basketball until age 14.
The age when most kids have already perfected mimicking the acrobatic moves of their favorite NBA stars, Ogbonda was first getting a feel for the basketball.
Testing his patience early on was that a feel was pretty much all he got.
“At first, it was frustrating because all I did was, my coach drew a little circle and he told me to just bounce the ball in a circle,” he recalled. “This was happening for like weeks. That was all I was doing. I could see other people playing and dunking and I was like, ‘When do I start doing that?’ But he really helped me not learning the bad habits of the game but coming here to learn the right way, the fundamentals.”
Four years later, Ogbonda is a freshman at Georgia Tech and while he is not sure how much he’ll touch the ball or the floor Friday night at McCamish Pavilion in the Yellow Jackets’ season opener against Cornell, he is confident he will make the most of whatever time and touches he does get and contribute right away.
“I see myself coming off the bench going getting rebounds, defensive stops, scoring around the basket, things like that,” said the 6-10, 238-pound forward. “I’m more of a rebound person, scoring around the basket.
“I’m pretty excited,” he added. “I think I know all the plays now, I know what to do on the floor when I’m in. It’s just keep on practicing, getting ready, working on myself, my skills doing what I need to do to help the team.”
He’s made a very good first impression.
“He’s a very motivated player. He works really hard, very physical, he runs the floor hard, he competes. He has a good jump shot,” said Assistant Coach Mamadou N’Diaye. “So he just needs to keep on working and keep on getting better.”
That doesn’t appear to be a problem, as he’s that committed to his new love as far as sports go.
It wasn’t always that way.
Ogbonda’s breaking in as a basketball player required breaking up with soccer, the sport he’d grown up playing, something those around him had been imploring him to do.
“People kept on telling me that I was tall and that I should go play basketball instead of soccer,” he said, with a laugh. “There are a lot of people coming from Nigeria playing basketball. I came through Ejike Ugboaja’s foundation. He was one of the people that really brought me into basketball.”
Ugboaja, a 2008 pick of the Cleveland Cavaliers, who also has played extensively internationally and with the NIgerian National Team, put his money where his mouth is and Sylvester found himself playing at National Christian Academy in Fort Washington, Maryland. In three seasons, he led the Eagles to a 56-21 record, averaging 10.3 points and 9.0 rebounds, earning league defensive player of the year as a junior and third-team All-Metro as a senior. He also excelled academically, as he was named valedictorian of his high school class.
Ogbonda, who chose Georgia Tech over Boston College, Cincinnati and LaSalle, is handling the adjustment to college, on the court and off.
“It’s more than what I envisioned to see coming to college, school-wise, basketball and all that,” he said. “With basketball, it’s way faster, way more aggressive, way more physical. From the school aspect you have loads to do, having homework every day from different classes. So you need to balance basketball and school and your own personal time for yourself.”
He sees his being new to basketball as a double-edged sword in adapting to college ball.
“It’s good and it’s bad in a way,” he said. “It’s bad in a sense that I haven’t had the experience of basketball but now I get to learn the right way from people that played before and played the right way, like Mamadou teaching me basic stuff. So basically it’s learning the right way and getting to play the right way.”
“Nick and Chuck have been a great influence on me,” he said. “Chuck has an amazing hook shot for his size. No matter how tall the player he can shoot over him. He tells me what to do, things to do before practice, come in and shoot, get the feel for the ball. Nick basically tells me stay low, be physical in the paint. Just score, basically.”
He’s already implementing the techniques he’s picked up.
“Nick when you try to three-quarter him, he has that little swing move he does, like goes underneath and posts up,” he said. “I learned that from him because it’s amazing how he does it. At the end of the day he gets the space he wants with his strength and size. I took that from him. With Chuck, just being able to talk on defense, be the energy guy, that’s what I took from him.”
Sylvester has gotten accustomed to the give and take from the upperclassmen while battling in the paint, and has found he’s as good giving back as he is taking it.
“Right now I’m trying to be physical with them when they get the ball,” he said. “Play physical defense, don’t let them get the ball, three-quarter defense, try to play as hard as I can.
“They say I’m fouling them and all that,” he added, with a laugh. “But I’m just trying to work, do what I do.”
N’Diaye likes the exchanges and sees progress coming from it for the freshman.
“You can’t ask for better than playing against Nick and Charles every day,” N’Diaye said. “It’s a great situation for him. Those are dominant post players, strong, they know what they’re doing. I’m pretty sure it’s tough for him, they’re maybe schooling him a little bit but one thing that you can count on, he’s never going to back down from anybody.”
Ogbonda plans to build on the practices as well as the introduction he got to the game over the summer, in the Jackets’ three-game exhibition in the Bahamas, where he averaged 6.0 points and 5.3 rebounds in 12.7 minutes, while making 67 percent of his shots (8-for-12).
He feels he’s ready to show he can run the floor and handle the speed of this new level.
“The speed is crazy fast. Just the way our point guards push the ball,” he said. “I move pretty fast for my size I can say. I wouldn’t say it’s too fast for me. I would just say being able to play at that speed and think at the same time, that’s the biggest thing. You can run up and down and you don’t have a clue what you’re doing but just running up and down knowing what you’re doing and still have your legs and your body able to perform, that’s it.”
“Coming in here, I wouldn’t say I was out of shape, but I wasn’t used to the pace of the game here,” he added. “Now I feel like I’m in better shape, good condition.
“Learning the style of play, that’s the biggest thing,” he added. “Know where to be when a player is doing something. Don’t just stand in a spot, know how to move, where to move, where to go.”