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I spent some time watching the FIBA U18 Americup games featuring incoming Duke freshman center Patrick Ngonga who made the team mostly as a reserve. The team, coached by Arizona coach Tommy Lloyed, won the gold medal Monday morning by beating a fiesty first half effort from the Argentinian Team and cruising in the second half to take it 110-70. Patrick didn’t play much in the gold medal game, but entered the game with about a minute left in the 3rd quarter – he was still able to, in 11 minutes of play score 6 points, pull down 4 rebounds and block 2 shots. In the 6 games for USA Basketball Ngongba averaged 4.5 points and 4.8 boards. His best game arguably came against Belize in the Group Phase where he scored 12 points, pulled down 6 boards and had 3 assists in 19 minutes of play. His highest rebounding total came during the Group Phase again Brazil where he pulled down 8 boards in 11 minutes.

In November, while at Paul VI Catholic, Ngongba underwent a successful surgery to repair a broken bone located in his foot. It caused him to miss the majority of his senior year basketball wise. Nogonga played in both the Chipotle Nationals and the Jordan Brand Classic in April acquitting himself well in both despite his team losing to his future Duke teammate Cooper Flagg in the National Championship game.

Judging the performance of the 6’10 center is difficult with the mitigating factors being his obvious injury recovery and lack of consistent activity over the past year. While it’s hard to gauge whether he has fully regained his former fitness level as he only averaged 11.5 minutes per game during the event, Pat did look like he was able to run the floor well and seemed to still have good footwork. There were good and not so good in his play – but again – I preface by saying that being out of basketball for the better part of a year, this is perfectly normal and acceptable.

The need to improve:

Pat seemed to lack physicality during the majority of the games, especially during box-out opportunities. Some of this could be a lack of strength training and the fact that a lot of these games were track meets and may not be as suited for his style of play. It’s not something I would judge him too harshly on but I’m calling it as I see it. I think there was a lack of aggressiveness from Ngongba but that could be a lack of confidence as he regains form. Playing against size and strength currently could be an issue for Pat, Duke’s strength training should aid in his development here but again we are talking about an 18 year old freshman and I’m judging him with the standards of a college player. There will be struggle and there will be growth. I’d like to see more of Pat sealing and calling for the basketball as he has really good touch around the rim I think that part of his game will come with repetition. It’s probably difficult to get into a rhythm playing in a reserver role on a team that you only know so well so again, this particular event isn’t all that Pat is, just where he is right now with all of the issues I mentioned previously.

The good stuff:

I think an underrated facet of Big Pat’s game is his ability to trigger the break with an outlet pass. There were several instances where Ngongba would get the rebound and deliver a dime to a guard who had already cruised past half-court it reminded me of what Kevin Love has done in the NBA for the better part of 16 years. If Duke wants to play fast, it all begins on the defensive end and securing defensive reboounds obviously but being able to trigger with a pass that leads your guards ahead of the defense is a very nice arrow to have in your quiver. His passing in general was above average for a young big man and included 2 games with multiple assists during the FIBA tournament. He only committed 5 turnovers the entire tournament. Pat’s basketball IQ in general seems to be beyond his years, he makes the right play which I think will serve him well with the exceptional guard play that the Blue Devils should have this season. If Pat is able to draw double teams, I have full confidence in his ability to find the open man – setting Duke up for good, open shots.

Pat showed some flashes offensively of what he could be this season but moreover what Duke will have in a second or third season. While I’m not wholly certain we’ll see the culmination of what Pat can be in season number, I do think we’ll definitely get glimpse of it as a reserve this season. I think Pat will grow into a pick and pop player, he has good form on his shot and the wherewithal to take them from the mid-range. I think as he becomes stronger his ability to finish against size and against contact will only improve. It’s hard to say, again, whether we get all of that this season but the bones are there as they say. I think Duke having both Maliq Brown and Khaman Maluach in the tank will speed along the growth rate for Ngongba while also allowing him the ability to move at a pace that is comfortable. I wonder if by mid-season he starts to garner more and more minutes as Brown slides to the 4-spot a lot more.

All in all, I think we are getting a player with the upside that can help Duke this season off the bench but could become a featured player in year 2 and 3. Duke’s strength and conditioning program is next level and I feel with Big Pat that once the physical catches up to where he is mentally – watch out.