Perspective | He’s a top-20 talent, a Duke commit and Paul VI’s most gigantic fan

Perspective | He’s a top-20 talent, a Duke commit and Paul VI’s most gigantic fan

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0

One of the most talented prospects in the Washington area sure makes a good cheerleader. Patrick Ngongba II, all 6 feet 11 inches of him, is leaning forward in his seat on the Paul VI sideline during his team’s 6351 win Monday night in the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference boys’ basketball final, and just as senior and conference player of the year Darren Harris rises for the night’s first three-pointer, Ngongba springs up and suspends his right arm in the air. When a loose ball squirts out of bounds and the referees give possession to Gonzaga, Ngongba leans back in exasperation, throwing his hands over his head. Then, as the five Panthers on the court go to work on the other end, Ngongba claps rhythmically while chanting “DE-FENSE!”

Ngongba’s voice works just fine. Same for his hands, which he uses for signaling possession, celebrating made three-pointers and informing poor defenders that they’re “too small” when they try to stop his teammates from scoring inside. His right foot seems robust as well. But it’s the foot that forced one of the highest-rated prep players in the area to spend his entire senior season dressed in warmups, rooting for this top-ranked Paul VI powerhouse, not dominating with them on the court.

On the best night of high school hoops in this area, in arguably the best high school league in the country, Paul VI didn’t need Ngongba to dispatch No. 2 Gonzaga inside a rowdy and packed Bender Arena on American University’s campus. While many programs might have stumbled after losing a star, Panthers Coach Glenn Farello’s factory of talent steamrolled. And all season, Ngongba had the best seat to watch it unfold.

“It’s been a little upsetting that I couldn’t be out there, but it’s been fun watching them do what they’re able to do — winning,” Ngongba said. “It’s been fun cheering them on.”

Watching the 18-year-old Ngongba during what could have been one of the more trying nights of his young life — his Paul VI teammates bounding across the court after their victory — may be as meaningful and telling as it was watching him in any of his summer tournament appearances. There wasn’t a trace of sullenness in his demeanor. Not even a glint of resentment, an emotion that would have been pardoned considering the circumstances.

“I’ve been really proud of how he’s handled himself. He doesn’t show that disappointment. He’s there for his teammates. He’s doing what he can to get positive energy,” Farello said. “That says a lot about him and his character.”

Ngongba, a five-star big man ranked among the top 20 players nationally, lost his entire senior season, his moment to shine, because of a lingering injury from the summer. He followed the familiar script for five-star recruits. He generated buzz during the spring tournaments, then sizzled when the weather turned warmer. His reel of dunks, rebounds and all-around bully ball inside the paint enticed the coaches of the blue-blood programs to sit in the front row of his games. He collected scholarship offers like souvenirs — and by July, his stock had risen to the point that he had to create his own elite eight, programs that included reigning champion Connecticut, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan and Duke. He committed to Duke. He worked out with Hall of Famer Tim Duncan. He was set for his senior stage.

And then, the little sprain that he tried to play through during the closing games of Peach Jam last July turned out to be something after all.

He went through preseason workouts with Paul VI, but he hurt his foot again. He had had a previous injury with his other foot, but a doctor told him and his family that this one could be career-ending if Ngongba did not have surgery. So on Nov. 28, Ngongba had two screws placed in his right foot, and his senior season ended before it could start. He didn’t play a minute — well, maybe about 50 seconds. On senior night, Farello sensed the game was well in hand, and so he told Ngongba before the fourth quarter to put on his jersey. Ngongba checked in at the end, just to dribble out the clock.

But when it mattered, while Paul VI played in showcase tournaments such as the City of Palms Classic in Fort Myers, Fla., and the Hoophall Classic in Springfield, Mass., Ngongba was in either his walking boot or his warmups. No one got to see him display those lessons learned from his one-on-one sessions with Duncan, such as lowering his body and securing his base on post moves so that defenders could not bump him off so easily. He didn’t even get to show the little improvements in his basketball IQ that will never make a highlight reel, such as running back in transition defense and knowing where the secondary scorer might attack from.

Of course, sitting down as the games went on was hard.

“Probably like when I was in the cast,” Ngongba said, remembering the times he wasn’t always so cheerful. “I probably didn’t want to come to games or anything. But, I mean, once I got out of the cast, I started doing stuff and trying to get back.”

Few rivals probably felt sorry for the Panthers, who are overflowing with senior talent and loaded with more in the underclassmen ranks. The team lost its standout big man, but alongside Ngongba, four other seniors — Harris, his cousin Isaiah Abraham, Garrett Sundra and Ben Hammond — are heading to Division I programs next season. So Paul VI still had more than enough to finish 30-2, which also speaks to how his teammates stepped up in Ngongba’s absence. Harris shot the ball like a budding pro. Abraham flexed his muscle inside for buckets and rebounds. And the play of underclassmen Jaquan Womack and Jordan Smith made it seem that the Panthers might return to Bender Arena this time next year.

“As I always say, no one comes to PVI to be a role player,” Farello said. “We’re all here because you all can play and contribute in your own way. So the kids were obviously feeling for their teammate but also knew that they had a job to do. And they were very capable of doing that. So that’s been nice to see how these guys have risen up.”

After the final horn, as Panthers players rushed the floor, Ngongba joined the handshake line for a more subtle, safer postgame activity. But as he walked back, teammates and Paul VI students mobbed him. And so the Panthers’ tallest cheerleader smiled and jumped in the circle, too.

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