Like many young Canadian basketball prodigies, Ray Kasongo came to the United States to further his basketball career.
The 6-foot-8, 230-pound power forward models his game after Knicks’ star Amar’e Stoudemire. He left his home in Scarborough, Ontario about two years ago and now plays at Pikeville (Ky.) High, where he lives with a host family.
“I always wanted to move down to the U.S. to better my chances of getting a scholarship,” Kasongo told SNY.tv by phone. “There isn’t much exposure out in Canada.”
In recent years Canadians like Tristan Thompson, Cory Joseph, Myck Kabongo, Andrew Wiggins, Xavier Rathan-Mayes, Tyler Ennis and others have come to American schools to further their basketball careers.
Thompson, Kabongo and Ennis all initially chose St. Benedict’s Prep in Newark, and the 6-9 Thompson ended up being the No. 4 pick in last year’s NBA Draft. Joseph is with the San Antonio Spurs, Kabongo is currently at Texas and Ennis is headed to Syracuse next season. (Thompson, Joseph and Kabongo finished their prep careers at Findlay Prep.).
The 6-8 Wiggins is considering Kentucky, Florida State, North Carolina and Kansas and is projected as the No. 1 pick in the 2014 NBA Draft. Rathan-Mayes, his teammate at Huntington (W.V.) Prep, has signed with Florida State.
“Those guys, they’ve been everyone’s role models back in Canada,” Kasongo said.
“Even Andrew Wiggins, everyone is trying to do the same thing they did. Come down to the States and go D-1. If it happens, if you’re good enough, you can possibly make it to the league. That’s what I’m trying to do.”
“Oh my God,” said Michael Duncan, the director of the Ohio Basketball Club, Kasongo’s AAU team. “[If] he gets he right culture and the right development, the sky’s the limit for this guy, I’m telling you.
“He runs the floor like a deer, jumps out the gym crazy. When he came he was just raw. He’s gotta develop some post moves, gotta get a go-to move. If he ever gets the right coaching, it’s a rap. He’s gonna be unbelievable. He’s just so super-strong and athletic.”
As of now, N.C. State has offered Kasongo and schools like DePaul, UCLA, Kentucky, Kansas and West Virginia are involved, although many of them say they are still evaluating and need to see Kasongo’s transcripts. UCLA assistant Korey McCray is currently in Kentucky to see Kasongo and 2013 Canadian point guard Emmanuel Owootoah of Cordia (Ky.) High.
The man handling Kasongo’s recruitment is his mentor, Brandon Bender, a former Louisville player who has been involved in some controversy in recent years.
Both Pat Forde of Yahoo! Sports and Pete Thamel, then of the New York Times, have written articles saying that Bender was involved with the alleged runner Kenneth Caldwell, who brought the NCAA’s attention to UCF in 2011 because of questionable recruiting tactics.
For his part, Bender dismisses those claims.
“I’ve never been a runner and never will be a runner,” he told SNY.tv. “My focus is to help kids who need help getting to college. People may call me names and talk reckless about me, but people close to me and around me know my intentions are good.”
As for the UCF case, Bender pointed out that the NCAA investigator in that case, Abigail Grantstein, was recently fired by the NCAA “for trying to ruin Shabazz Muhammad’s life.” Grantstein compromised the NCAA’s investigation into Muhammad, a UCLA freshman, when her boyfriend spoke aloud about the case on an airplane.
“If I was Central Florida, I’d appeal everything to the NCAA,” Bender said.
As for his relationship with Bender, Kasongo calls him his mentor and says nothing but positive things.
“I was in Canada and my head coach knew Brandon,” Kasongo said. “That’s how he put me in contact with Brandon and he took it from there. He became my mentor. He’s been helping me with this basketball thing, giving me advice.”
Bender maintains relationships with college coaches, which he says can only help in recruiting.
“I’m just glad and honored to still have relationships with college coaches who have known me since they recruited me in high school,” he said. “They know what I am and they don’t care what [reporters] write or wrote because they will forever be friends.”
As far as Kasongo’s recruitment, Bender says the young man is looking for a good academic situation, as well as a coaching staff that is patient and can teach him the fundamentals.
“He is looking for a good academic situation and a coaching staff that’s willing to teach and be patient,” Bender said. “There is a lot he has to learn at the college level but he has some great institutions after him and the kid’s ceiling is very high.
“He has a freakish body. He is built like a man. In high school, he is the second-most athletic big man in 2014 I’ve seen behind Cliff Alexander.”
Kasongo said he models his game after Stoudemire, who is back playing well for the Knicks after undergoing offseason knee surgery.
“I love his game,” Kasongo said.
Kasongo and Bender both say the plan is for Kasongo to spend next year at a prep school — possibly Thomasville (N.C.) Prep– and then to attend college beginning in 2014.
“My plan is to play another summer of AAU and then go to prep next year,” Kasongo said.
And after that, he hopes the road ahead leads to college and possibly the NBA.