High-flying hoopster St. Paul’s standout puts faith first

The best basketball prospect you’ve probably never heard of runs the floor like a defensive back, feathers a sweet mid-range jump shot left-handed and plays in empty high school gyms around Winnipeg.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 04/02/2022 (238 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The best basketball prospect you’ve probably never heard of runs the floor like a defensive back, feathers a sweet mid-range jump shot left-handed and plays in empty high school gyms around Winnipeg.

This is one of the unfortunate realities of life under pandemic health restrictions because the truth of it is the Ramogi Nyagudi show is probably best experienced live and in person.

On Monday afternoon, you would have been able to watch, via a livestream feed, another day at the office for the high-flying 15-year-old forward from St. Paul’s High School. He scored 35 points, dunked twice, collected 10 rebounds and blocked two shots to lead the Crusaders to a 107-85 victory over a very good John Taylor Pipers squad in varsity boys basketball action at the St. Paul’s gym.

Ramogi Nyagudi scored 35 points, dunked twice, collected 10 rebounds and blocked two shots during a game Monday. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

The Pipers could be the second-best team in the province and the unbeaten Crusaders, led by Nyagudi and Grade 12 guard Lorence dela Cruz, look like a juggernaut.

St. Paul’s coach Jeff Laping, who has guided a number of star athletes who have come through the school in his 22 years on the bench, has never seen a combination of height and athleticism like Nyagudi’s before.

“He’s still very raw, obviously,” says Laping. “His shot isn’t quite where it needs to be but you’ll see it in the game where his defensive skill level is really, really amazing and his athleticism is terrific. He can get hands in passing lanes and makes plays and then he gets down to the other end of the court and makes plays around the basket.”

Laping had the Grade 9 student in his English class a year ago — the high school basketball season was wiped out by the pandemic — but when Nyagudi returned for Grade 10, he had grown another 2 1/2 inches — and now measures 6-foot-8 1/2.

His growth spurt has shown no sign of slowing, which was part of the reason Canada Basketball staged a prospect identification camp in Winnipeg last November.

“The intriguing thing I think for his age is just his height — his length — and his skill level,” says Mike Meeks, Canada Basketball’s assistant general manager of men’s high performance. “He does a lot of things. He can handle the ball. He’s left-handed. He can shoot it. He can dribble it. He’s a very good defender and I think what puts him over the top is just the energy he plays with and his character — when he walks into a gym the whole place explodes with energy.

“When he’s on the floor he plays as hard on the defensive end as he does on the offensive end. He’s unselfish, he competes. So, he has all the things you want to see from your young athlete with potential.”

Nyagudi, properly exposed to the sport when he was in Grade 7 at Linden Meadows School, remembers he struggled to get a feel for the game at first.

“My movement wasn’t very good,” he remembers. “I knew how to dribble, just not the greatest. My shot was really bad but the one thing I really could do was get into the paint and get an easy layup.”

Nyagudi first started playing basketball while a Grade 7 student at Linden Meadows School. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

While basketball has become an integral part of Nyagudi’s life, he has other priorities, too.

His family was drawn to St. Paul’s academic tradition and the Jesuit-run school’s adherence to Christian values. The Nyagudi family belongs to the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

Among the church’s beliefs: observing the Sabbath on Saturday. The time between sundown Friday until sundown Saturday is a biblical time of rest and worship, which, among other things, means no basketball.

As a result, Ramogi had to miss the recent Crusaders appearance in the Daniel McIntyre Collegiate tournament final, a game they won without him.

“It’s always been an issue,” says Ramogi’s father, Robert, who emigrated from Kenya to Minneapolis where his three children were born before settling in Winnipeg in 2014. “It was an issue for me growing up, but you’ve got to make your decisions and principles. If it works, it works. If it doesn’t work, which one is your most important? (If) your God is the most important, then you choose and you make that decision.”

The kid who once dreamed of becoming a neurosurgeon now has visions of playing in the NBA someday. Ramogi accepts the rules his faith has placed on him.

“When I started in Grade 4, I wasn’t too jazzed about the idea that I couldn’t play basketball on Friday night and Saturday,” he says. “But later, as I grew and matured, I realized this is something important to me and it’s something important that I need to be able to keep. I need to keep my faith as I continue to grow and as I continue to mature, because my siblings are looking up to me.

“I have a lot of people looking up to me, and I want to make sure that they know that they need to keep their God first before anything else.”

‘UNBELIEVABLY LOADED WITH TALENT’

Canada Basketball’s Mike Meeks is well aware of the explosion of talent in our country in recent years.

But he says the crop of Canadian players born in 2006, currently attending Grade 10, may be the best, yet. And Winnipegger Ramogi Nyagudi rates very high on his list.

Canada Basketball’s Mike Meeks is well aware of the explosion of talent in our country in recent years.

But he says the crop of Canadian players born in 2006, currently attending Grade 10, may be the best, yet. And Winnipegger Ramogi Nyagudi rates very high on his list.

“Physically I think he’s definitely in the upper percentile of athletes for his age,” says Meeks, Canada Basketball’s assistant GM for men’s high performance. “I don’t know what happened in 2006 and I don’t know what parents were taking vitamin-wise or what inspired them, but that age group is unbelievably loaded with talent and (Ramogi’s) up amongst the best of them.”

Meeks says part of what sets the 6-foot-8 1/2 Nyagudi apart is his agility — big men are usually slower to develop. While Nyagudi’s future may be as a perimeter player, Meeks encourages big men to learn to play close to the basket early in their careers.

“What happens to a lot of tall players in our country in the recent past is they stopped making them work on being effective close to the basket because quote, unquote, ‘post-up is dead,’ ” says Meeks, a former national team member who played professionally in Europe for more than a decade.

“But at the same time, for some players early it’s actually the best way to use them. And if you don’t teach them early, they won’t become efficient at it down the road. So, it became like a dying kind of skill set.”

Nyagudi’s family belongs to the Seventh-day Adventist Church, which does not permit activities outside worship from sundown Friday until as the sundown Saturday. Meeks sounds undeterred by the restriction.

“I’ve met his parents, I’ve met him,” he says. “I think their approach to this whole thing is right. You can never fault somebody for their faith. I know with Canada Basketball, we’re going to work around whatever we can to have him be a part of the things that we have coming up in his age group.”

His emerging talent and size on the basketball court has added another layer of complication — the interest is keen from Canada Basketball to have him play for the national U17 team this summer, and talent-hungry prep schools in Canada and the U.S. have also come calling.

The kid who once dreamed of becoming a neurosurgeon now has visions of playing in the NBA someday. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

Travelling to national team events is one thing but it appears the Nyagudis will put off the challenge of the prep school route for now.

“We’ve consulted a lot about it ourselves, too, and we didn’t think that at his age he was ready for something like that,” says Robert. “Again, our first and foremost (aim) is education for him. The talent is there but there’s also life after your career playing. You’ve got to make sure that you’re balancing those accordingly. So, for us right now, we feel he’s not ready for that.”

While at St. Paul’s, Ramogi continues to refine his game. Used as a centre and power forward so far this season, he’s eager to test himself at guard — a prospect that should be terrifying for opposing coaches.

“I’m just trying to be able to understand my game a little bit more,” he says. “(I want to) learn different positions, too, as I continue to play and just overall perfect certain things that I am not really good at.”

mike.sawatzky@winnipegfreepress.com

Twitter: @sawa14

Mike Sawatzky

Mike Sawatzky
Reporter

Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.

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