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September 30, 2011
Kabongo had grown up in Canada with Cory Joseph and Tristan Thompson before all three players decided as teenagers they could better develop their basketball skills in the United States. Kabongo signed with Texas last fall, just as Joseph and Thompson were beginning their freshman seasons with the Longhorns.
But as Joseph and Thompson developed into key contributors as freshmen, it became apparent to Kabongo that he wouldn't get a chance to team up with his friends.
"We've always wanted to play with each other all our lives when we were growing up," said Kabongo, a 6-foot-1 point guard from Toronto. "That's why we all decided to come to Texas. But in the back of my mind, I knew how hard those two guys worked and knew they'd be in the position that they were in - to be able to go in the NBA draft and play in the NBA."
Sure enough, Joseph and Thompson left school after their freshmen seasons. Each was a first-round pick, Thompson going to the Cleveland Cavaliers with the fourth overall pick and Joseph going to the San Antonio Spurs with the 29th selection.
But their decisions didn't cause Kabongo to regret his decision. The thought of joining Joseph and Thompson was just one reason he chose Texas. It wasn't the only reason.
Kabongo knew about the Longhorns' recent history of playing freshman point guards. T.J. Ford was a Big 12 freshman of the year in 2002, while Daniel Gibson earned that same honor three years later. The tradition continued with Avery Bradley in 2009-10 and Joseph last season, though both could more accurately be described as combo guards.
Moreover, Kabongo had developed a solid relationship with Texas coach Rick Barnes' staff. Even though he briefly withdrew his commitment in late October, he reconfirmed his pledge less than a week later.
"With everything, they were very honest with me," said Kabongo, the No. 26 overall prospect in the 2011 recruiting class. "They kept it very real with me. They didn't just tell me things I wanted to hear. Whenever I call Coach Barnes, he's always telling me things he thought I could improve on as a basketball player and as a person.
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"Whenever you have people challenging you to be better at certain things, it helps."
Texas' staff expects Kabongo to make a big impact. His reputation as a pass-first point guard should earn him immediate respect from teammates, and his work ethic already has caught the attention of his coaches.
"He's up in the morning at 6:30 every day in the gym on his own," Texas assistant Rob Lanier said. "Any time he's asked me to come in and work him out ... by the time I'm out there, he's already got a full sweat going and already has been going for a half-hour.
"A couple of times, I've worked him out, and we come back that night. He's really motivated. He's not taking anything for granted."
As Lanier attempted to compare Kabongo's work ethic to any other players he's coached, he put his new pupil in select company.
"Sean Singletary was like that when I was at Virginia; Nick Calathes was like that at Florida," said Lanier, who was an assistant at both schools. "Guys who were really, really passionate about getting better and really comfortable with putting in the time it takes to become a good player. Those two guys in particular stood out, and Myck's wired the same way in that regard."
Kabongo's coaches also say he has uncanny maturity and leadership abilities. Then again, Kabongo has more life experience than the typical college freshman. That's what happens when you leave your family and native country at an age when most people haven't started driving.
Kabongo wasn't even in high school when he approached his mother about moving to the United States. Nene Kabongo was hesitant about the idea because she didn't want the second-youngest of her six children to live so far away at such a critical time in his development.
She waited a year to see how he handled himself. After Kabongo set the right example and made the right choices throughout that year, his mother let him make the move. He left Canada to play for St. Benedict's, a national high school power in Newark, N.J.
"I knew he was a good player, but I'm his mother," Nene Kabongo said. "It wasn't easy as a mother to let him go just because of sports. I want to make sure I take care of my kids. I want to know that they're safe. I want to know what time they come home. It wasn't easy for me."
Before letting her son go, Nene Kabongo spoke to St. Benedict's coach Danny Hurley and his wife. Although she traveled from Canada to New Jersey as often as she could, Nene Kabongo couldn't see her son as much as she liked. She needed someone to watch over him and make sure he made the right choices on and off the floor.
She had done her research and knew Hurley was one of the nation's top high school coaches. She needed him to fill an even bigger role.
She reminded Hurley of this by issuing him this reminder: "He's a player for you, but for me, he's my baby. Treat him like my son, not just like a number or player."
Kabongo quickly developed into a star on a St. Benedict's team that also featured Thompson. Hurley recalls a couple of games that exemplified Kabongo's poise and competitiveness.
His first year at St. Benedict's, Kabongo went 12-for-12 from the free-throw line in the second half to spark his team to a victory over a nationally ranked St. Patrick team that featured North Carolina recruit Dexter Strickland.
There were two later confrontations with St. Pat's teams that included Kyrie Irving, who would go on to become the No. 1 overall pick in the most recent NBA draft. After struggling against Irving in a loss, Kabongo came back the following year and drove the length of the court for the game-clinching basket.
"I think he's as well-rounded a prospect as you'll see at that [point guard] position," Hurley said. "He's got a great blend of size, length, speed and quickness as well as a level of competitiveness and leadership that you rarely come across. For me, Myck was kind of the perfect point guard in my mind. As far as his game, there was no deficient area."
Kabongo had the same types of feelings toward his coach.
"He did such a great job of getting me prepared for everything," Kabongo said.
Hurley took over at Wagner at the end of Kabongo's junior year. That caused Kabongo to move even farther away from Canada, as he spent his senior season at Findlay Prep of Henderson, Nev., where Joseph and Thompson had played a year earlier.
Kabongo has moved around so much already that he won't have to deal with the typical freshman concerns of living away from home for the first time. Sure, it would have been nice to play alongside a couple of his buddies from Canada. But he's mature enough to thrive without them.
"It's not weird at all," Kabongo said. "Those two guys worked their tails off and had a coaching staff that pushed them, and that's why they're where they are today. I'm not surprised at the success they had on draft night. I'm more than happy for them."
Kabongo won't necessarily be away from his Canadian friends for long. If Kabongo continues his rapid development, he could meet Thompson and Joseph in an NBA arena sooner rather than later.
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