On the day Hamilton Heights post player Abdulhakim Ado made a verbal commitment to Mississippi State, his coach, Zach Ferrell, said Syracuse would be at school later to observe practice.
Yes, the same Syracuse that defied the college basketball gods and advanced to the NCAA Final Four.
“I kind of felt bad,” Ado said Thursday. “I thought I should have waited a little while longer so my teammates could get the opportunity to be looked at.”
A relative newcomer to basketball, Ado, a 6 foot 10 inch, 240 pound center that helped the Hawks won 27 of 30 games, earn a national ranking and barely miss out on playing in the prestigious Dick’s National tournament in New York, can be excused for not knowing all minutia about college recruiting.
A commitment doesn’t throw up an immediate road block for coaches to keep recruiting prospects and it certainly can’t keep some from changing their minds.
“Some schools kept recruiting me,” Ado said, “but not that many. The moment I figured out Mississippi State was where I wanted to go, I had developed a good relationship with the coaches over there and I felt like I would fit in there.”
Ado, a player with dominating defensive skills that swayed top colleges to recruit him seriously for years, held true to his commitment Thursday when he signed scholarship papers to Mississippi State, rounding out coach Ben Howland’s 2016 recruiting class.
“This is a dream come true, to go to college and have my teammates and coaches stand here with me today when I sign with Mississippi State,” Ado said in the Hawks’ campus gymnasium on Hickory Valley Road. “I miss my mom, but this is my other family.”
Although statistics on the school’s website have not been updated with the final 10 or so games of the season, Ado averaged about six points, eight rebounds and 2.7 blocks per game for the Hawks.
Two of the team’s three losses were against Dick’s national champion Oak Hill Academy – 60-55 in a Bristol, Va., tournament and 64-47 in the McCallie Classic.
The third setback was a 45-34 decision against Sunrise Christian Academy.
Ironically, Hamilton Heights defeated 22-foot Academy, out of Greenville, S.C., 65-62, the only team to beat Oak Hill this past season.
With the influx of three super-talented juniors from Canada – Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Therren Shelton-Szmidt and Nickeil Alexander-Walker – the dynamics of the Hawks’ offense shifted to the perimeter where the Canadians exceled.
Ado’s incredible defensive skills, which allowed him to protect the rim with shot-blocking and rebounding, continued to wow opponents and college coaches.
Ado realizes the gap between defensive prowess and lackluster offensive production needs to be closed before he enters the rough-and-tumble Southeastern Conference.
“Defense is about 70 percent of my game,” said Ado, who played barefooted the first time he competed in basketball on a dirt court in Nigeria just a few short years before landing in America at Hamilton Heights Christian Academy. “The offense is about 30 percent. Right now I’m trying to get a little bit stronger, but I have to work on my offense.”
There were plenty of times visiting college coaches would spent their entire time with him talking solely about Ado’s mammoth wing span, shot-blocking abilities and skills to rebound.
“Not many at all talked about my offense,” he said.
Ado thinks about it a lot lately.
He is the second player in as many days to sign with the Bulldogs, joining Alabama guard E.J. Datcher, who signed Wednesday. MSU’s other signees – Oak Hill strong forward Mario Kegler; Eli Wright, Owensboro, Ky.; center Schnider Herard, of Plano, Texas; point guard Tyson Carter, of Starkville, Miss., and point guard Lamar Peters, New Orleans, La., all signed in November.
“I’m trying to get used to shooting the 15-foot shot, playing a face-up game, the one-dribble pull-ups and that kind of stuff. It’s really not easy for somebody’s who’s been a defensive player his whole life to have much confidence on offense.
“My coaches here have always told me to shoot the ball, shoot the ball. I’m more of a team player. I was always passing the ball. I’m starting to get some offensive confidence, I think.”
In frequent conversations with Howland, Ado quickly understood his offensive mind-set would have to improve fairly quickly at Mississippi State.
“Ben is like telling me he wants me to play the four-spot and five-spot,” Ado said. “That hit me real quick that I have to improve my jump shot. I know I can’t live and die by blocking shots. It’s fun sometimes, but sometimes I have to get out of my (comfort) zone and increase my shooting range.”
Still, Ferrell, who just completed his third season as the Hawks’ head coach, tried to use Ado as a defensive weapon while at the same time laying a foundation for improved offense during his final years at Hamilton Heights.
“Our goal was to give him a basketball foundation that he could build on at the next level,” Ferrell said. “A kid in America might start playing basketball at age 5 and that’s an eight- or nine-year jump-start on somebody like Abdul, who started when he was about 11 or 12. Abdul’s basketball foundation is limited.”
Ferrell is confident that once Ado has the Mississippi State basketball resources as his disposal his progress as a player will be steady and productive. Ferrell has seen first-hand the value of Ado’s defense for three years.
“His ability to dominate a game defensively is something college coaches have a high-value for,” the coach said. “His ability to protect the rim and rebound the ball is something coaches know he provides. His defensive skills are something special.”
And Ferrell also knows Ado’s work ethic will serve him well as he embarks on a major-college basketball career with the Bulldogs, who are expected to start the 2016-17 season ranked among the Top 25 teams in the country.
“I’ve known Abdul since the first day he stepped foot inside America,” Ferrell said. “I’ve worked him just about every day since then. To be with him today when he signs to get a college education is definitely a special moment and we know it’s something that will change his family’s life forever.
“It has been great to be a part of that and we’re all excited for him.”
While talking to Ado, who has a welcoming smile across his face, it’s easy to tell he’s excited about the opportunity before him.
“After my visit to Penn State, I came back to school and thought, ‘Hey, I’m going to Mississippi State because I felt that would be best for me,’ ” Ado said. “When we played McCallie at their gym, that’s when I committed. Now, two or three months later, I know I’ve made the right decision.
“I’ve been over there just once on my official visit, spending two or three days. Everything was exciting: the school, the administration department, the athletic director and the coaches. Everybody showed me love and made me feel great. It’s a great atmosphere.
“It’s not like going to Las Vegas or New York. The school is just there. You play sports and go to class. It’s the town and the school. That’s it. I’ve been that way since I was little – go to school and come back home. That’s my atmosphere and I think that’s why I will fit in down there.”
(Contact Larry Fleming at email@example.com and on Twitter @larryfleming44)