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Monday, Dec. 11
The Indiana Daily Student

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COLUMN: Enjoy ‘special talent’ Mackenzie Mgbako’s Indiana basketball career while you can

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All Mackenzie Mgbako could do was extend his left arm and hope. 

It’s Sept. 2022, and Mgbako is on the receiving end of a patented fadeaway jump shot from Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum, who proceeded to earn first-team All-NBA honors in the ensuing season. 

The shot goes in – and suddenly, a producer yells “cut!” 

Mgbako, then a high school senior, had finished his final scene on a Google Pixel commercial that included NBA stars such as Tatum and Giannis Antetokounmpo. That same weekend, he had a photo shoot for the cover of SLAM magazine. 

By this point, Mgbako was already a star. He was widely viewed as one of the top high school seniors in the country and had committed to play at Duke University. 

Almost exactly one year later, Mgbako sat inside Assembly Hall, answering endless questions during Indiana basketball’s Sept. 20th media day – the decision to decommit from Duke, his budding acting career and the chance to leave a legacy being among the most popular matters. 

Bloomington isn’t where Mgbako expected to be last September, and it isn’t where he plans on being next September, either. The Gladstone, New Jersey native intends on holding the title of NBA player come fall of 2024, going one-and-done at Indiana – but he’s also firmly committed to leaving the Hoosiers better off than when he arrived. 

“To win – that's the No. 1 goal,” Mgbako said. “Just keep that winning culture.” 

Mgbako was ranked as the No. 8 player in the 247Sports’ composite rankings, making him the second-highest rated recruit in program history behind only Romeo Langford and the highest overall commitment of Indiana coach Mike Woodson’s tenure. 

The honor of Woodson’s best recruit previously belonged to Jalen Hood-Schifino, who departed for the NBA after winning Big 10 Freshman of the Year this spring. Hood-Schifino was drafted No. 17 overall by the Los Angeles Lakers, making him Indiana’s first opening round draft pick since Langford went No. 14 overall in 2019. 

On paper, Mgbako has the talent and pedigree to follow in their footsteps as a one-and-done standout turned first-round draft pick. Indiana senior guard and team captain Trey Galloway saw firsthand what made Hood-Schifino successful last year and believes Mgbako has the traits to provide similar results. 

“He's got special talent,” Galloway said. “He's certainly really gifted on offense and can do a lot of things, like put the ball in the rim. He can really score at all three levels. So, it's really cool to see that.” 

Galloway added that helping Mgbako transition to the collegiate level is something he’s putting an emphasis on, noting how difficult it is for freshman to stay engaged mentally while going through tough times. 

Indiana’s other captain, sixth-year senior guard Xavier Johnson, has focused more on bringing along Mgbako’s on-court attributes. Johnson pointed out that Mgbako, who played at New Jersey powerhouse Roselle Catholic High School, has experience playing against other stout talents, which has lessened the learning curve. 

Nonetheless, Johnson has been in Mgbako’s ear, pushing for better shot selection than what’s been displayed this summer. 

“One thing we try to hold back on him is taking bad shots,” Johnson said. “That's the thing that usually freshmen come in and do, they just think it's going to be shoot the ball, shoot the ball, shoot the ball. Nah, you’ve got to play team basketball.” 

This is part of the adjustment process Galloway referenced, with Mgbako transitioning from being the guy in high school to one of several key pieces on the Hoosiers’ roster. It’s been a challenge, but Johnson feels Mgbako is coming along well – and the 18-year-old agrees. 

“I feel like we're reaching that point where I should know the shots I should be taking,” Mgbako said. “Close to the season, game a month away. So, we've been going back and forth with the shots I should be taking, shots I shouldn't be taking, where I should get my shots from.” 

There’s only one problem with scaling Mgbako back: he’s proven he can hit even the most difficult shots. 

With star forward Trayce Jackson-Davis joining Hood-Schifino in the NBA and the Hoosiers losing starters Race Thompson and Miller Kopp to graduation, there’s a considerable amount of both shot attempts and points for the taking. 

Woodson said he recruited Mgbako because he can fill up the scoring column and be a big part of the puzzle for replacing the voided production, and fellow freshman Gabe Cupps has been stunned with the shot making prowess the 6-foot-8-inch, 217-pound forward has illustrated. 

“He's just an incredible shot maker,” Cupps said. “There are some shots he shoots, you’re like, ‘there's no way that's going in,’ and he makes it. He just makes shots — there's really no other way to put it.” 

The Hoosiers rode the roller coaster of Hood-Schifino's inconsistencies last season and may have to do the same with Mgbako this year – but his upside is worth it. Just ask the other member of Indiana’s freshman class, Jakai Newton, and he’ll tell you Mgbako’s going to be really good. But how good? 

Newton played with another 5-star recruit during high school in Stephon Castle, who’s now at UConn and is a projected top-10 draft pick next summer. Mgbako’s cut from the same cloth, Newton believes. 

“(Castle) can score on all three levels – Mack's the same way,” Newton said. “Score-first, can play defense too. Both of those guys are very talented. I look forward to seeing both in the NBA one day.” 

For now, the NBA is a conversation for another day. Mgbako is committed to the present and helping the Hoosiers raise banner No. 6. 

Indiana sophomore forward Kaleb Banks said Mgbako shines with his work ethic and is always in the gym, impressing as both a shooter and defender. Cupps was quick to point out the freshman phenom’s high character and said it’s easy to cheer for him and seek him out for shots. 

It’s possible the Hoosiers only go as far as Mgbako can take them. He’ll be relied upon to score at a high level, and while he’s certainly talented enough to deliver, the freshman growing pains that Galloway alluded to are looming and capable of arising at any moment. 

That said, the Hoosiers know they have a special player in Mgbako. They’re also cognizant that he may not be around this time next year. 

So, why not make this season special? 

Mgbako’s dream chasing – but he’s also title chasing, and he’s giving the Hoosier faithful all he has. 

“I don’t think about the NBA at all,” Mgbako said. “It’s in the back of my head for sure, but I’m just focused on taking it one day at a time. Every game is important, and however that turns out, then I’ll move onto the dream.” 

Winning is at the forefront of Mgbako’s mind. The quest to do exactly that is fast approaching, with Indiana’s first exhibition game set for Oct. 29 against the University of Indianapolis. The clock is ticking for Mgbako – on the season and potentially his college career – and he’s starting to sense the urgency. 

“We're at that point where we’re getting ready to go,” Mgbako said. “It's go time.” 

It’s also show time – so kick back and enjoy, because Mgbako’s act in Bloomington may only last one scene. 

Follow reporters Will Foley (@foles24) and Matt Press (@MattPress23) and columnist Daniel Flick (@ByDanielFlick) for updates throughout the Indiana men’s basketball season.
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