One of the most decorated Cougars to ever grace the court, Mawugbe celebrated the dream of a lifetime in January after being drafted into the NBA’s G-League.
Former Azusa Pacific men’s basketball player Selom Mawugbe and I actually share something in common – our hometown.
Mawugbe and I were born in Lancaster, Calif., a town with fewer than 160,000 residents and is about 90 minutes north of Azusa. It is not a town of luxury. In fact, it’s the exact opposite. The city is surrounded by nothing but desert. It’s windy almost always. In the summer it is not abnormal for the temperature to reach over 110 degrees Fahrenheit, but during winter the wind chill can oftentimes bring the temperature to below 20 degrees.
Growing up there means having humble beginnings. Selom is no exception to this rule, especially considering his family’s immigration from Ghana to the States a decade before his birth. While his dad always illuminated the lesson of hard work into his children, he also would not shy away from treating his kids to simple fun.
“My dad would take me and my siblings to Marie Kerr [Park] and we would play on the playsets. I remember being a kid and just looking up at the swingsets and the slides and just thinking ‘wow, it feels like I’m in a castle!’ There are just so many fond memories from my childhood there,” he said.
That same kid – who grew up playing at Marie Kerr Park and in the streets of his small neighborhood near Summerwind Elementary with a handful of his closest friends – is now a professional basketball player.
In January, Mawugbe was selected by the NBA’s Golden State Warriors’ G-League affiliate the Santa Cruz Warriors with the 21st overall pick. Before this, he was a Cougar; someone who fully embodied what it meant to be a member of APU’s athletic community. However, he did not expect to reach such dominance in DII collegiate basketball when competing in high school.
His family moved to Santa Clarita, Calif. when he was eight, which is just 40 minutes away from Lancaster. There, Mawugbe played basketball at Canyon High School — along with another future Cougar guard Ben Taufahema — under head coach Sean Delong. Despite his All-Valley recognition both junior and senior year, it wasn’t until the 6-foot, 10-inch forward began to see interest from Azusa’s head coach Justin Leslie that he realized college basketball was a realistic option for his future.
“Honestly, it never was something I thought about,” Mawugbe answered when asked about his desire to play college ball. “They reached out to me, saying they were considering me as a future recruit, and at that point, I had never even thought about that possibility before. It created a spark in me to reach my full potential as a player.”
That same team who showed interest in him would become his new home in 2016. As a freshman, Mawugbe appeared in 29 games and led the Cougars in blocks, having eight separate games against PacWest opponents with multiple blocks. It was one of the most impressive rookie campaigns in the program’s history, and it was only the beginning.
The following season would see Mawugbe play in and start all 32 games. He would not only lead the team in blocks again, but he would also lead the entire PacWest in blocks with an incredible total of 89. In 2018-19 Mawugbe added 18 more blocks to his previous season total, finishing second in the entire nation in blocked shots.
Somehow, his senior season would produce even better numbers. He continued his blocking mastery, finishing his collegiate career as the PacWest all-time leader in that particular statistic. He also led the Cougars in nearly every major scoring category that season. He had the highest point average (27.4), highest field goal percentage (71.8%) and the most field goals made (181) on the team by the end of his final collegiate campaign. He also out rebounded the rest of the roster by 140 boards.
To top it off, the conference named Mawugbe the 2020 PacWest Player of the Year. All of a sudden, he was the best player in NCAA Division II basketball.
“The biggest lesson I learned was that it’s not about what you do; it’s about how you do it,” he said when reflecting on his time at APU. “That theme was just a massive component of our success, and it was something that was established as the motive behind APU basketball and the program’s history in general. It’s a belief in the right process, and knowing that it will bring the right outcome.”
His final season ended in a blur, as the COVID-19 pandemic stopped him and his teammates from competing in the NCAA DII tournament. However, his resume was already built – all he had to do was wait and continue training.
Mawugbe’s patience ultimately paid off when he was drafted by Santa Cruz. He will now learn from and compete against teammates currently in the NBA, such as Jordan Poole and Alen Smailiagic. He will also play alongside former NBA players like Jeremy Lin, a former New York Knicks point guard who once took the NBA by storm in 2012.
Following Lin’s sudden ascendency, a period that was often regarded as “Linsantiy,” the former Harvard guard experienced a tremendous fall from grace. Although he won a championship in his time with the Toronto Raptors in 2019, Lin failed to find consistent success in the NBA, playing for six different teams after his tenure in New York. With Lin in Santa Cruz, it will be an opportunity for him to have a complete reset over his career, and through those efforts, Mawugbe knows he can learn a lot from Lin’s professionalism and technical ability.
“Obviously everyone knows about him [Lin] and his story. His goal now is to make a comeback, and this is where he wants to start,” Mawugbe said. “He’s such an important part of the team, and with him having that knowledge and experience in professional basketball it makes him an incredibly valuable asset not only to myself but the entire squad.”
The G-League’s season is set to begin on Feb. 8, with all 17 teams competing within a bubble in Orlando, Fla. – identical to the format that the NBA played in during last year’s playoffs.
Of course, these circumstances lead to many challenges for any organization. For Selom, however, it is a complete shift to what he previously has experienced as a player. He is now expected to meet stringent guidelines in terms of COVID-19 protocol, meaning interactions with outside parties are nearly forbidden, and virus testing is required every single day. He also needs to grow accustomed to occasional three-hour treatments, extravagant team media days and, of course, practicing with professional players.
The pressure is certainly on, and several players have crumbled because of too much eagerness or anticipation when placed in this peculiar spot. Mawugbe, though, plans to be patient. He is preparing to learn from the experience and expects to conquer the opportunities that are thrown his way through his composure.
His attitude is just how it has always been. He’s relaxed; he’s focused; he’s prepared. And that smile that APU grew so used to seeing week after week remains steady.
“It was a rushed process, definitely, and the players and coaches are doing everything they can to get me up to speed as quickly as possible. These are not normal circumstances for a rookie to experience, but it is what it is,” he says. “I know I’ll get there as long as I control what I can, which is getting better every day and taking advantage of the resources right in front of me.”