A sit-down with SDSU’s Nathan Mensah

Nathan Mensah with his family on Senior Night. (Don De Mars/EVT)

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Nathan Mensah celebrates Lamont Butler’s game-winning shot over FAU. (Don De Mars/EVT)

San Diego State’s historic run during March Madness brought a lot of attention to players like Nathan Mensah.

Mensah started for SDSU at center for the past five seasons. He was a two-time Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year. Less than a month away from the 2023 NBA Draft, Mensah sat down with the East Village Times for an exclusive interview. He shared his thoughts on his final season and what he has planned for his future career.

“It’s a blessing just to come back and be a part of something great like this (season).” Mensah said, reflecting on this past year for the program, “I can’t put it in words because I wouldn’t say we expected to go to the national championship game. We expected something great, but getting to the championship game was a plus for the guys that came back. It’s something that we’ll look back at it and say, ‘yeah, we really did this!”

When the season ended, Mensah, along with other seniors across the country, had the chance to showcase their skills in front of NBA scouts at the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament (PIT) in Virginia. The PIT was the first of two NBA Pre-draft camps. It was followed by an event in Orlando.

“(Portsmouth) was a great experience for me,” Mensah said. “Right after I came back, I had a workout with the Portland TrailBlazers, and I have more workouts coming up (this month) because I’m doing my master’s, and some of those classes don’t allow me to go on these trips. For right now, I’m just working out and trying to get in the best shape that I can.”

Mensah was the only Aztec that received an invite to play at either Pre-Draft camp. The 6-foot-10 Ghanaian’s performance at the PIT earned him attention from scouts. He is set to work out for more teams over the next few weeks. 

“I have some workouts coming up with the Charlotte Hornets and also with the Memphis Grizzlies, which is coming up this week,” Mensah said, reflecting on the uptick in interest following the PIT. “Also, there’s more workouts that my agent is working on the dates because he doesn’t want me to travel from one place to the other. He wants it to be in the flow. If I’m supposed to work out with one team on the west coast, he wants me to do all the west coast workouts. If I have to go to the east coast, do all the east coast workouts, so June will be a busy month for me, and I’m happy for the opportunity that has presented itself.”

Nathan Mensah protects the rim in the National Title Game. (Don De Mars/EVT)

Mensah grew up playing soccer in Ghana. Despite not starting to play basketball until the age of 13, he was recruited by two prep schools in the United States. Eventually, he would rise to become a 4-star recruit before he landed on the Mesa. 

“Coming from Ghana to the United States, playing college basketball, I didn’t know much about the NCAA, March Madness element until I believe I was in New York,” Mensah explained. “I was watching a(n) (ESPN) ‘30 for 30’ I think on the Michigan and Duke (rivalry), and that was where the excitement from that drove me towards, ‘hey, I would like to partake in something like this.’ I didn’t know if I was going to a school that would give me an opportunity but coming to San Diego, I just felt like, I’ll have the taste of that but didn’t know I’ll have the taste of experiencing the Final Four.”

As far as other players from the 2022-23 season making a name for themselves, starting point guard Lamont Butler has created a considerable buzz.  According to a source, Butler is still undecided on his future and is scheduled to speak with a few more NBA teams before the May 31 deadline.  A year ago, Mensah was in the same situation. 

“For me, personally, I was closer to leaving than coming back,” Mensah explained why he chose to come back for his fifth year. “Because NIL does not pertain to me because I’m a foreign student. Looking at the team we have coming back; you see that there’s a sense of accomplishment that can achieve as a team. I came back mostly because I have the opportunity to do an internship which would be a much bigger deal for me, which obviously people may not see now, but when I’m done playing basketball, those windows that I was able to gain will later come into play. Also, the second part was getting my master’s degree; that was something that I always wanted to gain because getting your master’s degree puts you in a different room; that was one thing that also played a role in me coming back.”

“Lamont has done a lot of great things for San Diego State, and I believe strongly that anything that he does will not just be for his best interest … because he’s someone that always puts his family first.” 

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With the NBA evolving into a more perimeter style of play, the League’s offensive schemes are no longer about post touches and high-low actions like it was when Tim Duncan, Shaquille O’Neal, and Dwight Howard played. NBA MVP Joel Embiid and runner-up Nikola Jokic are the best at playing the new-age center position. Both put pressure on the opposition by beginning their attacks on the outside.

Nathan Mensah holds up his jersey on senior night. (Don De Mars/EVT)

Mensah’s ability to guard all five positions on the court seems to be the best way to grab attention from NBA scouts. Coming from a defensive-minded program and being a two-time DPOY for the Mountain West, Nathan Mensah has put himself in an excellent position to get a contract this summer.

“I’m glad that I played for a school that worked towards my strength.” Mensah spoke on how his defensive skills and abilities can thrive at the pro level, “Coming to San Diego, we were always told one thing that defense puts you on the floor quicker than your offense. I believe for myself the defensive skills that I’ve gained from this place would translate to the next level because I’m able to move my feet, and I’m long enough to guard guys on the perimeter.”

“What the coaches here have installed in me would not just fade away. It’s going to continue with me forever because I’ve seen the success that brought me and the team. So it will be something that I can just keep working on and show I’m part of the best at the next level too.”

Transitions to a new level are not always easy and smooth. The skills players have in college often are not enough to move up to the pros. Every player has deficiencies they have to work on to better themselves for the competition they are going to see night in and night out. SDSU’s former rim-protector has much to look forward to this offseason as he prepares to improve his game over the next couple of months.

“For me, I’m trying to increase in size because, in the next level, guys that I’ll be playing are either bigger than me or as strong as me,” Mensah said. “Just increasing in size would help me sustain the level of play and also being able to shoot more. Starting with my faceup game, I’m trying to improve that where it becomes a part of me just like how defense is a part of me now.”

With the basketball season over and the attention still on the San Diego State men’s basketball program, Mensah and his teammate Matt Bradley used their name, image, and likeness to give focus on something else bigger than basketball. The senior graduates attended a service at The Rock Church in Point Loma. The South Regional champs both gave testimonies on the church’s stage.

Having a consistent jumper will be a key for Mensah’s professional aspirations. (Don De Mars/EVT)

“I felt like we have been put on a bigger stage, and anytime you get up on a bigger stage, you cannot forget how you got there,” Mensah explained when asked why it was so important for them to speak at the service. “Seems like two or three years, we have always been praying that we want to be able to share our faith, so getting to that stage through basketball was like a blessing to us. People were listening to us because of the attention we gained from what we did, basketball-wise. We wanted them to know that we couldn’t have done that because of what God has done in our lives. Thank you, The Rock, for giving us the platform to share our stories, to encourage others socially.”

As Nathan Mensah closes a chapter in his book of life, he is preparing to start a new one in less than a next month. The NBA draft will be on ESPN on June 22, 2023, at 5 pm PT. SDSU looks to add their first Aztec to the draft board since Malichi Flynn was drafted as the 29th pick in the first round of the 2020 NBA Draft. 

“I’m going to be at Nate’s draft party!” Bradley told EVT with a smile when asked about his draft night plans.

Mensah has made a huge impact not only for the SDSU basketball program but off the court for the city of San Diego. It’s time for him to achieve his professional dreams and goals. He is only weeks away from finding out the next step in his journey. 

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