Throughout history, there are times when a slew of occurrences all happen in a fashion that plays off of each other and leads to a final outcome. Other times, it’s just one small event that sets off a butterfly effect.
Nathan Mensah grew up playing soccer, as do most kids who are born in Africa. He was born in Accra, Ghana, specifically. Accra, a huge city of over four million people, is the capital of the African country. Ghana is not a strong basketball hotbed. Their national team doesn’t compete in international games, instead only playing in exhibitions. Mensah had no real intention of playing basketball as a youth.
When Mensah was 15, he was invited to watch some friends play in a basketball tournament. As fate would have it, one of their teammates didn’t show up. They needed a fifth player and convinced Mensah to join. He’s been collecting rebounds, blocking shots, and terrorizing opposing offenses ever since.
Mensah moved to the United States when he got older, specifically to play basketball. The African Youth Basketball Organization helped to facilitate the move. He played for Prolific Prep in Napa, CA, and Findley Prep in Henderson, NV, while also playing on the Coastal Elite high school club in the offseason. Ryan Meier, one of his coaches at Coastal Elite, told EVT in an exclusive interview that Mensah was “extremely coachable and more than an exceptional teammate.”
During his time in high school, he became known as a defensive big man and was recruited to be the perfect defensive anchor for the brand of defense SDSU plays. He chose the Aztecs over Oregon, UCLA, and Santa Clara, among other programs. “Nate’s an incredibly smart defender,” SDSU assistant coach David Velasquez told EVT in an exclusive interview. “We always said that about him when we recruited him out of high school. He’s one of the only young bigs I’ve ever seen (in high school) that took charges and also blocked shots. You don’t see that.”
Mensah has been a starter every season at SDSU. He did not start his first games as a freshman, averaging five points, five rebounds, and a block in 16 minutes off the bench. After 14 games, coach Dutcher decided Mensah should start at center. The starting lineup had been Devin Watson, Jeremy Hemsley, Jordan Schakel, Matt Mitchell, and Jalen McDaniels. That lineup went 8-6 in the first fourteen games and struggled on the defensive end, losing games to Brown and the University of San Diego, among others. After an 88-64 loss to Boise St. on the road, Nathan Mensah was inserted into the starting lineup, moving Jordan Schakel to the bench. He has been a fixture in the starting lineup, when healthy, ever since.
During his sophomore season, Mensah missed the final 19 games with a Pulmonary Embolism, a blood clot in the lung. It was a scary time for Mensah, as blood clots have ended the careers of other professional athletes and basketball players, most notably Chris Bosh. He was placed on blood thinners and wasn’t allowed to participate in any drills or practices that included contact for the rest of the season. There was an expectation that he would play in the NCAA tournament, but once the tournament was canceled, the team continued to play it safe with his rehab going into the offseason.
Despite missing all that time, Mensah put together a good Junior season with SDSU, setting a career-high in points per game.
He has a career average of 8.1 points, 6.1 rebounds, and 1.3 blocks. While those numbers do not pop out, his impact on the court for SDSU cannot be underestimated. He is an excellent defensive player finishing in the top 100 in the nation in block percentage among qualified players in each of his healthy seasons. He is set to become the Aztecs’ all-time leader in Defensive Points Over Expectation. This stat measures how many points a player has prevented relative to an average player.
Nathan Mensah is currently 5th in the conference at preventing points since 2011. He is on pace to have prevented the most points since 2011 by the end of next season. pic.twitter.com/acG6Ds2JFq
— Aztec Breakdown (@aztecbreakdown) June 9, 2021
“He’s already an incredible rim protector,” Meier said. “He’s also excellent defensively on the perimeter in pick n roll situations and on-ball guarding.” His defensive versatility lets the coaches get creative with game plans. They can use Mensah like a traditional center and have him in drop coverage to protect the rim, or they can have him switch onto guards in order to prevent penetration, something they rarely did before Mensah joined the team.
Coach Velasquez mentioned that what makes Mensah special is his lateral quickness and his length. That combination of abilities makes him very versatile and disruptive and lets the coaching staff trust him in a variety of situations. Case in point, in a game against Nevada last season, Mensah switched onto Grant Sherfield three times in the last two minutes of a close game. Sherfiled, known for his clutch shooting, went 0-3 in that timespan and got blocked once. That type of defensive disruption and versatility leads to wins.
“No,” Matt Bradley responded emphatically when asked if he has even played with a better defender behind him. “Whoever Nate has on his team during practice, they’re most likely going to win because he just changes the outlook of the whole game. Compared to other big men, he can switch every position, he can guard one through five, and at the rim, he contests everything.” True to Bradley’s prediction, in each game situation at the practice EVT attended, Mensah’s team won every time.
Over the summer, Mensah played in the Swish League, a San Diego-based Pro-Am league. His work there shows what he has been working on since the end of last year. Mensah showed a solid mid-range game. He was able to step out and hit fifteen-foot jumpers from the elbows or baseline. The midrange game may be dying in the age of analytics, but having a big man who can stretch the floor, even just 15 feet, opens up driving lanes for ball handlers to get to the basket. It also makes him more lethal in pick-and-roll situations.
During the Swish League, Mensah played on the same team as SDSU point guard Trey Pulliam. Pulliam mentioned how the extra reps and time together would help their timing and chemistry so that Pulliam can get the ball to Mensah in places to do the most damage, specifically in the pick and roll and throwing lob passes.
Mensah has shown flashes of his offensive skills throughout his career – he has scored ten or more points twenty times in his career. In an interview with EVT, coach Velasquez mentioned that consistency and confidence were two things the coaches worked on with Mensah over the offseason. “He’s a very, very good scorer when he’s comfortable in the post… it’s more about consistency than anything with him and his offensive production.”
Whatever his role is ultimately on offense, expectations for his play on defense are through the roof. Most of his impact will come from protecting the rim, but he will also switch onto the perimeter in the pick and roll to prevent penetration and harass opposing ball handlers with his length.
“I’d be shocked if we’re not expecting him to be defensive player of the year in this conference,” Velasquez added.
Nathan Mensah is in a position to win defensive player of the year despite only starting basketball when he was 15 years old. That outcome was set into motion years ago when a random player didn’t show up to a basketball tournament that Mensah was attending. If that random missing teammate in Ghana had shown up, Mensah wouldn’t be in this position. Instead, Mensah discovered a love for the game. A love so strong that he moved countries, fought through a condition that ended the careers of others, has been named a top-5 defensive center in the country by Rob Dauster, and most notably, won over the hearts of AztecNation. He brings a special kind of passion to the game and is one of the best defenders to ever suit up for SDSU. Nathan Mensah likely enters his final year on the Mesa, and it promises to be his best yet. Sometimes it just takes one event to change the course of history.