Mfiondu Kabengele focused on using Summer League to help Clippers’ acquisitions of Kawhi Leonard, Paul George
LAS VEGAS – On Friday, July 5th, a 6.9 earthquake in Ridgecrest California rocked NBA Summer League’s Thomas and Mack Center as well as the Cox Pavilion, forcing games to be cancelled the rest of the night. That became the second stunning thing to happen out of the basketball world that night when reports came out a few hours later that the LA Clippers traded for superstar Paul George and received a free agent commitment from two-time NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard.
We’re now more than 36 hours removed from the day currently known as 5th of Kawhi and the buzz around the second day of Summer League can basically be summarized by the three most-heard lines throughout both arenas:
“How the hell did the Clippers pull that off?!”
“I figured Kawhi, but I didn’t even see the Paul George news coming!”
“Yeah well, f**k the Clippers!”
I’m sure you can figure out who said that last line.
As you can imagine, the vibe around the Clippers and their fans is extraordinary right now. They had a surprisingly good fan showing for the victory in their Summer League opener against the Los Angeles Lakers, 93-87. Clippers fans watched their 27th overall pick, Mfiondu Kabengele, lead the way with a 21-point, 10 rebound performance in 25 minutes of action. Despite his strong play, that wasn’t the entire focus of his postgame interview. The big question everyone wanted to know was what it’s like to know he’ll be teaming up with both Leonard and George in just a few months.
“I feel fine,” said Kabengele, who was then unable to contain himself with a big smile on this face. “He’s on my team. I feel very good! And we got Paul George?! It’s a great feeling. The front office did a great job in handling it. I’m just fortunate to have those guys on the team, and anywhere I can help them, I’m gonna be more than happy to.”
The Clippers arrived in Las Vegas on July 4th, and had the following day to practice and loosen up for their opener on July 6th. Aside from the earthquake, most of the day was quiet until everyone received the Chris Haynes-bomb at 10:53 PM local time. Two minutes later, at 10:55 PM local time, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski dropped his signature ‘Woj bomb.’ From out of nowhere, Wojnarowski informed the basketball world that Paul George was traded to the Clippers as well.
“It’s shocking!” added Kabengele, trying to muster up words to describe his feelings. “You wait for the bomb, and then it hits Twitter, and you see it. And everybody’s texting you and stuff, so it was a bit crazy for sure.”
Clippers’ Summer League and G-League coach Brian Adams shared a bit of a different sentiment when telling his side of hearing the news on Friday night.
“Oh, it was great! said Adams. “I was joking with everybody when the news came down on Friday night, I was like, ‘why is everybody bugging me the night before my first Summer League game?!’
“But no, obviously the spirit is really good. At the same time for me, I’ve been kind of [focused on] Summer League. I’m excited to coach these guys and this group we’re building towards.”
Before taking his seat courtside, Clippers head coach Doc Rivers was his usual impassioned self, chatting with everyone who had congratulations for him. The team’s front office consultant, Jerry West, who surely had a big impact on both Leonard and George, was all smiles as well. Both Rivers and West were even seen sharing some laughs with Lakers’ star LeBron James less than a day after the moves were announced.
While the focus remains on Summer League, it now also looks ahead at how Kabengele, who the Clippers have been high on since before the NBA Draft, can fit and complement the George-Leonard duo. One of the traits Kabengele has been continuing to work on is his three-point shot. He’s already a workhorse inside the paint, but being able to provide space as the backup or small-ball power forward alongside either George and Leonard or Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell will be key, as displayed in the postseason by JaMychal Green.
Not known as a three-point shooter, Green (who averaged 0.5 three-pointers on just 35 percent shooting his first four years in the league) averaged two made three-pointers per game against the Golden State Warriors on 52.2 percent shooting. Most of those minutes came alongside Williams and Harrell, but Rivers was eventually forced to move him into the starting lineup, where he continued to flourish as a floor spacer.
If Kabengele, who will be 22 when his rookie season tips off, can develop the same traits that made Green so effective, it just gives the Clippers another big piece off the bench.
“With those guys, you want to set good screens and give them the space to operate as well as create opportunities for yourself, whether it’s crashing the glass or space out the floor. Here at Summer League, I’m just getting more reps in. When we get to real training camp and I get more continuity with those guys, I’ll figure out my spots.”
That’s just the offensive side of the ball, however. Kabengele averaged 1.5 blocks per game in just 21.6 minutes off the bench for Florida State last year. As the nephew of NBA legend Dikembe Mutombo, he’s picked up a few tricks on timing and situational defensive techniques. Although it may not come in his rookie year, Kabengele’s defense will play a factor in his ability to earn playing time.
“It’s great, but I have to keep up.” a determined Kabengele told ClutchPoints when asked about the defensive potential of these new look Clippers. “They have their defensive system with Kawhi and PG, they have their own defensive skillsets. So as a rookie, my job is to catch up and just be able to contribute. Defense comes first. If you don’t play defense, you don’t play. So my job, my role, my goal this whole year is to be one of the better defenders.”
The acquisition of both Leonard and George did not come without some losses, however. In addition to the seven draft picks sent to Oklahoma City, the Clippers also had to give up prized guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and veteran Danilo Gallinari.
“For Shai and the whole trade situation… It’s unfortunate, but it’s part of the business. I understand it’s tough, and I wish him all the best. I hope he kills it over there in OKC. It’ll be a bit different for sure.”
That was just Day 1 of Summer League for the Clippers, who will be back in action on Sunday night against the Grizzlies. Here are the highlights of Kabengele’s game against the Lakers.