NKU signs Class of ’22 big man Cesar Tchilombo

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No. 5-ranked post player in Maryland becomes Norse’s new big man

Northern Kentucky announced that it has received a national Letter of Intent (NLI) from Class of ’22 center Cesar Tchilombo.  The 6-9 post man originally hails from the Democratic Republic of Congo, but played his four years of varsity high school ball at The John Carroll High School in Bel Air, Maryland, where he was ranked by PrepHoops as Maryland’s No. 23 best player overall and the state’s fifth-ranked center prospect.

At The John Carroll High School, Tchilombo played under the watchful eye of Associate Head Coach Jeremy Mellady and his staff, who oversaw the meteoric transformation from his raw freshman season to his more refined senior campaign.  Outside of school competition, Tchilombo played his U.S. club basketball for Global Squad from 2017-2022.  

According to John Alexander – Founder and CEO of Global Squad and the Alexander Basketball Academy – Tchilombo had a laundry list of Division I colleges showing substantial interest, but ultimately chose NKU over firm offers from Howard, Siena, Longwood, Fairleigh Dickinson and Sacred Heart.

While dividing up his hoops time between JCHS and Global Squad, Tchilombo picked up an extensive list of honors and accolades, including:  John Carroll Most Improved Player Award, Bullis Holiday Classic All-Tournament Team, Honorable Mention All-Baltimore Catholic League (BCL), Hoop Group Elite Camp All-Star, Hoop Group Elite Camp Best Defender, Hoop Group Jam Fest 17u Championship, Baltimore Catholic League Tournament Championship, All HGSL Defensive MVP, Jim Couch National Training DMV vs. NYC Showcase MVP, All MIAA A-Conference Team, All-Harford County First Team and John Carroll Basketball Patriot Award winner (culture and leadership award).

Tchilombo has had a long and complicated path to becoming the student and player he has become, so thankfully I was blessed with the opportunity to do a virtual sit-down with two of the men who mentored him along the way, Mellady and Alexander .

Wical (Me): What position did Cesar play for your program?

Mellady: He played the 5, but his senior year we were able to play a lot of 5-Out with him. Offensively, this allowed him to play inside and out so he would post when he had a size advantage and he would space, shoot, or drive when he had an athletic/skill advantage.

Alexander: Center for most of his time with us. We moved him to the 4 sometimes to expand his game going into his senior year.”

Wical: Outside of just his position, what was his role on the team on and off the court?

Mellady: Rim protector and rebounder, but more than that he was our leader. He set the tone for his teammates in terms of effort level and toughness. He knew how to have 1-on-1 conversations with teammates to get them focused on what we needed from them. He took a lot of our younger players under his wing.

Alexander: Cesar is an imposing presence on and off the court. He was a leader and great teammate. Someone that had the respect of teammates.

By The Numbers:

Junior Year @ JCHC:  8.2 Points per game, 9.3 Rebounds per game, 2 Assists per game, 2.6 blocked shots per game, Shot 50% from the field

Spring/Summer 2020 – Global Squad: 8.6 ppg, 10.8 rpg, 3.0 bpg

Senior Year @ JCHC: 10.0 ppg, 11.0 rpg, 2.5 apg, 2.4 bpg.  Shot 50 FG% from the field and 36% from behind the arc.

Spring/Summer 2021 – Global Squad: 11.8 ppg, 13.5 rpg, 4.7 bpg

Notable Career Stats at John Carroll: 928 rebounds, 341 blocked shots

Wical: Is he a vocal leader or a lead-by-example guy?

Alexander: Great talking during the games and communicates well. Cesar usually leads by example but when he REALLY gets vocal you know he means business. His teammates listen.

Wical: How much did he mean to his high school team and what was his role and strengths on that team?

Mellady: The media and fans always noticed the big time scorers on our team, but Cesar’s teammates and coaches understood he was often the difference between us winning and losing. His ability to protect the paint and control the boards was irreplaceable. Our staff would sometimes (only half) joke that we might give up 100 points per game if we didn’t have him on the floor anchoring our defense. I don’t know that we’ve had a player in the last four years that was more impactful to winning than Cesar was. We definitely wouldn’t have won the Baltimore Catholic League title in his junior year without him.”

Wical: Cesar has the ball in his hands with the game tied up and 4-5 seconds left on the game clock. What is he most likely to do with the ball?

Alexander: If he’s on the perimeter: dribble hand-off, set a ball screen, then crash the glass.  If he’s in the post: face up with reverse pivot, pump fake, rip attack to middle of paint – (finish with a) jump hook.”

Mellady: While I definitely believe Cesar is the type of player who would want the ball in his hands and would be comfortable taking the shot, he’s so unselfish and such a good playmaker that if I had to guess, I’d say that he’d end up assisting the game winning basket.

Wical: Give me an example of a moment on the court when Cesar was playing and you realized he could be special or play at the next level.

Mellady: There are a few chase-down blocks that come to mind where he literally had to run past half of the players on the court to get to the ball. There are a couple impressive blocked dunk attempts I remember when the offensive player had the intention of putting him on a poster and just ran into an unstoppable force. There’s a handful of two-handed blocks where Cesar just grabbed the ball out of the air and started the fast-break himself. And I can remember at least two times when he blocked multiple shots in the same possession as the offensive rebounders continued to try to score and continued to be rejected until we came up with the ball. About 10-15% of his legitimate blocks are called goal tends by the refs in our league because they don’t look possible.”

Alexander:  Early on (9th grade) he was blocking shots high off the glass. Never getting tired running the floor. Relentlessly trying to win and get better.

Wical:  Any closing thoughts on what NKU is getting in Cesar Tchilombo, not just as a highly rated athlete, but as a person?

Mellady:  PJB Academy is the program in Goma, Congo that developed Cesar and helped him be able to go to school. Daniel Arnould, an Belgian-American businessman who was born in Congo, and John Alexander, founder of the Global Squad, helped to bring Cesar (and Jeannot) to the United States. Cesar played AAU for John and the Global Squad program and that is where I first saw him play and began to recruit him to JC.

When Cesar first came to the U.S., he knew very little English (he is fluent in French, Swahili and a few other languages) and therefore was very shy. As he began at John Carroll, I was able to spend a few hours a day after school to help him understand what his assignments were asking of him and help him translate some of his ideas into English as I know some French. His teachers were very understanding and supportive especially in year one. By the 2nd semester and certainly by his sophomore year, Cesar had become much more confident in his English and more self-sufficient academically. He’s a very bright kid. I can’t imagine having to do school when the teachers speak a language I don’t understand and all of the books and papers are in a language I don’t understand. It’s a testimony to his toughness and determination that he never got frustrated and just kept working until he eventually got it.

Imagine being 14 years old and leaving your home to go somewhere you’ve never been, where you know no one, and where you don’t understand the language. And then to do that without seeing your family for years and still thrive to the level that he has; he is an amazing kid. He is able to speak to his family often over the phone, but living through a pandemic, occasional civil/military unrest at home, and a volcano erupting and evacuating his home city all while sometimes not knowing if everyone is safe, must be stressful. But Cesar never lets on. He shows up every day and gives his best to everything he does. I don’t know if a lot of American kids could have done what he has done.”

In securing a commitment from the highly rated post man, NKU addresses a huge void left behind by the departed Adrian Nelson, who transferred to Horizon League rival Youngstown State in April.  Nelson and fellow post Chris Brandon essentially split minutes 50/50 last season, so it will be interesting to see how Norse coach Darrin Horn blends in the raw talents of Tchilombo with the known savvy veteran leadership of Brandon and the wing span of emerging 7-footer Imanuel Zorgvol.

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