Column: Welcome back, Nathan Mensah

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Sam Mayo

Then-sophomore forward Nathan Mensah goes up to the basket during the Aztecs’ 59-57 victory over San José State on Dec. 8, 2019 at Viejas Arena.

by Amber Salas, Senior Staff Writer

17 points. 15 rebounds. 

Basketball fans, let’s give a warm welcome back to Nathan Mensah. 

The 6-foot-10 San Diego State junior forward recorded a career-high night in rebounds and points in the Aztecs’ 80-68 victory over Arizona State. Mensah’s performance marks his fifth game back since returning from a pulmonary embolism that sidelined him for the final 19 games of last season. 

“It’s like a welcome back kind of game for me even though I’ve played some few more games before this game,” Mensah said. 

This game marks Mensah’s fourth career double-double in his three years at San Diego State. In just the first half alone, Mensah put up 10 points and 10 rebounds. 

His performance is an example of his ability to be a contributing force on both sides of the court. Mensah can make plays offensively when the Aztecs need points, yet quickly turns it around to block shots and get rebounds with his 7-foot-5 wingspan. 

Mensah totaled three blocked shots and went 7-for-12 on field goals. 

“This is the Nathan Mensah we expect to see,” head coach Brian Dutcher said. “I like him aggressive, I like him playing the way he’s playing right now. He’s rebounding and he’s scoring at a high level, and when he draws a double team he’s willing to find a teammate for an open shot so I’m real pleased with the way Nathan’s playing right now.”

Dutcher said Mensah’s performance reflects him becoming comfortable in the game again and he’s finding his rhythm again after missing most of last season. 

“You can’t miss as many games as he missed last year, and then just come in and be in that kind of rhythm,” Dutcher said. “So five games in he started to get his timing back. His game timing is getting comfortable on the floor.” 

With his double-double, Mensah becomes the second Aztec in the last 18 seasons to produce a 15-point, 15-rebound game. The only other Aztec to do so was forward Yanni Wetzell in last season’s game against Nevada on Jan. 18, when he had 17 points and 16 rebounds. 

The remarkable aspect of Mensah’s return is his ability to jump back into game action after a health issue which caused him to at one point question if he’d ever be able to return to basketball again. Mensah shared with the San Diego Union-Tribune that everything froze when he realized his condition was similar to former NBA player Chris Bosh. 

With the way he looked on the court, one would never know the challenges he’s endured. 

Senior guard Jordan Schakel said he, along with the rest of the team, always believed in Mensah and knew he was capable of this type of performance.

“It’s pretty amazing everything that he went through and we think he can do this every game,” Schakel said. “We know he can do this every game so we’re looking forward to more double-double games for Nathan.” 

Oftentimes, players experience vast improvements in college basketball from putting in extra work to improve the mechanics and technical aspects of their games. Players spend hours on hours drilling field goals, 3-pointers and defensive plays back-to-back to build up confidence and get comfortable. 

Schakel said he thinks Mensah has the technical aspect down, but needed that confidence to get back into his groove. 

“I think confidence is huge for everyone in college basketball, including myself,” Schakel said. “I think you’ve just seen Nathan get a lot more comfortable, a lot more confident, shooting jumpers, attacking the basket, being strong on the rebound — just doing things that a junior does.”  

With his performance, Schakel thinks Mensah deserved a new nickname in honor of an “NBA great.” 

“I’m trying to figure out what NBA great got double-doubles like that so I can give him a new nickname, so if you have any, just let me know,” Schakel said.

Confidence is just one key aspect of Mensah’s game. In his preparations for the start of the season, Mensah made his own personal goal to develop his game to become a more physical and aggressive presence on the court. 

“Before the season started I felt that (the aggressive mindset) was one thing I was lacking,” Mensah said. “So this year I took it upon myself to be more aggressive.” 

Aggressiveness on defense is what allows the Aztecs’ defense to limit its opponents shooting by blocking shots. A strong defensive presence with rebounds allowed the Aztecs to go on a 13-0 run in the second half to take control of the game, extending their lead to 59-45. 

The extra attention to his aggressiveness leaves Mensah as the team’s leader in total rebounds (40). Mensah currently leads the Aztecs this season with 28 defensive rebounds and 12 offensive rebounds. 

Schakel said that the team’s overall performance against ASU was just a taste of what college basketball fans can expect to see the rest of the season. Likewise, Mensah’s showing is just the start of what’s to come next with his continued growth. 

Mensah’s welcome-back performance is only the start of his journey this season. He will take what he can from his career-high performance and build upon it for the rest of the season. 

“I think I just have to keep my foot on the gas,” Mensah said. “I feel my coaches will hold me accountable from this type of a performance for the rest of the year.”

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