Present Destination

by Nathan Foster

Selom Mawugbe ’20 learned the value of hard work at an early age from his father, Semanu. An immigrant from Ghana, his father taught him how to do things for himself, inculcating an industrious spirit in his son. On the other hand, his mother, Eugenia, taught him how to care for others and be patient. The young Mawugbe applied these lessons to basketball, and combined with his natural physical talent, began to thrive.

Mawugbe grew up in Lancaster, California. Although a talented player at Canyon High School, Mawugbe was not heavily recruited. Justin Leslie ’00, Azusa Pacific University’s men’s basketball coach from 2007-19, saw Mawugbe’s potential.

“There are few that I have seen in this game who have truly earned every step of their development. Selom has worked for every skill and accomplishment while always putting his teammates first,” Leslie said. “When I was recruiting Selom, I told him that it was specifically to break my old blocking records, and he did just that.”

Mawugbe felt drawn to APU because of the basketball program’s reputation for excellent coaches and overall player development. He also was drawn to the university for its academics, deciding to major in biochemistry. “Selom is the perfect blend of a scholar and an athlete,” said Peter Bond ’08, men’s head basketball coach. Mawugbe’s commitment to his studies and his sport made him a well-rounded player who grew quickly. During his freshman year, he appeared in 29 games and led the team in blocks with 40. The next year, he took over a starting role and more than doubled his blocking output with 89, ranking fifth in the nation in blocks. In his junior campaign, Mawugbe broke his own single-season blocks record with 107, second in the nation. His overall play also improved as he averaged a career-high 11.8 points and 8 rebounds per game, earning PacWest Defender of the Year and First-Team All-PacWest Honors.

“I don’t think I’d be anywhere near the basketball player I am today if I wouldn’t have gone to APU. The coaches saw something in me and were able to bring it out.”—Selom Mawugbe

During his senior season, Mawugbe took his play to new heights. The 6’10” forward paced the team in scoring, field goal percentage, blocks, and rebounding, and he was named an All-American. He helped lead the Cougars to a 25-4 regular-season record and a year-end No. 6 ranking in NCAA Division II. As Mawugbe prepared to take the Cougars on a deep postseason run, the world began shutting down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Professional sports leagues canceled or postponed their seasons, including the NCAA calling off the entire March Madness tournament.

“That was really tough; we had been working toward it all year,” Mawugbe said. “But it was also a strengthening experience to go through that with such a close team. It really emphasized what we had felt all year in terms of how close we were, not only on the court but off the court as well. What we were able to achieve together wasn’t the most important thing; it was the relationships we made through all of that.”

Legendary CBS2 sports reporter Jim Hill, who had been following Mawugbe’s college career, came to campus to interview him about his season being cut short. Hill began the segment asking Mawugbe how it felt to be the best basketball player in Division II. Always humble, he deflected the praise and instead focused on those who had helped him along the way. “Without my team, without this school, without my family’s support, and most importantly, without God, none of this would have been possible,” he shared. After the cameras turned off and the gym lights went out, Mawugbe returned home and the wait began.

For months, Mawugbe lived in uncertainty. He held tight to his faith. During that time, he worked part time at a Lowe’s home improvement store, praying that he could resume his basketball journey one day. Those prayers were answered on January 11, 2021, when the Santa Cruz Warriors selected Mawugbe with the 23rd pick of the NBA G-League Draft. “It was a huge moment of shock, surprise, and gratefulness. When they first contacted me, it was only two days prior to the draft. I really didn’t know how serious they were about picking me,” Mawugbe said. “Santa Cruz’s GM called me to let me know it was official. It was surreal. I was just happy to be in that position after waiting for so long after the cancellation of my senior season. A lot of waiting, a lot of praying and preparing. I was grateful to see the outcome.”

Within weeks, he was playing for the team in the G-League’s shortened bubble season. Mawugbe played in 12 games, averaging 5.3 points, 4.4 rebounds, and 2.5 blocks per game. Though the season was short, Mawugbe said he learned so much playing alongside well-known NBA players like Jordan Poole and Jeremy Lin. Although he doesn’t know if he’ll be on the Warriors’ roster again next season, Mawugbe isn’t worried about that. After getting through last year, he knows he can overcome anything with the support of his friends, family, and faith.

Mawugbe has been working on rehabbing an injury he sustained late in the season. He’s spent a lot of time thinking about the advice he received and how he can apply it to his life.

“The biggest lesson I learned was from Lin, just to enjoy the process and the journey, not just focusing on the destination. Sometimes, especially as athletes, we can get hyperfocused on getting to that next level —you lose out on the greatness of the present,” Mawugbe said. “For my time in the G-League, I’m just focused on making good relationships with the staff and my teammates, and just making the most of my time there, having fun with what I do every day.”

Editor's Note: The Warriors included Mawugbe in their 2021 summer roster.

Nathan Foster is a freelance writer and teacher living in Nashville, Tennessee. [email protected]

Originally published in the Spring '21 issue of APU Life. View all issues.