SMITHFIELD — Early in the morning or late at night, Bryant basketball head coach Jared Grasso hears the unmistakable sound of the ball bouncing against the Chace Athletic Center hardwood.
When Grasso looks out from his office perch to see the Bulldog player who’s putting the extra time in, he can’t help but smile. One might even go as far as to say that it’s a sight for sore eyes.
After having basketball taken away from him last year, point guard Ikenna Ndugba is chomping at the bit to make up for lost time. It doesn’t matter that it’s summer outside and the first game of the 2019-20 season isn’t for another four months.
“He’s got a chip on his shoulder,” said Grasso, his choice of words appropriate considering the tough-to-swallow hand that Ndugba was dealt.
If you had something taken away from you that you desperately love, which Ndugba did after undergoing shoulder surgery on the eve of the 2018-19 campaign and taking a medical redshirt that kept his remaining two years of eligibility intact, you too would probably live in the gym.
“Usually I’m here by eight (a.m.) with one of the coaches. Lots of shooting,” said Ndugba, who has been a full participant since receiving medical clearance in late May, which coincided with the start of Bryant’s summer schedule.
“It makes me appreciate every day when you come out here and work on your craft and be with your teammates,” Ndugba added one day last week following a spirited and lively practice session that focused exclusively on three-point shooting.
Anyone who watched the Bulldogs a year ago received a first-hand lesson in the importance of point-guard play. Watch any college basketball game and the point guard, for better or for worse, sticks out like a sore thumb. If the team is struggling to generate points, the odds are the point guard isn’t doing his job. If the offense is humming along, chances are the point guard is correctly doing his job.
There was nothing Ndugba could do about the Bulldogs’ glaring hole at arguably the most critical position on the floor. He was hurt but ultimately couldn’t come back soon enough to make a difference for last season’s Bryant team that was in dire need of a point guard – someone who can break down a man-to-man defense off the dribble and serve as the defensive catalyst.
“It was very tough to sit, knowing you wanted to help,” said Ndugba.
Ndugba played 35.6 minutes a game for the Bulldogs in 2017-18. He averaged the second-most points (13.8) while leading Bryant in assists (4.6), rebounds (4.2) and steals (2.0). Upon taking over for Tim O’Shea in April 2018, Grasso had visions of Ndugba running the attack in a style that would mirror the successful Iona teams where Grasso served as an assistant coach.
That vision never came to life. The same shoulder that was operated on while Ndugba played high school hoops for Brooks (Mass.) School became sore during a 2018 game against St. Francis Brooklyn. The hope was that rest and rehab would do the trick, yet the pain wasn’t going away.
“I’ve never seen him fully healthy,” said Grasso. “The shoulder was always an ongoing and nagging thing.”
Ultimately, another shoulder surgery was deemed necessary. The book was never officially closed on Ndugba’s availability for last season, though as non-conference play gave way to NEC play, with January turned into February, it was decided the redshirt route represented the best course of action.
“I was hoping I would be able to come back, but the rehab wasn’t working as fast as I would have liked,” said Ndugba.
In one sense, a major weight was lifted off Ndugba’s shoulders. No longer did he have to worry about trying to ramp back up for what would have been a handful of games. Still, dealing with a lost year was tough. In an effort to keep himself engaged with the day-to-day dealings while remaining vigilant to the pool work and other aspects of his rehab, Ndugba served as a valuable sounding bound for his teammates and coaches.
“The guys and coach Grasso would ask me questions about what they saw. I also talked to the guys individually to keep their morale up,” said Ndugba.
It shouldn’t have come as a shock to learn that Ndugba wasn’t operating at full speed at the onset of the summer practice slate. From those slow beginnings, the rust has been shaken off his trademark pull-up jumper. Whether it’s a 1-on-1 setting or 3-on-3, Ndugba isn’t backing down.
“He’s turned the corner over the past month. It’s a credit to him. He’s really put the time in,” said Grasso. “He’s hungry and feels he has something to prove. He wants everything to be competitive. There were times last year when you walked upstairs after a game and say you wished you had him, but it’s great to say we have a healthy Ikenna for two more years.”
In May, Ndugba walked across the Bryant stage with his undergraduate degree in marketing. He’s now enrolled in the university’s MBA program.
“It’s definitely going to be challenging,” he said.
Fortunately for Ndugba, he won’t have to wait until November to get his first taste of competitive action since February 2018. He was selected to the team that will face the USA entry in the Pan-Am Games in an exhibition game that’s scheduled for 6 p.m. on Wednesday, July 24, at Providence College’s Alumni Hall.
A Boston native, Ndugba on the same day — July 24 — will host the second annual open mic night for the non-profit he runs, 617 Peak. The event will take place from 1-3 p.m. at Northeastern Crossing and represents an opportunity for teenagers and young adults to speak about the passions and challenges they come across in the community.
“It’s about getting them to realize that their stories matter,” said Ndugba.
Follow Brendan McGair on Twitter @BWMcGair03