Mensah-Bonsu rises above the rest

Sophomore Pops Mensah-Bonsu had a hard time deciding which one of his many dunks this season was his favorite. After a moment of deliberation, he raised his eyebrows and said the most memorable slam definitely came in the GW men’s basketball team’s win over Rhode Island Feb. 7. The two-handed reverse alley-oop landed him a spot on ESPN’s SportsCenter.

For more than a week now, ESPN anchor Scott Van Pelt has been raving about the forward’s powerful dunks, which doesn’t seem to bother the 6-foot-9-inch Mensah-Bonsu.

“It’s actually relieving that I’m getting some sort of recognition,” he said with a smile. “I don’t mind being on SportsCenter.”

His teammates also seem happy that Mensah-Bonsu is helping put the Colonials back on the national map. He is averaging 11.9 points per game and has become a valuable inside weapon for the Colonials, who have catapulted from the bottom of the Atlantic 10 to second place in the A-10 West.

“He’s still raw,” freshman guard J.R. Pinnock said. “But if he continues to develop his game, more people outside GW will pay attention to us. More scouts will come to our games, and we won’t be under the radar anymore.” Pinnock added that Mensah-Bonsu’s style of play was one of the main reasons he came to GW.

A combination of quickness, physical strength and unparalleled energy has helped Mensah-Bonsu score most of his points on lay-ups and dunks. In the Colonials’ blowout win over Xavier earlier this year, 12 of his 14 points came on slams.

“He’s a real presence out there, whether he’s scoring or running the floor or blocking shots,” Musketeers head coach Thad Matta said. “He appears to play with a lot of energy.”

As GW head coach Karl Hobbs said of Mensah-Bonsu a few weeks ago, “The guy doesn’t miss.”

Well, almost. He has made nearly 65 percent of his shot attempts this season, a number that would give him the fourth highest field goal percentage in Division I basketball. However, the NCAA only counts players who average five field goals per game for that statistic – Mensah-Bonsu is averaging only four and a half.

His shooting percentage is probably aided by the fact that he rarely takes any jump shots. That is perfectly fine with Hobbs, who said it’s Mensah-Bonsu’s energy that sets him apart from others.

“The first time I saw him play in high school, I realized he had a very unique style,” he said. “He played himself to total exhaustion. That’s very difficult to do. (His outside shooting) isn’t important for us to win. He needs to keep making dunks and inside shots. If he occasionally makes a jump shot, then great. (Jump shooting is) not going to be his trick for us.”

Mensah-Bonsu agreed that his “trick” has been and always will be his fiery demeanor on the floor and his gravity-defying style. That became Mensah-Bonsu’s persona early in his basketball career – he said he stuffed home his first dunk at age 13.

“No matter how old I get, I’m going to be playing with energy, adrenaline and emotion,” he said. “It’s hard to guard somebody like that. It’s something I can use to my advantage.”

His style of play has its drawbacks, particularly with referees, who have whistled Mensah-Bonsu for an average of three fouls per game this season. He has also fouled out three times. Hobbs usually brings Mensah-Bonsu in off the bench to help him avoid picking up early fouls.

“He needs to know when not to be overly aggressive and get a better feel of how referees are officiating games,” Hobbs said.

Although he still gets into foul trouble, Mensah-Bonsu has made major improvements from last year, when he averaged nearly four fouls per game and fouled out nine times.

“He’s playing a lot more in control than he did last year,” junior guard T.J. Thompson said. “He used to run around crazy and not know what to do, but now he’s much stronger, and it shows. Now he just needs to come to play every game and stay consistent.”

Mensah-Bonsu agreed that he has to work on being steady. After a career night against URI when he had 25 points and 15 rebounds, he scored only 10 points and had four fouls in his next game, GW’s win over Fordham.

“I have to be more consistent,” he said. “I’ve had games when I’ve played really well, then I have a game when I play mediocre.”

Both Thompson and Hobbs said Mensah-Bonsu’s physical strength has improved, but Hobbs added that it needs to continue to get better. The 218-pound sophomore was out-muscled by wider and stronger big men in GW’s losses to the University of Texas and Gonzaga University.

He may still have a long way to go as a basketball player, but Mensah-Bonsu has already traveled quite a bit in his lifetime. He grew up in England, where he learned the game from Joe White, a British coach who died of cancer in 2002. The armband Mensah-Bonsu dons during games commemorates White’s life.

From England, Mensah-Bonsu moved to the United States at age 15 and said he started playing basketball “religiously” a few years later during his junior year at St. Augustine Prep in Richard, N.J. After high school, he chose GW, where he has become a favorite of the student section at the Smith Center. Last season, students even began throwing Corn Pops into the air after big dunks.

The story behind the name “Pops” is even more colorful than the way he plays. Pops is actually a nickname, short for his middle name, Papa Yaw. His first name is Nana, which means “king,” and his last name translates to “whale killer” because, legend has it, his great grandfather once killed a whale.

“He has a very infectious personality,” Hobbs said. “I know he’s very well-liked on campus. He’s the kind of guy when it’s below zero out and you’re stranded, you can call him up at three o’clock in the morning (and) he’s getting out of his bed to rescue you. He’s that kind of person.”

His teammates agreed, with each one mentioning Mensah-Bonsu’s crazy sense of humor as something that goes along well with his on-court personality. But when asked for a specific instance of his lighter side, most of his teammates just laughed and said they didn’t want to get their friend in trouble.

“He’s a clown,” Pinnock said. “He’s fun to be around. When we go out as a team, he’s the biggest person in the club. And he does all the newest dances.”

Mensah-Bonsu does not plan on pursuing a dancing career but hopes to attend law school after college and one day become an entertainment lawyer. But for now, look for him dunking at the Smith Center, where he and the rest of the Colonials will have a chance to knock off A-10 West-leading Dayton on Wednesday.

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