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While the L.A. Clippers have been churning out win after win in the NBA, rookie Mfiondu Kabengele has quietly become a star in the making with L.A.'s G League affiliate, the Agua Caliente Clippers of Ontario.

The 22-year-old big — and nephew of NBA great Dikembe Mutumbo — is a top-25 scorer, top-15 rebounder and top-10 shot-blocker in a league that features plenty of talent, both young and old. He's double-doubled in 13 of his 24 of appearances, including a 38-point, 14-rebound performance against the Stockton Kings in January. 

He knew he would be playing at this level eventually, but he wouldn't have guessed that he'd be doing it in a Clippers uniform. 

L.A. didn't have any first-round picks in the 2019 NBA Draft — where Kabengele was projected to land — and the team didn't work him out, either. So when the Clippers traded up to take him with the 27th overall pick, he didn't see it coming.

"I'm at the table and picks are going by," Kabengele said. "And then when there's about three and a half minutes left on the clock for the next pick, my agent taps me on the shoulder and says 'This is about to be you.' I thought it was Brooklyn, and then he says 'You're going to L.A.' He explained to me how it works and that the Clippers traded some future picks. I was excited to be picked, but then looking back after the whole night I was like 'Alright, so they really wanted me.'"

L.A. ended up sending Brooklyn the 56th pick in the 2019 Draft and a 2020 first-round pick via Philadelphia for the rights to Kabengele, a gamble that's paid off thus far. 

Kabengele was a stud in college, and an efficient one. In his sophomore season at Florida State University, he averaged 13.2 points, 5.9 rebounds and 1.5 blocks in just 21.6 minutes per game — a line that earned him the Atlantic Coast Conference's 2018-2019 Sixth Man of the Year Award.

Kabengele excelled against top-tier talent in the NCAA Tournament, bringing his averages up to 17.0 points, 8.0 rebounds and 2.0 blocks against Vermont, Gonzaga and Ja Morant's Murray State team. 

Naturally, Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell were role models for Kabengele — something that became especially true as he watched the Clippers' first-round playoff series with the Golden State Warriors last year. 

"It inspires you because they broke the mold on what a star player is," Kabengele said. "You don't have to start. That's just how they operated, and that's how I operated back in college."

Now that Kabengele is in the G League, his role has changed significantly. He's no longer a reserve — Kabengele has started in all 24 of his appearances this season — and he's been working on expanding his game to better fit the modern style of the NBA.

Adding a three-point shot has been key. He shot it a bit in college, connecting on an efficient 37.4% from range, but made just 34 overall. In the NBA, he'll be asked to make plenty more than that while maintaining a high rate.

"I always shot it as a kid," Kabengele said. "But you know, there's different circumstances and things that teams need. When I was in college, I was pretty much a rebounder, hustle guy, screen-and-roller. I shot the three-ball occasionally — I think I only made 10 in my first year. I really had to work hard on it during pre-draft to prove I can shoot that. But it's been getting better."

Kabengele has already made 49 three-pointers in his rookie season, and he's hitting at a 32.9% clip on 6.2 attempts per game. It's a promising sign of what's to come, but it's also a product of the competitive differences between the NCAA and G League.

In college, basketball isn't a full-time job. You still have to attend classes, meet with professors and advisors and do homework and projects. In the G League and NBA, it's all basketball, all the time, and the player pool is made up of the best athletes from college and beyond.

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"Athletes are stronger," Kabengele said. "There's more spacing, there's more opportunity to make things happen. Every day and every game has been a challenge, it's been fun, going at it is physical, which is good. My vets are watching games here and there so they always text me after the game about what I should work on or congratulating me."

Kabengele knows he has a lot to work on, but he's been busy refining his skills in the G League. It's not just about adding a three-point shot, after all.

"I would say finishing in the paint," Kabengele said. "Not just powerfully like dunking, you know, two-foot, just floaters, touch shots, catching off slot passes, attacking from the three-point line, being able to dribble and drive, play outside, my mid-post game. Those are the main actions I want to work on."

One of the toughest things about being in the G League is constantly going back and forth between it and the NBA. A quick look at Kabengele's Basketball-Reference page will show you that he's been recalled and assigned a total of 19 times this season, but the actual number is much higher than that. 

That said, it's still a good indicator of how much Kabengele has had to travel and stay prepared for whatever comes his way this season. And while Ontario is only about 40 miles away from downtown Los Angeles, it isn't always that simple. Both teams' practice facilities are roughly 60 miles apart, which can make for a longer commute.

"It's life now," Kabengele said. "The first time you do it, it's like you try to get used to the team and then you go back down and it's a whole 'nother team to get used to. New staff, new everybody. But it's much more normal now because you see these guys all the time and when I go back up top, I see my vets and say what's up and get my work in, learn and ask questions, and then when I get back down here I'm with the guys playing, just working on my craft. So it's been pretty good so far. I've been enjoying it."

Of course, there's always some overlap, which has led to some pretty unique situations. Kabengele appeared in a doubleheader this season, back in December. 

Earlier that night, Kabengele played 40 minutes and racked up 15 points and 19 rebounds in a 106-97 loss to the Santa Cruz Warriors. Later, he spent five minutes on the floor in L.A.'s 150-125 win over the Washington Wizards.

"I was definitely a little bit tired," Kabengele said. "For them to call you up you gotta be a pro about it, and it's exciting. So you get back in and forget about how tired you were and you just wanna get in the game, because that's an opportunity right there. It wasn't strenuous, it wasn't crazy, like a 40 and a 20, it was five minutes, you know going up and down and just working on certain things."

It's a lot of work, but Kabengele knows it's going to pay off soon. Guys like Pascal Siakam are evidence of that. 

Siakam, who was named the NBA's Most Improved Player in 2018-2019 and was a first-time All-Star this season, spent some time with the Toronto Raptors' G League (then called the D-League) affiliate in 2016-2017. There, he posted similar numbers to the ones Kabengele is producing for Agua Caliente and was named D-League Finals MVP.

Kabengele is quick to point out the similarities between Siakam and himself, even noting that they were both selected with the 27th overall pick in their respective drafts. He also believes he can make a similar jump — in an interview with NBA TV Canada last month, Kabengele made the claim that he'll be an All-Star within five years.

"I remember the first game," Kabengele said. "It was early in the season, but the Raptors came to L.A. and I remember we played them, and I remember just looking at Pascal when he was playing, and I was like man, you know he was the same pick as me, got drafted by a really good team and at the time the Raptors were still playoff contenders. They had DeMar and everybody. So he was in a similar position, working on the skills and then when the opportunity opened he just flourished in it, so I'm in the same mindset. Right now I'm working on my skills and when the opportunity comes, I'll be ready."

That said, Kabengele knows that now isn't his time to shine. The L.A. Clippers are a team known for having great depth, and with an NBA title in sight, the team can't put much time into developing its younger assets like Kabengele and Mann. 

"It's similar to when I got red-shirted," Kabengele said. "I remember it was pretty difficult for me because it feels like they don't need you, and then when you go up and down in the G League, players may think that. But I never have because I recognize what kind of team I have, especially up top. We have all these vets and it's win-now mode, and I understand that and I know for me to get to where I want to I gotta work on my craft."

So as the Clippers prepare to make their playoff run, keep Kabengele in mind. You won't see him on the court this go around, but in a few years, he plans on being one of the stars of the show.