When Ben Mbala arrived in Cebu to play for Southwestern University (SWU), there was not much hoopla until he destroyed Karim Abdul in the Philippine Collegiate Champions League on a nationally televised game.
The 6’8” man-child went beast mode at the sight of HumbleBola’s favourite uncle and dropped a PCCL record 45 points (we believe that this still stands) and displayed everything in his repertoire of post moves and explosive athleticism. It was just straight up abuse on the Tigers even if they eventually won the game thanks to having more pieces at hand.
But it was undeniable: Ben Mbala was an animal. And Manila better be prepared for he’s not going to stay in SWU.
He eventually found himself wearing the Green and White of La Salle and boy was the UAAP unprepared for the force of nature from Cameroon. No one can just stand toe-to-toe with Mbala pound for pound in the most popular collegiate league in the land.
Mind you, the schools stock-piled for the arms race before he even played a game. They were preparing their Mbala stoppers with foreign student recruits of their own. Some were already even playing and were probably shaking their pants.
Papi Sarr? Nah.
Karim Abdul? Too old.
Alfred Aroga? Too heavy.
Prince Orizu? Looked more like chorizo.
Chibueze Ikeh? Baby giraffe.
The two years that Big Ben played in the UAAP was quite a nightmare if you are an opposing fan and quite the cheat code for a Green Archer fan. You can’t stop Ben Mbala. Not even slow him down. He’ll get his numbers, even if he has to huff and puff as hard as he can to blow your house down. He was just too big, too fast, and too strong for lumbering foreign student-athletes and Filipino totem poles alike. He was just unmatched pure and simple and took everything from Ateneo to snag a title right under his nose.
While Mbala has left to play pro-ball after the board decided to revive the 7-years-out-of-high-school rule, every UAAP team has been beset by a new problem: Angelo Kouame, the towering center of the defending champion Ateneo.
If Ben Mbala was a monster inside the paint, willing everything by raw brute force and explosiveness, Kouame looks to be the opposite and we should be appreciating him the same way we all were awe-struck by Mbala’s physical presence.
Many have said that Kouame is the next Mbala. True enough it’s hard containing a skilled seven-foot center that can overpower the toughest of any big guy rotation in any league.
However, I’d like to stop you right there. There is no next Ben Mbala. There’s only one Benoit Mbala, he who stood like a human mountain, he who had you shaking in your pants when he’s on the scorer’s table about to check back in. There will never be anyone like him.
And Ange? Kouame is Kouame. He’s a different type of player and monster all together and instead of diminishing his luster by comparing him constantly to Big Ben is quite a disservice to the kid’s own brand of basketball.
In the games that Kouame has played, it’s undeniable that his effect on the UAAP is huge. He’s bending both sides of the floor whenever he’s out there. He’s leading the league in blocks, probably third in the rebounding department behind Adamson’s Pappi Sarr and FEU’s Prince Orizu. On offense, Kouame is not limited to being a garbage collector, nor is he restricted to staying in the painted area.
What makes the big man very dangerous in the UAAP right now is his skill set, which is that of a modern big: can step out and make the occasional jumper or three, handles like a guard, quickness, and speed of a wing, length for rim protecting. Ange Kouame has that and more: the intangible of a high-powered motor. Dude does not take plays off to conserve energy for one side of the ball, he just goes all out.
Let’s take a look at the tools he has. Physically, at seven feet, he already has the height advantage, but what stands out aside from this is when and where Kouame gets the ball. He always gets it at the elbows or at the top of the key in Ateneo’s offensive sets, and this presents opportunities for Ange to do three things: pass it to a curling shooter, make one or two dribbles to hand it off and roll to the rim, or fake the hand off, turn the corner and burst to the rim. In the course of a full game, you see this on display and there’s just zero awkwardness in the flow of his motions. While Mbala used force and raw power to get his buckets, Kouame utilizes the skills he has, which is practically him being a seven-foot shooting guard.
Case in point, against La Salle, where everyone was like next Mbala this, next Mbala that, Kouame showed what sets him apart from Big Ben: in one possession, he picked up a loose ball and was suddenly bearing down the lane against three green shirts. He calmly put on the jets, gathered the basketball, took the hit from Andrei Caracut and finished the lay-up like he was Thirdy Ravena. Other bigs would have had fumbled the damn leather and turned it into a Tragic Bronson (Whaddup Abu!). In another instance, Kouame poked a ball loose in the same game and dribbled the length of the floor and finished with a slam. All with ease. Au natural.
We’re not saying that Ben Mbala cannot do these things. He probably can but he’s an old-school big who only added a three-ball to his move set in his last year in the UAAP. Kouame? It’s part of the arsenal already, just a matter of actually hitting it consistently (he has attempted what, five and made what? Two?).
Whenever I see Ange play and do things that have been seen here on Philippine soil, it reminds me of that one guy they call “The Process,” he of great stature and social media virality, doing things big men never could: take and make threes, take defenders off the dribble, close out wingmen while recovering to protect his rim.
Maybe, just maybe, we can appreciate what Ange Kouame has brought to the table, the same way we appreciated Ben Mbala’s contributions to the game. However, it’d be unfair to compare both players since their play is like apples and oranges.
There will be no next Mbala. There will be no next Kouame.
There’s only one of each.