By R.L. Bynum
CHARLOTTE — You can expect Carolina forward Malu Tshitenge to block a few shots this season but don’t expect her to celebrate like her Hall of Fame uncle.
Dikembe Mutombo blocked 3,289 shots during his NBA career and liked to add a “no, no, no” finger wag in the direction of the shooter afterward. Since his career ended in 2009, he’s moved on to blocking people in multiple off-the-court situations on insurance commercials.
Would Tshitenge, a 6-3 junior who has 19 career blocks, do that in a game?
No, no, no!
“People tell me to do that, but I just think it’s so corny,” Tshitenge said Wednesday at ACC Tipoff. “I can’t do it. People just do it for me and I’m like, ‘I’m not doing it.’ It’s just not me.”
There was one game during her high school career at St. John’s College High School in Washington, D.C., when her teammates’ reaction to a block got her attention.
“It was just like in the moment,” Tshitenge said. “I mean, everyone was doing it and I’m like, I’ll do it back; so, I did it back.”
Mutombo wasn’t at the game, but he heard about it.
“He saw a video and he laughed; he absolutely loved it,” Tshitenge said. “He loves doing his finger wave. He does it everywhere.”
That was a one-time occurrence for Tshitenge, who is excited about coming into this season injury-free after a rough offseason in 2020.
At the end of her freshman season, when she blocked 15 shots, she suffered a torn labrum in her hip. Tshitenge had surgery that May and went through a recovery process that took more than five months.
No player’s offseason was normal that year, but that was particularly the case for Tshitenge. She had to work back into game shape early in the season.
“That was a bit of an adjustment for me, especially last year, having my minutes limited really because I was kind of still getting comfortable being in my own body,” Tshitenge said. “In a way, kind of getting back to my game, getting back to figuring out who I am, figuring out my game.”
That made last season dramatically different.
After starting all 30 games as a freshman, averaging 30.3 minutes, 10.5 points and 7.4 rebounds, she only played 22 games last season and started 11. She averaged 13 minutes, 2.6 points and 2.6 rebounds.
Learning to block out concern about her hip became much more important than blocking any shot.
“It was more so getting back comfortable,” Tshitenge said. “My freshman year, I was in some sort of pain in my hip, so I felt like kind of limited. So, then last year, it kind of felt like I was so hesitant. I didn’t want to do a certain move because I felt like there would be pain. But there wouldn’t be pain. So, I kind of felt like it was more of a mental thing. I really had to get back going and get back feeling like I’m fine. Just go. I’m fine. Keep playing.”
Her re-emergence will be important for a team that must fill the void left by the graduation of center Janelle Bailey. Along with two sophomores, 6-2 Anya Poole and 6-4 Alexandra Zelaya, there is no lack of players to step in. it’s just a matter of who will emerge as the leader at that position.
Versatile 6-3 freshman Teonni Key will be a high-impact player who could also help down low.
“She’s just so athletic and she’s just so long,” Tshitenge said of Key, who can score inside and hit 3-pointers. “Not only can she guard a post but she can guard a guard. She can be at the top of the zone. She’s just so athletic. She has a huge sense of urgency. She’s so aware. I’m just really excited to watch her play. You guys are going to be really impressed.”
Tshitenge said the post players are meshing together well.
“We are so versatile,” Tshitenge said. “We have bigs who can shoot 3s. We have bigs who can bring the ball up the court. I mean, I’m excited about us bigs this year. We’re running the floor. We’re so in shape. We’re so mobile, so it feels like it’s going to be way different than last year. I’m just so excited for you guys to see that. We’re going to be a great, great group.”
Bailey’s skill set was different than the group that will play inside this season.
“We’re not going to ask Malu and Anya and those guys to be Janelle, just like you weren’t asking Janelle to be what Malu and Anya can do well,” said Coach Courtney Banghart, who watched at a recent practice as Tshitenge held a stopwatch and was sprinting up and down the floor during a time before practice when players can work on whatever they choose.
“She knows how she needs to play the game is to play it fast and to be able to be a threat on both ends and running 94 feet,” Banghart said. “Janelle? That wasn’t her strength. So, we’re not going to ask Malu to do things that Janelle did and vice versa. So, our system is going to be able to be a little bit different.”
That means that Carolina will have players on the court who can run well and defend well, be offensive threats and have the ability to switch off of screens on defense and guard any other defender.
Tshitenge worked in the offseason to become more versatile on offense.
“I’ve definitely worked on my shot,” she said. “I’ve definitely worked on my mid-range. My freshman year, I was really hesitant with mid-range, I just wasn’t confident. But the coaching staff really helped with that. They really helped build that confidence back in me and helped me realize that I can do all things if I just put my mind into it. If I just try by doing it in practice, then it’ll reflect on the games.”
You’ll see a different Tshitenge this season and it should be fun for Tar Heels fans to watch.