Late-bloomer Shittu turning heads by leading Canada West men's basketball ranks in blocks

Abdullah Shittu gets a hand on a shot attempt from Alberta's Adam Paige during a meeting earlier this season. The MacEwan Griffins forward leads Canada West with 16 blocks in six games (Chris Piggott photo).
Abdullah Shittu gets a hand on a shot attempt from Alberta's Adam Paige during a meeting earlier this season. The MacEwan Griffins forward leads Canada West with 16 blocks in six games (Chris Piggott photo).

Jefferson Hagen, MacEwan Athletics

EDMONTON – Buried on the bench in his first year of competitive hoops at one Alberta's powerhouse basketball high schools – the Harry Ainlay Titans – Abdullah Shittu didn't draw a lot of recruiting interest from university programs.

Titans are regularly snapped up around the Canadian and American post-secondary ranks, including current Chicago-Loyola star Aher Uguak, who wore the blue and white the year before Shittu did.

Therefore lost in the shuffle, Shittu (pronounced She-two) didn't know what to expect of a future in the game that he only started playing in high school and never competitively until Grade 12.

Enter MacEwan head coach Eric Magdanz, who saw enough potential in those limited high school minutes to offer him a spot on the Griffins.

"The interesting part is he played on a very good Harry Ainlay high school team and he just about didn't play," Magdanz explained. "He was maybe the 10th man on the team and played behind a number of very good players who are both in the NCAA and U SPORTS.

"We saw his potential. We knew he hadn't played, we knew he was young for his grade, and we saw a kid who just loved basketball. Putting the combination of those things together, we saw some potential and he's really beat our wildest expectations."

In fact, the only expectations he hasn't exceeded have been his own. After barely playing in his rookie Canada West season a year ago, Shittu has burst onto the scene in 2018-19 for the Griffins and currently leads the conference in blocks. With 16 through six contests – an astounding 2.7/game average – he's currently on pace to break the Canada West record.

"I think I've always been good at that part of the game," said Shittu. "We had a big team meeting my first year and (Eric) talked about our goals. One of my goals was to lead the country in blocks. I think it sounded crazy to him, but I feel like I've always been good at blocking shots."

The 6-foot-6 forward will lead the Griffins (0-6) into action against the University of Fraser Valley (2-4) on Friday (8 p.m.) and Saturday (7 p.m., David Atkinson Gym).

Born in Nigeria, Shittu moved with his family to Kuwait when he was five and attended an English Immersion school. When he was 11, his father accepted a scholarship to study linguistics at the University of Alberta and the family immigrated to Canada.

"It's refreshing," he said of moving to Edmonton. "There's a lot of racism in Kuwait. If a person from Canada went to Kuwait, they'd respect them and be fine with them.

"But I came from Nigeria and didn't know any English, so there was a lot of racism. It was good coming here where everyone's accepting."

In his sporting life, Shittu was primarily a soccer player in his youth, but began playing pickup basketball when he hit high school. It wasn't until he joined Next Gen Basketball in Edmonton the summer before Grade 12, though, that he really started to show his potential. After leading his team to a tournament win with a 25-point performance in their final game, one of his coaches, Dane Owen, encouraged him to try out for the Titans.

"I was scared to try out for my high school basketball team because if I didn't make it, it was going to be a waste of time," Shittu explained. "Tryouts were like a month long. He said 'try out and if you don't make it, don't worry about it.' "

Taking that advice to heart, he made the Titans and the rest is history.

When he kicked off his Canada West career with the Griffins in 2017-18, Shittu was used sparingly as he learned the game, playing the 13th most minutes on the team (2.3/game) and recording only two blocks all season. It certainly wasn't the type of production that would foreshadow his current mastery of the defensive skill.

But with starter's minutes (21.5/game, fourth on the Griffins), Shittu is suddenly one of MacEwan's most important players. He's on the court in key situations, such as late in last Saturday's close match against Winnipeg.

"He's just a kid who continuously works hard, puts time into understanding where he can be effective and is just a remarkable athlete," said Magdanz. "He came into MacEwan as a 17-year-old who had really only played basketball for a year-and-a-half and has just really taken to the game. You see improvement in every single thing he's doing every day."

Some of that has been a growing awareness of the game, which has helped him block some of Canada's West's top players so far this season.

"He's blessed with some length and he's blessed with some athleticism, but it comes with timing, a lot of anticipation and a lot of intelligence in understanding where the play is progressing to," said Magdanz. "If you look at most of his blocks, it's not actually on the defender that he's guarding, it's when he's coming over as a help-side defender and helping someone else out on the team."

That's the kind of defensive effort the Griffins will need from everyone if they're going to pick up their first win of the season this weekend.

"UFV's a long, physical team that has a number of good pieces," said Magdanz. "For us, it's coming out with the level of aggression and level of dedication both offensively and defensively that we saw on Saturday night.

"We've been working on putting a full game together as a team. I think we're very close to hitting that mark and hopefully against UFV we can see that."