Matthew Ryan (@matthewmryan02)
In August 2020, with the pandemic still very much raging but travel possible, Christ Essandoko packed his bags in Paris and headed to the United States. It was Essandoko’s first time going to the U.S., and he was on a mission.
For the 6-foot-11 big man, his journey to the U.S. — specifically, to the Winston Salem Christian School (N.C.) — was a chance to develop his skills on the hardwood and prove himself as a college basketball prospect. Fast forward almost two years, and Essandoko has proved he’s not just a D-I basketball player, but someone considered a consensus top-150 player in the class of 2022 with nearly two dozen scholarship offers.
“[Basketball] was the main goal,” Essandoko said of why he came to the U.S. “Kind of make a name for myself as a prospect and as a talented kid to just prove that going to the United States [is] not going to be like a bust and just prove everybody wrong, that I’m able to do things that people in my country didn’t see.
“It was really a challenge, like the fact that I got to cross the ocean to just get better and prove myself and prove everybody wrong. It’s just a main challenge that I took personally, and I think that I achieved it after two years that I’ve been here.”
When Essandoko — who was born and raised in France, but also has Congolese roots — first arrived at Winston-Salem Christian, he was 300-plus pounds and not used to the U.S. game. According to Winston-Salem head coach Antonio Lowe, Essandoko was told to run the floor and stop at the 3-point line in France, and Essandoko mentioned the playing style and fast pace of American high school ball as another adjustment.
Essandoko’s first season in N.C. was also the first year of the Winston-Salem Boys National Team. In that season, Essandoko didn’t play much because of the transition to the U.S. game, his weight and the fact that highly-touted center Brandon White was still on the roster. That team went 19-12, but Essandoko was able to stay on campus during the summer, where he worked on his body and dropped about 50 pounds, according to Lowe.
In his senior season, Essandoko became a full-time starter for a team that went 30-8 while playing some of the nation’s top teams, such as Oak Hill Academy (Va.). During that year, he averaged 12 points per game and five rebounds per contest.
“Christ has pro potential. Next-level potential beyond college,” Lowe said. “I mean, they’re getting a 7-footer that can score around the basket with the right or the left hand. He has post moves. He has a really good feel and I.Q. for the game, but he can also step up on the perimeter and shoot 3s and take a slower defender off the dribble.”
Billy Lange (above) will have five international players on next year's SJU roster. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Less than a month ago, it seemed as though Essandoko’s recruiting journey was over as he had been committed to Providence since the beginning of October 2021, but in early April, he decommitted from the Friars, reopening his recruitment. Throughout the next couple of weeks, Essandoko’s recruitment revamped and on Sunday, April 24, he announced his commitment to play at Saint Joseph’s under Billy Lange.
Essandoko joins a four-man class of Christan Winborne (Gilman School, Md.), Rasheer Fleming (Camden, N.J.), and Quin Berger (Westtown, Pa.), but there’s a whole other group at St. Joe’s he fits into as well. Essandoko’s arrival gives the Hawks a total of five international players next season, in addition to Kacper Klaczek (Chorzow, Poland), Anton Jansson (Stockholm, Sweden), Ejike Obinna (Enugu, Nigeria) and Harcum College transfer Louis Bleechmore (Sydney, Australia).
While the current international talent on Saint Joseph’s roster is apparent, Essadoko also pointed out Lange’s experience coaching Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid. Lange was an assistant coach with the Sixers (2013-19) during Embiid’s early days with the team, and over the years, the Yaoundé, Cameroon native has developed into one of the NBA’s best players and an MVP candidate.
The abundance of international talent at Hawk Hill and Lange’s experience with non-American players was a key factor in Essandoko’s commitment, giving him confidence in the coaching staff to navigate what comes with an international player.
“The fact that they already have four international guys who are on the roster [separated St. Joe’s from other programs],” Essandoko said. “It made me think that they really know what they’re doing with the international guys, how tough it is to be far from this country. And Billy Lange [is] actually the former assistant coach of the Philadelphia 76ers, who’s worked with Joel Embiid, somebody I look up to. I mean, it really helped me (with) my choice.”
When Essandoko announced his decommitment from Providence on April 7, Lange wasted no time, contacting Essandoko’s mentor Xavier Calvaire before reaching out to the big man himself a little later that same day; two days after that, the Hawks offered Essandoko a scholarship.
“When I decommitted from Providence, I heard from Lange, and then he recruited me since, just calling every day, (seeing) what I was doing,” Essandoko said. “I’ve been back in France the past two weeks, so we were just talking like literally every day. He was talking to my guy [Calvaire] that sent me to the U.S., and we kind of built a relationship real fast.”
While Essandoko didn’t announce his commitment until Sunday, April 24, on Thursday, he knew in his head that Hawk Hill was the place for him. He had a Zoom call with his Lange, Calvaire and his parents, and it was during that conversation it became apparent he was going to be a Hawk, although he waited until Sunday morning to let Lange know he was coming.
According to 247Sports, Essandoko is the seventh-highest-rated commit in St. Joe’s history, and he joins Winborne as a three-star recruit in the class of 2022. At 6-11 and 265-pounds, Essandoko has impressive size, especially considering his ability to attack the basket off the dribble; he is physical down low but is also a willing shooter from mid-range and deep.
With Obinna penciled in as the starting center, Essandoko will likely be in a reserve role next year as the Hawks try to improve on a season where they went 11-19 (5-13 A-10). Essandoko will compete for minutes at the ‘5’ alongside big Charles Coleman. Key members of last year’s team have departed, including top-two scorers Jordan Hall and Taylor Funk, along with Jack Forrest and Dahmir Bishop, leaving plenty of minutes up for grabs.
Essandoko has never been to Hawk Hill before, but said he is going to take a visit sometime soon when he returns to the U.S. from France. However, the big man is no stranger to uprooting his life for a place he’s never been — and the last time he did it, it worked out pretty well.