On Sept. 24, Vincent Robinson called the mother of Kanu Aja to find out where her 6-foot-9, 260-pound son was attending school this fall.
On Sept. 26, Aja had left his Finksburg home for Kearny, N.J., where he signed up as a fifth-year student and basketball player at The Robinson School.
"The first time I saw him play was at the Hoop Group Elite camp," Robinson said of the former Cardinal Gibbons center. "I saw him play but I didn't speak to him because I figured he already had a school. A college coach called me and said, 'Take a look at him.' … His mom wanted him to move out of the area and be able to focus on the academics in a place where he could be seen. I know he went to a few different high schools. And she wanted a situation where he would actually be getting playing time and getting some individual instruction. At the other schools, he barely played. He was on the team, but he never played much."
Aja's high school career in Baltimore was filled with setbacks. He went to Mount St. Joseph as a freshman and played sparingly. Then it was off to Towson Catholic for two years, a stint which included two foot surgeries and an ill-advised reclassification. When the Archdiocese of Baltimore closed TC, Aja moved on to Cardinal Gibbons, only to go through the same process of his school closing all over again. During the summer, Aja suited up for Nike Baltimore Elite on the AAU circuit, but Robinson heard from college coaches that Aja played "five, maybe 10 minutes a game." While Aja's path to The Robinson School hasn't been ideal, his new coach thinks he's ready to turn a corner."The kid has bounced around," Robinson said. "And then of course for him bouncing around, no one has sat the kid down and said, 'This is what you do in the post, this is how you set a screen.' We're basically building from scratch. The kid has a work ethic, and there's no substitute for that. When people from Baltimore see the finished product and how much he's improved, they're going to be amazed. I really believe it's going to shock them. He's learned so much here in one week. The kid brings a notebook to practice every day. He's going to learn so much. We're having him do a lot of core work, jumping rope, doing agility with the ladder, push-ups. He's at 260 right now. We're trying to get him down to 245. He's really going to shock some people."
Aja, who is two classes shy of his high school diploma, has a fairly regimented day at The Robinson School. In addition to completing coursework for two virtual classes, Aja has practice from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., lunch for an hour, strength and conditioning from 2 to 3:30 and ACT prep work from 3:30 to 5:30. Practice generally includes one-on-one battles with associate head coach Frantz Pierre-Louis Jr., a 6-foot-9, 300-pounder who played professionally. Those matchups have been beneficial for Aja already.
"He's a straight post player with a good drop step, a jump hook with his left and right hand," Robinson said. "We're primarily working with him on how to work a guy down in the post. He rebounds really well in traffic. He has long arms. … Frantz has been phenomenal working with him one on one. Frantz still plays basketball himself. He jumps into the scrimmages and bangs this kid around. He's getting a lesson. He's getting Basketball 101 that he couldn't get at any other place."
Because Aja – a 3.1 student – didn't graduate with his high school class, Robinson said he'll be a partial qualifier. That status will likely eliminate high-major schools from getting seriously involved in Aja's recruitment, but there are plenty of mid-major programs that are already interested.
"Right now he has offers from Maryland Eastern Shore, Quinnipiac, Mount St. Mary's, Morehead State and a few others," Robinson said. "Seton Hall, Providence and Western Kentucky are coming up to see him. Georgia State is coming to see him. Morgan State is coming in [Wednesday] to see him. And he has an offer from St. Peter's here in Jersey. … The kid works hard, never complains. He's not anywhere near the type of shape that we need him to be in, but the kid works hard. If the kid was a qualifier, he would probably end up, with his size and potential, in the Big East or ACC."
The Robinson School has matchups this season with a host of traditional prep-school powers – Winchendon, Notre Dame Prep, St. Thomas More, Bridgton and Princeton Day Academy, to name a few. Those spotlight games will provide Aja plenty of opportunities to go up against high-major players. It's an opportunity Robinson hopes Aja will seize.
"He has to be in shape to play against elite-level players," Robinson said. "We need him to be a big presence in the middle so he does things to get his name out there. A good game against Andre Drummond and St. Thomas More, and his recruitment is going to take off. He has an opportunity to really put himself in a position where he can do some really good things and create a feeding frenzy over him because there are so few big men."
Baltimore Sun photo of Kanu Aja by Barbara Haddock Taylor / May 3, 2010