A simple entry pass to Charles Bassey on the low block is how dozens and dozens of defenders have been terrorized since his grand arrival at Western Kentucky in 2018. Yet in a game at Arkansas on Dec. 7, 2019, it’s a sequence that ended with Bassey paying the price of sharp, unrelenting pain.
In the span of only a few seconds, a wide-open Bassey, geared up for another of his easy at-the-rim flushes, but instead was laying on the hardwood grimacing from a nasty fall. All that remains in Bassey’s memory from that moment is the incoming pass — from who he can’t even recall — followed by a flood of anguish.
“I felt a sharp pain in the lower left of my leg and my knee unlike anything I’d felt before,” he tells me now, a year-and-a-half after the injury. “I looked at my knee and it swelled up instantly. I knew it was a bad injury.”
Bassey suffered a tibial plateau fracture — the same injury JJ Watt went down with while with the Houston Texans in 2017. He needed surgery. And the timeline was even more brutal than going under the knife: He was given a rehab schedule that spanned nine grueling months. How he responded to that road has shaped him as a person and as a player.
“Rehab starts now”
On Dec. 10, 2019, in the wee hours of the morning, Bassey underwent surgery in Houston. WKU trainer John Erwin was there with him. And when Bassey awoke from the procedure, there was Erwin, already pushing him, trying to lay the foundation for what was ahead.
“I told him ‘Hey, rehab starts now.’ I think he was in disbelief,” Erwin said. “But he stayed in the hospital a few days and we did rehab two-to-three times per day.”
That was just the start for Bassey on his road to recovery. He knew that the rehab would be taxing, the recovery process long. He knew there were people who didn’t believe he’d be the same player he was prior to the injury. That he’d never be the same. He used that as fuel, grinding out long days in rehab, spending hours in the gym to try and get back on the court as quickly as possible.
“Once we got back to Bowling Green, he was basically living in the athletic training room,” Erwin said. “He was like the Incredible Hulk just tearing through workouts and rehab. It became a sight to see.”
No doubt Bassey had days where he wanted to quit along the way. The grind was painful, and being at full strength — let alone getting to playing shape — felt so far away. But he persevered. During those trials, he leaned on Erwin, who he became close with, and both of them chased the carrot of progress on a schedule with militaristic precision.
Then the pandemic hit. Adversity inside of adversity, like a bizarro remake of “Inception.” And at a time when the only thing he could rely on was consistency, suddenly consistency was inconsistent. Everyone’s lives were upended. Once again, Bassey persisted.
“The virus changed things for a lot of people when it hit,” WKU coach Rick Stansbury told CBS Sports. “Coaches went on lockdown. But there he was working with the trainer every day and our strength coach for a couple months straight. Through all that, he got stronger physically, and he came back better than he was before.”
Charles Bassey has impressed NBA scouts with his power and toughness
An appreciation for what was lost
There’s always been expectations as tall as the 6-foot-11 Nigeria-born Bassey that came well before his arrival in Bowling Green, Kentucky. He was the No. 6 overall prospect in the 2018 class, sandwiched between phenom Zion Williamson and Indiana one-and-done Romeo Langford in the 2018 247Sports Composite rankings. His commitment made him the highest-rated Hilltoppers recruit in program since 247Sports began tracking recruits.
It was reasonable to expect his time with the program would be brief. He was at one point projected a mid-first-rounder in the 2019 draft. But after averaging 14.6 points and 10.0 boards as a freshman, which led him to test the NBA Draft process, he didn’t get the feedback he expected.
With that feedback from the NBA serving as motivation, Bassey returned as a sophomore hungrier than ever. And a motivated Charles Bassey is when he becomes “a force,” Erwin said. He had a monstrous offseason that year, and an even bigger regular season was seemingly in store.
“Then he tore that knee up,” Stansbury said. “He would’ve had a big year for us. He came back and got to work after withdrawing from the draft.”
The injury changed everything for Bassey — his schedule, his habits, his perspective. Suddenly he had the same schedule every day, saw the same people every day, and with the sole goal of getting back on the court at full strength again. Through it all, he could only be a bystander to basketball.
“When I had the injury, just sitting and watching from the sidelines gave me a different perspective and made me think of things differently,” Bassey said. “The injury took basketball away from me, and in my mind all I wanted to do was get back out there. It gave me a new drive and helped shape me into who I am.”
Erwin, who was a part of Bassey’s recruitment and got to know him before he became a Hilltopper, noticed a change. Bassey was his same jovial self, but basketball was ripped away from him with the injury. His approach to the game, to rehab, to training was seen through a new light. He had a pro mindset; that consisted of eating better and really taking care of his body by including things like yoga, flexibility work and massages as part of his regimen.
“When he lost basketball, and then lost his teammates when the pandemic hit, he gained an appreciation for what he lost,” Erwin said. “When he lost basketball and got it back, he had a love for it and an appreciation for it that he never knew he had.”
Where Bassey profiles now
In his first game back from injury on Nov. 25, 2020, Bassey had 11 points, eight boards and a pair of blocks against Northern Iowa. A long rehab was officially complete. WKU got the win, he nearly had a double-double. Jubilation imminent for many, sure. Not for Bassey.
“I remember telling myself ‘This is not how you want to start the season,'” Bassey said. “I told myself I got the first game out of the way but I had to be better. The next game I had 21 points, 14 rebounds and seven blocks in a game over Memphis and I felt like that was a level I could always play at.”
That set the standard for how he would bounce back in the 2020-21 season. He averaged 17.6 points, 11.6 boards and 3.1 blocks per game, earning Conference USA Player of the Year honors. He’s already declared for the draft and is represented by Adie von Gontard and Daveed Cohen of Young Money APAA Sports with two toes into the draft process. Ranked No. 28 on the CBS Sports 2021 NBA Draft Prospect Rankings, he has a solid chance to be drafted in the first round as a high-energy big who has consistently produced with the Hilltoppers.
“He’s a traditional big,” one scout told CBS Sports of Bassey. “Love how hard he plays. He’s tough, plays with physicality, he’s still raw with moves and counters.”
Bassey will turn 21 years old in October, making him surprisingly young for spending three seasons in college. (For context: one-and-done Gonzaga star Jalen Suggs is eight months younger and one-and-done USC standout Evan Mobley, viewed as the top big in the class, is nine months younger.) That bodes well for his long-term development given how much experience he’s already accumulated at such a young age while building a solid foundation.
“Love his timing and anticipation as a shot blocker, motor checks out,” the scout added.
That’s part of what Bassey’s working on this offseason: footwork, shooting mechanics, decision-making with the ball, passing. There’s enough there already — especially in a draft thin at the center spot — to warrant first-round consideration given how consistently dominant he’s been in college and how the trendline of his career continues to track upwards.
A change in expectations
One of the biggest shifts pre-injury to post-injury was those lofty expectations Bassey brought to Bowling Green. They changed. Bassey went from having a wealth of believers to a bevvy of real naysayers that weren’t sure about his future in the NBA. No one after the injury knew how, or if, he’d return, and in what shape, never mind NBA aspirations. The five-star label, the first-round expectations, they were all on hold.
“Coming back after the injury with no real expectations, I think it took all the pressure off him,” Stansbury said. “Everyone talked about him being a first-rounder, then he wasn’t a first-rounder after his freshman season. I’m sure he was disappointed in that. But I think from the injury on, all expectations went away. He became a different person. He had a different mindset. I think he went to work and felt he really had something to prove.”
“That’s when he really starts to work, when the Hulk side comes out.”
WKU trainer John Erwin
Bassey, of course, never doubted he’d be back. The nine month rehab timeline nonetheless made many skeptical of his same optimism.
“People were really doubting, saying ‘He’s done’ or ‘He’s not going to be the same player he was.’ I saw that stuff on social media,” he says. “I wanted to prove those people wrong. It’s what motivated me. I went and just tried to kill every exercise and everything they threw at me.”
Erwin worked him hard. The strength staff, too. And there were days when Bassey pushed himself even further than sometimes Erwin wanted to push.
There was a weekly system in place to gauge his progress in wins and losses throughout this. If he was winning, he’d know it based upon indicators from the week prior. If he wasn’t winning, he’d know that, too. And he didn’t like when he wasn’t winning.
“That’s when he really starts to work, when the Hulk side comes out,” Erwin said. “You’re not going to like him when he gets angry if you’re going up against him, because he’s going to kick your tail.”
That’s what Bassey is shooting for now. He came back from injury and destroyed everyone in his wake in a dominant junior season as a 20-year-old. The months of rehab, the adversity, it all paid off as he now launches full-speed ahead to the 2021 NBA Draft, where this July he may realize dreams as a first-round pick. And after nearly seeing those dreams be ripped away from a gruesome injury, he has just one goal every time he laces up his shoes and steps foot on the hardwood.
“Proving doubters wrong is what motivates me,” Bassey said. “I want to dominate every time I step on the floor.”