The reality of being an elite high school senior is pretty different from what it used to be. Much as the advent of social media was a game-changer in terms of exposure and brand-building, the dawn of the NIL era has opened up a new world of opportunity for elite ballplayers, and not just at the college level. Take Mackenzie Mgbako, the New Jersey product, Duke commit and top-five prospect in the 2023 class.

Back in September, on the same weekend that he made time for the photo shoot you see on these pages, Mgbako was shooting a commercial for an unnamed sponsor (don’t worry, you’ll probably see it soon enough). That’s where he ran into Jayson Tatum, fellow member of the Duke basketball Brotherhood and who was most recently spotted leading the Boston Celtics to the 2022 NBA Finals. Naturally, Tatum extended his soon-to-be fellow Dookie an invite to work out the next day, evidence of which quickly hit social media.

SLAM photo shoot, mystery commercial shoot, casual workout with an All-NBA first-teamer? Not a bad way to spend your weekend.

Based on the evident composure with which Mgbako carries himself, you might get the impression that this was all business as usual. Indeed, he doesn’t seem intimidated by such opportunities. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t appreciate them. “These opportunities are amazing,” Mgbako says. “I’m blessed, beyond blessed, to be in this position, and I’m thankful and grateful for the team I have around me.”

Like most top prospects, Mgbako relies on family and trusted advisors to help guide him on his path toward the game’s highest level. But he also possesses a confidence in his own preparation for that journey. “I’ve been prepared,” he says. “I have a lot of conversations with my family about things, but I also have the maturity level that goes with it. I had that vision from the beginning.” 

That vision will take him to Durham next fall, where he’ll headline a class that consists of five 5-star recruits. The 6-8, 190-pound forward will bring one of the most polished games in the country—one that many observers compare to his recent NBA All-Star workout partner. Ask him to list his strengths, and with humility intact, the answer is “pretty much everything.”

“For me, it’s getting to the cup, making plays for my teammates, my athleticism, my shooting, and my leadership,” he says. “I’m definitely vocal on the court, for sure. I aim to be the loudest person on the court every time out.”

He knows he’s still a work in progress, of course, and emphasizes defense and rebounding as the parts of his game where he has plenty of room to go from good to great. Still, there’s more than enough in his skill set to make him the most buzzed-about player in new Duke head coach Jon Scheyer’s second recruiting class. Mgbako announced his commitment last April, and he says it means a lot to be among the players setting the tone for Scheyer’s first teams.

But there’s plenty to keep him busy before he gets to Durham. He played last spring in the Nike Hoop Summit, representing Nigeria as a member of the World Team against the US squad. Then in August, he transferred in state from Gill St. Bernard to Roselle Catholic, where he’ll suit up this season for the defending state champs. His goal for his senior season is simple: “Win the national championship.”

That echoes the likely goal he and his Duke teammates will set for themselves a year from now, a target that is surely connected to his own long-term goals for college and beyond. 

“It’s just [about] getting to the highest place I can be with basketball, playing to my highest potential,” he says. “I expect to be held to the highest standard. I expect people to expect the best of me, because that’s all I’m willing to give.” 

Portraits by Marcus Stevens

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