Updated: 6 days ago
Hamilton Heights Christian Academy is known for its basketball development and has had plenty of international Division I level talent come through its doors. Some recent Hamilton Heights alumni — Canadian cousins Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Nickeil Alexander-Walker — have both been drafted in the first round of the NBA draft in the past two years. Coming from Moscow to Chattanooga in 2017, Russian wing Samson Ruzhentsev was recruited by numerous top programs and chose to attend SEC powerhouse Florida. Ultimately, his hope is to join in the line of Hamilton Heights players playing at the highest level.
Known for his athleticism, Ruzhentsev has agility that allows him to slash and find scoring pockets in the half court. An improved shooter, he finished his senior season shooting 41% from three-point range on almost 2.5 made 3’s per game. He finished his season with averages of 19.1 points, 6.3 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 1.2 steals, while improving to 76% from the free throw line, as well. He also played for Russia last summer in the FIBA U18 European Championships, who finished in sixth place.
Ruzhentsev is a relative late-bloomer and his progress has been evident to the point of him finishing as a top-50 player in the high school class of 2020. While it may not happen from day one, it appears he has the tools to be an impact player in Gainesville. Leading Hamilton Heights to a 28-3 record in 2019-20, he was named an honorable mention MaxPreps All-American. Choosing to come to America to play high school basketball in lieu of signing with a pro team in Europe was a major decision for Ruzhentsev and if his time so far indicates anything, it has been huge for his basketball development and future.
In this interview, we delve into Ruzhentsev’s family origins in Russia, how his game has developed, his process handling COVID-19, his path to Hamilton Heights Christian Academy, what led him to choosing Florida and much more.
For the next installment of the Pro Insight Q&A series, we present 2020 prospect Samson Ruzhentsev, from Moscow, Russia:
Pro Insight: Tell us a little bit about your background.
Samson Ruzhentsev: I was born in Moscow which is the capital of Russia. I lived there for 15 years. I have two siblings: one older and one younger brother. I really liked growing up in Russia, but I never really considered basketball as something I would do in life until high school. Like in ninth grade is when I started playing basketball seriously, before that it was more like a sport to play, like a hobby. I was more into education because of my mom. I went to a really smart school where I was studying a lot of math and physics and I didn’t really have time for basketball. So I was playing on a team and honestly I wasn’t able to be at most of the practices because of that [school] so like my dad was the one who helped me stay in shape and kept helping me get better at basketball. We had access to a gym and I was able to get in an hour a day with him and it really helped me. Then in ninth grade I changed my school and really started taking basketball seriously. So there’s a team called CSKA Moscow in Russia and I almost signed a youth contract with them, but then I decided to come over to the United States.
PI: Do any family members play sports?
SR: My dad played basketball, but he is really short — like 5’8” — but he stopped playing basketball at around 19 years old. He knows a lot about the game and he taught me a lot about it and helped me develop as a player. My brothers are both short as well, so they don’t really play any sports. My younger brother is also way smarter than me so now he’s going to that school [previously mentioned academic school] and pursuing something in education.
PI: You’re listed at 6’7” — where does that height come from?
SR: Yeah I mean my mom is pretty tall for a woman — she’s like 5’10” — she’s taller than my dad and my granddad is like 6’8”, so I think that’s where my height comes from.
PI: Do you or did you play any other sports?
SR: I played tennis before. I honestly didn’t know my dad played basketball until I started playing basketball and he played tennis at the moment so I thought that was his main sport so I played tennis for a while, but then I got kind of sick of it and now I kind of hate the sport. So basketball is what got my heart.
PI: Did you play competitive basketball before ninth grade?
SR: Yeah, of course I played. So in Russia the system is kind of different...it’s not like high school ball. It’s more like club teams. So we have like 15 club teams in Moscow and they have a tournament going on every year where every team plays every team so I played in that. Also, if you’re a top-five team in Moscow, then you’re able to play nationally in your grade — so I did that, too...but I never went to the final stage, though.
PI: What made you fall in love with basketball?
SR: I think the dynamic of the game...just how fast everything happens. I don’t think you can call basketball a ‘boring’ sport, you know? Like when you watch soccer they score once or twice a game and it’s kind of slow. I don’t really like watching soccer. Basketball is just so fun to watch and obviously play, too.
PI: For those who aren’t particularly familiar with your game, what are some of your greatest strengths?
SR: I think the best part of my game is probably shooting. I shot like 40% from the 3 last year, but I think I bring a lot to the table and do a little bit of everything. I can guard, rebound, run the floor, and bring athleticism.
PI: What about some things you still need to work on?
SR: I mean I’ve been working on it already and will keep working on it, which is my ball-handling. My sophomore and junior year I used to not handle the ball like at all, I was just a spot-up shooter or I’d catch and drive immediately...like one to two dribbles at most. Now I feel like I kind of improved in that area — in the Hillcrest game I ran a couple pick and rolls, and I just want to keep improving in that area. Playmaking, making plays for myself and for my teammates, and shooting off the dribble...stuff like that is what I need to improve the most.
PI: Can you share a bit on your evolution from being more of an athlete to rounding out your game as a great shooter?
SR: Yeah actually in the Hillcrest game I shot poorly from the 3 — I was like 2-for-8. When I first got to Hamilton Heights, I was always able to shoot. I remember growing up, kids from other teams when we would play and get together they would say, ‘we remember you since like the youngest age and you were always a threat from 3.’ When I first got to Hamilton Heights I was struggling. I remember at some point I was 24% from 3, so I decided to really put in work on that and get in the gym a lot. That’s what really gave me the work ethic I have now, just to get better. I mean, how do you get better at shooting? You shoot a lot and get reps...so I did that and it helped me.
PI: What would you say is most underrated about your game?
SR: I would say my scoring ability...you know there are moments in the game where you just need to go and get a bucket...I feel like I’m capable of doing that and people don’t really know about that. People just think I’m like a shooter and more of a role player.
PI: In light of COVID-19, what are you doing to stay ready? What’s your training schedule like?
SR: I mean now that the gym has opened up here, I’ve been able to get in the gym. But before that I was able to go to an outside court and workout there. Also just running to stay in shape: I’ll run like three miles or I’ll run suicides, depends on the day — and I lift weights.
PI: Out of all the guys you matched up with this year, who was the toughest?
SR: I actually think Mike Foster, I think he was the toughest player I played against this year. He probably had 30 [points] against us. I don’t think we can say that we were able to stop him, but we got the W so that’s all that matters...but definitely credit to him.
PI: How did you initially wind up at Hamilton Heights Christian Academy?
SR: So I was in ninth grade, and this ‘agency,’ but it’s not really an agency because I didn’t sign anything with them or anything like that. They were texting me and said, ‘we think you’ve got more potential to go pro than just high school basketball and we can give you an opportunity to play in a different country.’ At first they wanted me to go to like Spain or Italy or play in Europe, but I was like, ‘I’m basically in Europe already so why would I leave?’ So I wanted to go bigger, I wanted to go to the United States and I told them about it. Basically I sent them [Hamilton Heights] a two-minute highlight video because pretty much none of my games were recorded so it was hard to find highlights. Three schools got interested, I don’t remember the third school, but two of them were Hamilton Heights and Huntington Prep. At first I wanted to go to Huntington Prep and I talked to the coach and all that and I guess maybe they got somebody else and they just kind of stopped recruiting me. So my only option was Hamilton Heights and honestly I’m glad that it happened the way it did because it really worked out well for me. I mean we played Huntington Prep my junior year and we killed them, we beat them by 30 [points]. It was good to see the coach, though.
PI: To back track a bit, you had an offer with CSKA Moscow, but you decided to come to Hamilton Heights?
SR: Honestly at the moment I wasn’t sure because they weren’t telling me if they were going to offer me a contract or not so I was like ‘okay then, this is a 100% option [Hamilton Heights] and the other is like I don’t know so I’ll just go ahead and go to the United States.’ I mean it’s always been a dream of mine to play here — for me it’s ‘overseas,’ you know. When I told them that I was going to the United States they were like, ‘whoa, whoa, whoa isn’t it too early yet...why wouldn’t you sign a contract with us, first?’ They offered me a three-year deal and I was like ‘no way.’ Maybe I’d sign a one-year deal, but stay here until 18 [years old]? I mean imagine if I’m still in Russia right now...no way. I’m just so glad I didn’t sign that. That’s pretty much how it went. The whole coaching staff was calling my dad and asking him to rethink his decision, but we decided to go to the United States.
PI: What was the transition like coming to America? What have been some of the challenges?
SR: I mean yeah it was pretty tough...I would say my sophomore year was a big struggle for me, just a learning experience. My parents made me study English when I was back home, so yeah I had some English, but I didn’t have experience like talking to people so it was hard at first. It took me around a month to adjust to it and then it started getting better, but that’s off the court. On the court, I would say the game is just different...in Europe you run a lot of plays, the game is slower. Here the game is really fast, you run one or two simple plays...a lot is based on your own player skills and everyone is way more athletic and fast so it was kind of hard to adjust to that, at first. I would say it took me a whole year, honestly. It was a really up and down season for me — sometimes I would perform well and sometimes I would perform terribly.
PI: What advice would you share with other international kids looking to play high school basketball in the United States?
SR: I mean for people coming over from overseas to the United States, my advice would be to keep it in mind that you’re going to need a year to adjust. I feel like you need to come as early as possible because you’re going to lose one year on adjusting to the game.
PI: How has coming over to the U.S. for high school helped you mature as a person and as a player?
SR: It honestly helped me a lot. It definitely helped me grow as a player and a person. Hamilton Heights is a really small private school — it’s like 50 people, probably — we have a gym and like five classrooms, that’s pretty much it. Everyone knows everyone, it’s like a big family. You meet a lot of international people, like people you think you were never going to meet, they have people from all over the world. Also with basketball it’s a really tough environment...it’s so competitive, but I feel like that’s what really helps you develop. It also gave me work ethic. I lived with my coach and at first he would always push me to work hard, and that’s what gave me the work ethic I think. He helped me a lot, definitely.
PI: Do you feel like you accomplished what you wanted to in your time at Hamilton Heights?
SR: Honestly when I was coming in I didn’t even think I’d be where I’m at right now so I mean my answer is definitely yes. I did not think I was going to accomplish what I accomplished, so yeah.
PI: What were your initial goals? Get better as a player and return to Europe?
SR: No, I was planning on staying here, but I did not think I was going to play high-major basketball and become a top-50 player in the nation. Definitely did not think of that.
PI: How has your game changed since coming over from Russia?
SR: I think I was very immature when I first came. I mean yeah I had athleticism, but I think I had kind of a selfish mentality — like every time I get the ball I’m going to attack and take my shot because I wasn’t getting the ball a lot back then. Also I didn’t have that many skills back then at all and now I developed a lot, I’m a way better overall player. I feel like I’ve gotten better at literally everything since then and I got better at understanding the game, making the right play at the right time and stuff like that.
PI: You played for Russia last summer in the FIBA U18s — what was that experience like?
SR: I mean I would say it was a great experience. I’ve never played for the national team before. I got invited to camp once, but I got injured literally like the fourth day of the camp and I missed like three months after that. So it was my first time playing for the national team. It was a good experience, but I did not perform as well as I think I should have performed. I think it was a good experience for me, but it was not something I’m proud of, the way I played. It was a long process, too: we had a camp for like two months, so we started around June 10th and the championship was in August. At first we had around 32 people in the camp and only 12 made it. Honestly at first I didn’t think I was going to make it...to be honest it was hard for me to adjust back to the European game at first because it was a way different playing style. Honestly at first I did not think I was going to make the team. I was not performing well at the camp and I had doubts about myself, but it ended up working out.
PI: What are the biggest differences you’ve noticed between the American vs. European game?
SR: Well if I judge off the European national tournament I would say the game is more physical in Europe. They were not calling anything there. My coach watched me play and he told me how they would pretty much foul me every time I would drive and they would not call it and he would just be shocked about that. The game is slower and it’s less athletic...way less people have athletic ability in Europe...and here in the United States, you look at the team and everyone on the team can dunk and it’s not like that in Europe. Also the speed of the game — in America, teams get the ball and prefer to run up the floor and a fast break is the best option. In Europe, they prefer to slow it down and run a set play. I feel like that’s the biggest difference for sure. I mean we had way more plays on the national team then we had at Hamilton Heights.
PI: What are some of your short and long term goals?
SR: Short term, earn playing time at Florida. Long term, try to make it to the league.
PI: Why do you wear #4? Is there a story behind that?
SR: I mean my dad wore #4. So my sophomore year I was #20, they barely had any numbers left and my junior year I was asked if I wanted to switch numbers and I was like ‘yeah,’ I was going to pick #5, but it was a medium so I had to pick #4 and I kind of stuck with it. I love that number now and it’s kind of upsetting that I won’t be able to wear that at Florida. I haven’t decided what I’m going to be at Florida, yet.
PI: When did things start picking up for you in terms of scholarship offers?
SR: Well my first offer was from Auburn and I got it my sophomore year right when the season was over and I got Georgia Tech about a week after that. Those were my first two offers and I hadn’t heard from college coaches for a while. I mean, as soon as you become a junior officially they can actually talk to you, so I got a lot of calls on that day, but that was pretty much it. Then when the pre-season of my junior year started, we had open runs and a lot of college coaches come to our gym to watch us play and I picked up like four or five offers there and I feel like that’s when it started taking off for me — and Florida was one of them. So they came to watch Jason Jitoboh, who is on the [Florida] roster right now, and they really liked my game as well. Like the whole coaching staff came and they came back a week later and offered me.
PI: What were you looking for in a school and what made Florida your school of choice?
SR: I mean I was just looking for a place where I’m going to develop as a player. I was looking for a really good relationship with the coaching staff and you know, it was probably the school that has had the most NBA players come out on my offer list. I mean yeah it was a factor, it wasn’t the main factor, but it was still a factor for me. I would say honestly when I was thinking of schools it came down to Ole Miss and Florida...and at first I was like 95% sure I was going to Ole Miss and officially visited Ole Miss and officially visited Florida and after I visited Florida I changed my mind. I feel like the Florida coaching staff really kept it ‘100’ with me and told me how they really feel about me. At that point Scottie Lewis wasn’t coming back — he wasn’t supposed to come back — so like the starting small forward spot was literally wide open. There’s nobody else who is a true small forward on the roster, so that was kind of the spot I was looking at. I feel like the best factor that helped me make the decision was the way the coaching staff talked to me...they were really honest with me about how they see me on the roster.
PI: What type of system best fits your playing style? How do you think you’ll fit into their system?
SR: I mean Florida plays four out and sometimes five out...they shoot a lot of threes, and they play fast. I really fit that game. Like I said shooting is probably my strongest ability. I also love to run the floor — fast break is one of my strongest things as well, I think. So yeah, that’s it I think.
PI: How much did it help having a teammate (Jason Jitoboh) who is also attending Florida?
SR: He gave me an opportunity to really look at how my life at Florida would be if I was a player there, because he already had some experience there and he was able to help me with that. I could ask him questions I couldn’t ask at other schools, you know? So, yeah, he definitely helped me a lot.
PI: Do you watch more college or NBA basketball? What are you looking for and what are your biggest takeaways when you watch?
SR: I used to watch a lot of NBA basketball and I feel like the biggest thing that I want to develop in myself is being able to control the pace of the game — just slow down when you need to and play really calm, not rushed. I feel like pretty much in all of the NBA, they really know how to do it. If you ask me what players I really look up to in the NBA, it would probably be Zach LaVine and probably like Paul George. Those are the people I really look up to and model my game after them.
PI: What is it about Zach LaVine and Paul George that you admire most?
SR: Both of them are great shooters: Paul George being one his whole career and Zach LaVine has probably developed that the past couple years. Both of them have athletic ability...they have the height that I have — I mean Paul George is probably even taller, he’s like 6’9” now. They can create themselves, making plays for themselves or their team off the dribble at that height. Zach LaVine is also a one-foot jumper — like a one-foot dunker — so that really caught my eye, too...just to learn how to use that in games more. I watch a lot of his games.
PI: Which position do you view yourself as?
SR: I’m honestly trying to become more of a shooting guard, which I think requires more skill. I mean right now I feel like more of a wing.
PI: Please explain what Samson Ruzhentsev brings to a team, regardless of the situation.
SR: I feel like I bring toughness, for sure. I bring hustle plays, for sure. I try to get the possession no matter what...get those fifty-fifty balls. I will be a good teammate — if someone’s game is not going well, they are down on themselves, I will always support, help them up, cheer them up, all that. My number-one goal is to win the game; it’s not to score 20 or 30 points, you know...I would rather win the game than have a better performance myself.
PI: Would you say you rely more on your natural talent or your work ethic?
SR: I feel like of course I’ve got talent — athletic ability was more like a natural gift to me. The rest of my game I think is coming from work ethic. Like I said, I feel like I’ve improved so much since I got to Hamilton Heights my sophomore year in literally every category. So yeah I feel like work ethic is what really makes me as a player.
PI: What type of career would you pursue if you weren’t aiming to play basketball professionally?
SR: If I stopped playing basketball right now I honestly have no idea. I would probably get a degree and kind of go with that...whatever I would get a degree in. If I decided to never start playing basketball seriously back then, then yeah I would probably pursue the academic way and I would probably go to a good academic college.
PI: What’s your biggest passion outside of basketball?
SR: I mean I would say math — that’s my favorite subject in school and I’ve always been good at it. I don’t really like a lot of writing and reading...that’s not really me, but numbers that’s what I like more. So I feel like math would be my second passion, I guess.
PI: What are some of your hobbies?
SR: It’s kind of a tough question because at Hamilton Heights you don’t really have time for that to be honest. I go to the gym in the morning before school...school from 8 A.M. till 3 P.M., then we have practice...you come home around 6 or 7 P.M. It depends on if I’m going to the gym in the morning, or not, but I have to get up at like 5:30 or 7:30 A.M. and you know, you just want to relax and watch a movie or something like that. So the past three years I’ve been more of an at-home person.
PI: What Netflix shows are you burning through these days?
SR: I mean my favorite Netflix show is probably Stranger Things. I finished it a while ago after the third season came out, but the last thing I watched was Outer Banks. It’s a new show that’s really popular right now. I mean it was kind of fun, but I kind of feel like it was a little bit too much and an unrealistic story...but it was fun to watch, just something to keep my mind off basketball, I guess.
PI: What would you say are the four websites you visit the most?
SR: If it’s not about basketball then number one would be Instagram — I spend a lot of time on that. Netflix, Youtube, and Snapchat. Those four would be the ones I use the most.
PI: How do you manage pressure or expectations in the social media era?
SR: I will be honest with you — since basketball is not on right now, everybody is at home hanging out...but because it’s not happening [basketball] I haven’t posted a lot lately so the activity on my page is not really high right now. So honestly I don’t really have much pressure. And when I didn’t have those followers, I thought it’d be really nice to get that amount of followers...but now that I have that amount of followers I don’t even really think about that...it’s just whatever. It wouldn’t change anything if I had 10K or 100K — I just kind of have a mentality of like ‘oh yeah’ [shrugs]. I feel like I would get clout when my time comes, so I don’t really worry about that.
PI: Do you feel added pressure to perform due to social media or cameras?
I mean you always have that pressure. Even if you’re just the best player on your team, then you already have that kind of pressure. When it’s a big game — let’s say we play Hillcrest — it [the pressure situation] works for me, I feel like. It gives me energy and just pushes me to play harder than usual. If I’m honest, I love big games...that’s my favorite part of basketball. I don’t really enjoy playing teams that we beat by 40 [points] and stuff like that.
PI: Name four words that best describe you.
SR: Hard-worker. Tough. Supportive. For the fourth, I will say ‘family,’ because I feel like I’m a family guy and it’s not just like my blood family, but my teammates are family to me too...and no matter what I’ll always have my family’s back. So ‘family’ is one of the words that describes me well.
PI: What has been a defining moment or story in your life?
SR: I think me coming to the United States because that really changed my life so much. I honestly have no idea what life would be like right now if I didn’t come over here. So that’s definitely something that really matters a lot to me.
PI: Why has that stuck with you and what did you learn from it?
SR: It’s a tough transition and obviously it really helped me grow as a person and mature...it’s hard to leave everything behind and come to a different country without really knowing the language. I don’t think everyone would be able to sacrifice that much to pursue their dream, so that’s why it’s a defining moment in my story.
PI: Talk about your greatest all-time memory on the court.
SR: We played in City of Palms this year. We weren’t able to play in the main bracket, so we played in the Signature Series that’s like four teams. We played West Oaks first and it was our second time playing them and we beat them the first time so they were ready to come out. We beat them the first game and then the next game we played Sunrise Christian and we were undefeated at that point and they were undefeated at that point. We were playing for the championship and we were both ranked top-10, and it was a personal game for me because I played for MOKAN Elite [AAU] this summer and Sunrise and MOKAN are really close to each other and I know the coach and some players pretty well. We were down about 13 [points] in the fourth quarter and we came back and got the win by like 2 [points] and it was definitely the biggest memory of my high school career, I think.
PI: Tell us something about yourself that most people have no idea about.
SR: Even though I already said this in the interview, not a lot of people know that I started playing basketball seriously in the ninth grade and I was actually pursuing something else. Like I was pursuing my mom’s goal and trying to pursue something academically. A lot of people think I’ve been playing basketball since I was born.
PI: What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
SR: I mean I would say it would be advice from my high school coach and it’s been working great for me so far. Like I said, he taught me how to be a hard worker. I was not a hard worker when I got to Hamilton Heights and he told me ‘if you put in work as much as you can you give it your all then you’re going to achieve whatever you want to achieve.’ And it’s been really working well for me so far, so I think it’s great advice.
PI: Who would you say has influenced your life the most up to this point?
SR: My dad, 100%. Without him I wouldn’t play basketball. The very first time I tried playing basketball I didn’t really like it, but he was like ‘oh yeah, you should probably try it more.’ And like I said, those two years that I was going to that school, he was the one who kept me in shape and kept working on my game and developing me...as a person, as well. I learn a lot from him.
PI: Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
SR: Hopefully playing in the NBA.
PI: What type of player do you hope to be in the NBA?
SR: You know honestly, I don’t really want to answer this question because I really don’t like bragging. I’m trying to stay humble — that’s some other advice my dad gave me. Like I said, I hope I’m playing in the NBA in 10 years. I don’t know what type of player I’m going to be, I just know I’ll still be working hard and being the best person I can be. So hopefully it will work out.
PI: At the end of the day, what do you want to be remembered for?
SR: Honestly my goal is to, well...I’m a top-50 player in the USA right now, but not a lot of people know me in Russia and not a lot of people talk about me even though it’s my home country and I’ve played for the national team. My goal is to be one of the best players to ever come out of Russia.
Watch the full interview with Samson, here