Updated: Jul 9, 2020
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