Angel Rodriguez was 15 when he made a life-changing decision most people from his country don’t get the opportunity to make. He departed from his home in San Juan, Puerto Rico — left his family behind, and came to the United States to make something of his self on the basketball court.
“I came to the United States because I wanted to make it in basketball and have a future,” Rodriguez said. “I wasn’t gonna have it in Puerto Rico so I had to leave everything.”
The opportunity to leave his native country came when Shakey Rodriguez, a legendary high school basketball coach in Miami, traveled to Puerto Rico and saw Angel play in a tournament.
“He told me ‘hey, you wanna go and try and have a future? Or do you wanna stay here and just do what everybody else does?’” Angel recalled. “We had a long conversation about it. I decided I wanted to be different than everybody else in Puerto Rico — I wanna go accomplish something, not just have love for basketball and not do anything about it.”
So Rodriguez, now a freshman point guard at Kansas State, sat down with his mother, Jacqueline, for a long, emotional conversation.
“She told me ‘I’m gonna be honest with you, I don’t wanna let you go because you’re my oldest son — the first one I had,’” Rodriguez said. “‘But I love you so much that I have to let you go, let you be happy and whatever you want to succeed.
“It was hard, knowing she was suffering. She cried when we had that conversation.”
He moved to Miami, where he lived with his uncle. He played basketball at Dr. Michael Krop High School for Shakey Rodriguez, who is a mentor to K-State coach Frank Martin. He starred at Krop, averaging 22 points and 6.5 assists during his final two seasons, earning him scholarship offers from the likes of Louisville, Florida, North Carolina State and K-State.
But the Wildcats (7-1) really wanted Rodriguez, and the K-State coaching staff had developed a good relationship with him.
“I was more familiar with Angel but I turned (associate head coach) Brad Underwood loose on him,” Martin said. “I said ‘Brad, there’s a point guard in Miami that I think is pretty good, I need you to do some legwork there. If he becomes a guy you really like let me know and then let’s put the full-court press on him.’ Brad fell in love with him.”
Rodriguez wanted to play for Martin — a guy who demands the best from his players, but at the same time, is there for them when they need him.
“With Frank, I knew before I came here — I knew he would always take care of his players, he would expect them to do good things on the basketball court,” Rodriguez said. “Outside (of that) he would help you to grow as a player and a person so that you could succeed in life.”
Rodriguez is seeing that first-hand now at K-State, where he initially hit things right in stride.
“Going into that first exhibition game you could argue he was the best player on the floor in practice,” Martin said. “I was contemplating starting him going into the first game of the year.”
He put in more time than anyone in the gym getting shots up, and in the exhibition game against Fort Hays State, Rodriguez scored 15 points on 4-of-5 shooting, including going 3-for-3 from 3-point distance to go along with five assists.
But like all freshmen tend to do, Rodriguez hit a bump in the road. Over the next seven games he connected on just 20 percent of his shots, 14 percent of his 3-point attempts and had 14 assists to 12 turnovers.
“(He) started thinking this is a little easier than it really is,” Martin said. “That’s just him getting a little full of himself and that’s what we’ve been working to get him out of.”
Martin isn’t worried about that issue persisting.
“He’s a fighter,” Martin said prior to the Wildcats’ victory over Alabama last week. “He didn’t get here because he looks good in a picture, he got here because he’s a fighter as a player. He’s willing to work. That’s not gonna be a problem. He’s gonna turn the corner, those shots will start falling for him. He’s been refocusing in on all those things he did early.”
That focus showed signs of paying off against the Crimson Tide last Saturday. Rodriguez played 26 minutes, scored 13 points and recorded seven assists.
“Alabama, they’re relentless with their pressure defense,” Martin said. “Angel gave us a guy that took care of the ball. Angel is a pretty good offensive player, he just needs to learn how to play the other side of the floor. But he gave us that presence, assisted Will (Spradling) on a day Will didn’t have a lot of energy (due to food poisoning) and prevented us from having the ball in bad places so we didn’t turn it over.”
Rodriguez took a chance leaving his country. He left his comfort zone — left his mother and two younger brothers. He didn’t know a word of English upon arriving in the United States. After three years here, he now speaks the language fluently.
Looking back at it all, it’s a decision he’s happy he made. And while it was difficult at the time, it’s something he thinks his mother is probably smiling about as well.
“At the end of the day, I know she’s happy and proud of what I’m doing,” he said.