Kenny Pohto was just a scrawny Swedish teenager with dreams of playing college basketball at the highest level when he arrived in the U.S. a couple years ago.
“When I came here, I was so skinny,” he told the Star Tribune. “I was really struggling.”
For Pohto, who spoke English well back in Stockholm, the language and cultural transition wasn’t as difficult, but his body and game needed major adjusting and growth into the player that signed Wednesday with the Gophers.
“I really feel like since I’ve developed my body, I’m playing so much better now,” said Pohto, who has grown two inches and gained 25 pounds since coming to the states.
The 6-foot-11, 235-pound center gives Richard Pitino a second frontcourt player in the 2021 recruiting class. La Lumiere School (Ind.) forward and Minnesota native Treyton Thompson also inked his letter of intent Wednesday to open the early signing period.
In the recruiting process, Pohto was under the radar after exposure was minimized during the AAU season because of the pandemic. Gophers assistant Kyle Lindsted, a former Sunrise Christian coach and program director, had the inside track on the foreign big man’s growth from last year. In a normal year, Pohto might've been ranked higher than No. 142 in the country by 247Sports.com (ESPN.com ranks him as a four-star recruit).
“I feel like how Coach Pitino uses his bigs is the perfect spot for me,” Pohto said. “I built a strong relationship with coach Kyle. He’s been here before, so he’s like Sunrise family. He told me Minnesota would be the best fit for me. I really believed him. He told me they play a lot like they do at Sunrise.”
Lindsted shared game video of former Gophers center Daniel Oturu, who earned All-America honors last season as a sophomore. Pohto saw similarities between himself and Oturu in size, length, and versatility to play inside and out.
“The coaches said I play like [Oturu],” he said. “I can do anything coach wants me to do offensively. And defensively I can guard anybody.”
Pohto is not as athletic as Oturu but he prides himself on being able to shoot, run the floor and take opposing posts off the dribble. Pitino told him he’s intrigued at what Pohto’s ceiling could be in Minnesota’s system.
His best performance to date came internationally at the 2018 FIBA U16 European Championships with Sweden, averaging 13.1 points and 11.6 rebounds per game.
"Kenny Pohto has a terrific skill set offensively," Pitino said Wednesday in a statement. "He can step outside and hit the three as well as score on the low block. He fits perfectly into our system as well as in our locker room. He loves the game and lives in the gym. We know he will be a great addition to our basketball program."
After looking thin in the frontcourt earlier in his tenure, Pitino loaded up on size in the last three recruiting classes. The Gophers signed 6-10 Texas native Sam Freeman and 6-9 Isaiah Ihnen from Germany in the 2019 recruiting class. In the 2020 class, they signed 6-10 Martice Mitchell from Chicago, while also adding 7-foot Drake transfer Liam Robbins, who has two years of eligibility left.
Being in the same 2021 class as the 6-11 Thompson didn’t discourage Pohto. The Gophers pitched that they could end up being on the floor at the same time with their versatility.
“I’ve talked to him a little bit,” Pohto said of Thompson. “We’re both excited to play together.”
Signing day Wednesday is a proud moment for Pohto and his family, but Sunrise coaches are just as excited at how far he has come in just two seasons.
“At 6-11, he’s extremely mobile,” Sunrise Christian coach Luke Barnwell said. “He’s very, very skilled. I think he shot over 50 percent from three last year. He has a great feel for the game and high IQ. He’s very versatile and really kind of fits into the mold of the [Big Ten].”
The same skinny 16-year-old who never played much in his first season after coming from Sweden is now one of the standouts for a Sunrise Christian team with national championship aspirations, especially led by five-star seniors Kennedy Chandler (Tennessee) and Minnesotan Kendall Brown (Baylor), four-star senior Zach Clemence (Kansas) and Pohto.
“I always wanted to play in the U.S.,” Pohto said. “Everybody said you never played against the best competition until you’ve played here.”