The Continuing Education of Christian Eyenga
(Or, in the words of Eyenga, himself: “I learn about English. I don't crush the car no more. Now my next step is to learn about defense.”)
English is essential and not crushing the car no more is always a good thing. (The Congolese transplant had some difficulty navigating his rig in the snow last winter.) But if you ask Coach Scott, the third item on Christian’s list is probably the most vital to his NBA success and survival.
The Cavaliers’ top pick in the 2009 Draft, Eyenga has already seen his share of highs and lows. He’s been a starter and spent long stretches on the bench. He’s made two trips to Canton. He’s dunked on his boyhood idol, Kobe Bryant.
And recently, with the Wine and Gold being bit hard by the injury bug, Eyenga is getting another opportunity at the big league level. And he’s been working his tail off to make sure he takes full advantage.
After Anderson Varejao went down on Friday night and the shorthanded Cavaliers dropped a pair of contests over the weekend, the buzzword from players’ and coaches’ was “opportunity.” With several starters down, now is the time for young players like Eyenga to make their mark.
After returning from a nine-game stint with Cleveland’s D-League affiliate, the Canton Charge, Eyenga has been working overtime with Cavaliers player development assistant/video coach, Aubrey McCreary. And his focus has been defense, ball-handling, getting to the rim. And more defense.
“Aubrey is so amazing, he’s taught me a lot about the game,” praised Eyenga, through a still-thick French accent. “Every day I get better with him. If I’m working out by myself or (player development assistant) Jordi (Fernandez) comes, I’ll say, ‘Jordi, can we wait a little bit for Aubrey?’”
Eyenga’s unbelievable athleticism and aerial antics earned him a pair of cool nicknames – (“Skyenga” “The Flying Eyenga”) – but didn’t earn him big points with Byron Scott, who said earlier this season that Eyenga had too much of a tendency to “glide” through practices and games.
Coach Scott’s blueprint for the Cavs has always been to defend and run. Eyenga can do both when his game is on. And that’s where McCreary came in – teaching the 6-7 swingman to tap his true potential.
Christian is soaking up that knowledge: “During a game, I want him to sit behind me so he can tell me, ‘Watch this, watch that.’ I will watch everything he is telling me,” said Eyenga.
The Cavaliers, aided by assistants McCreary and Fernandez, have a solid track record of player development. Samardo Samuels and Manny Harris went undrafted and went on to become solid contributors. Alonzo Gee was cut by two teams before earning a starting role last season and become an integral part of the rotation this year.
Now, with injuries plaguing the Cavaliers backcourt, it’s Eyenga’s turn to step up and show his wares – especially on the defensive end.
“Right now, (I’m) trying to get focused on my defense,” said Eyenga. “Right now, I don’t care about offense. (Against the Clippers), I didn’t care about offense, I just want to work on my defense.”
Eyenga has played in just five games with the Wine and Gold this season – after appearing in 44 last year. His numbers are down, but his opportunities have been scarce. With Anthony Parker still nursing a bad back, he’ll likely get a longer look.
Coming out of the 2009 Draft, Eyenga was most often compared to Mickael Pietrus, and that comparison sits fine with Christian.
“I watch Boston vs. L.A., and I saw Mickael Pietrus play defense against Kobe. And I said, ‘I want to be that guy. He can play defense.’”
One facet of Eyenga’s improvement wasn’t even in his control – he grew two inches in the offseason.
“I came on the first day and they were checking my height and weight and it was 6-7,” smiled the former first rounder. “Coach looked at me and said: ‘You got to be kidding!’ “
“I thought: ‘What did I do? What did I eat?’ (In the offseason) I would work out in the morning and play at night. I would sleep a lot and my mom said, ‘Keep sleeping a lot and you’ll grow to 6-10.’”
Even two years into the league, Eyenga is still far from a finished product. Before being drafted in 2008, in his combined games with CB Prat Juventud (2008-09) and DKV Joventut Badalona (2009-10), Eyenga logged a grand total of 1,229 minutes of floor time. In his rookie season with Cleveland – 44 games total – Eyenga saw 947 minutes of action.
The Cavaliers player development team has work to do with the 22-year-old, but with his freak athleticism, his progress could bring a high yield. He simply needs to keep working hard on his to-do list.