Prepared for Launch
Back in 1996 – in one of the greatest Drafts in NBA history – the Cavaliers, with two picks in the first round, used the 20th overall pick to select a skinny seven-footer from Lithuania named Zydrunas Ilagauskas.
At the time, Cavalier fans – already confused by the selection of someone named Vitaly Potapenko with the 12th pick – were outraged by the selection.
Potapenko played part of three forgettable seasons in Cleveland. The other unknown, who was selected eight spots later, went on to play a dozen years on the North Coast, appearing in two All-Star Games and six playoff runs. When Ilgauskas bolted this summer, he did so after playing more games as a Cavalier – 771 – than anyone in franchise history.
Two summers ago, there was similar confusion (though not nearly as much anger or frustration) when the Wine and Gold tabbed a player most people – even in the internet age – had never heard of. When the collective media was shown highlights of the explosive leaper from the Congo, it looked like he was playing in a middle school gym.
Eighteen months later, we’re just now learning about Christian Eyenga.
Eyenga didn’t take the direct route to the NBA after being chosen with the 30th overall pick. After being tabbed by the Cavaliers, the 21-year-old high-flyer spent last season in Spain, playing 29 games with DKV Joventut Badalona – his third year with the club.
This past offseason, Eyenga came across the pond – playing in the Cavaliers summer league squad in Vegas for the second straight season. In this year’s session, Eyenga started all five games – averaging 11.4 points on .435 shooting, adding 4.2 boards and 1.0 blocks per contest. Christian notched double-figures in all five games.
Although Eyenga started the 2010-11 season in the big leagues, he was sent to the D-League BayHawks less than a month into the campaign. But the rookie performed well in Erie and, on January 2, got the call from Cleveland. Hours later, he was facing off against the Mavericks in his NBA debut.
“I was not nervous,” said Eyenga, who speaks five languages, including English, which he’s working on. “I talked to Chris Jent, I talked to a couple guys who said, ‘Just be ready. You will play.” So when the time came, I was ready to play.
“I wanted to do everything perfect. I was excited to play in the arena. I know there were a lot of people who wanted to see me play, so I was excited.”
Eyenga looked decent in his first pro outing, netting four points and three boards in 15 minutes. But one game later, this time as a starter, Christian seemed to have an epiphany – going 7-for-10 from the floor for 16 points against Toronto.
The rookie had one block in that game, but it was a goaltending call that got the coach’s attention – with Eyenga swatting the shot at the top of the box. In the next two games, he tallied a pair of jaw-dropping blocked shots in each contest. And suddenly, fans were seeing why the Cavs made him a first-round selection.
“He’s developed nicely and, out of the four young guys we have here, he has the biggest upside – there’s no doubt about it,” praised Coach Byron Scott. “His athleticism, his ability to get to the basket, ability to run the floor, make shots. He’s got big-time upside.”
As difficult as the NBA grind can be on rookies, Eyenga had it even tougher. He left the Congo at 17 to play in Spain and hasn’t been home in over three years.
“I miss my family – I miss my mom,” said the 21-year-old swingman. “She’ll be coming in February with my sister to watch a couple games. I miss my family in Congo. I miss my friends in Barcelona.”
“Obviously, it’s been a tough go as far as the language barrier – practicing and all the different scenarios we put our guys through, going down to Erie, coming back,” added Byron Scott. “I think it’s been an adventure, to say the least, for Christian. But I think he’s handled it extremely well.”
As Eyenga continues to master his fifth language – English – the Cavalier coaching staff has had to exercise a little patience.
“The language barrier hurts him,” Coach Scott admitted, adding, “We’ll say things in practice that you take for granted most guys will understand, and sometimes we’ll take for granted that he understands. (Eyenga will) say, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.’ (I’ll say) ‘Do you understand, Christian?’ “Yeah, yeah, yeah.’ Paul Pressey always says, “If they say three ‘yeahs’ – they don’t understand. If they say, ‘Yeah, yeah” maybe they have a hint. But three yeahs – they don’t have any clue what you’re talking about.
“I hear ‘yeah, yeah, yeah’ with Christian at times. But he’s gotten so much better.”
Eyenga returns on Friday night from an ankle injury he suffered on the West Coast. And fans should get another taste of the young gun’s aerial acrobatics. And when fans get to know him, the intelligent and affable Eyenga will be a Cavalier favorite. His teammates already love him – even though most were afraid to drive with Eyenga in his first few months behind a wheel.
Eyenga loves the city right back. Having just returned from Tinseltown, he now understands the major difference.
“(Cleveland) is a good city,” said Eyenga. “It’s different. For me, to live in Cleveland is good. You can go everywhere you want to. L.A. is too crazy to concentrate. It’s too big of a city to concentrate on your basketball career. For me, it’s a good place for my basketball career in Cleveland.”
The former first-rounder will be in action on Friday in Cleveland – returning after three games on the shelf. And if things go according to plan, he’ll continue to improve before our eyes.
“Every day, I feel more comfortable,” admitted Eyenga. “As we go, I’ll feel more comfortable just to play my game and do what I need to do. And that’s it.”
Joe Gabriele is the official beat writer for the Cleveland Cavaliers on Cavs.com. You can follow Joe and send him your questions on Twitter at @CavsJoeG.