Okeke Displayed Steady Growth and Strong Work Ethic Throughout Collegiate Career
ORLANDO – In addition to Chuma Okeke’s multi-dimensional talents, his high character and an omnipresent team-first mindset, the Orlando Magic felt completely comfortable drafting the forward following a serious knee injury because of what he showed between his freshman and sophomore seasons at Auburn University.
The grit, determination and work ethic that Okeke displayed in transforming his body and his all-around game to standout collegiate levels told the Magic all they needed to know about how the 6-foot-8, 230-pounder will attack his recovery from a torn ACL in his left knee.
Okeke’s steady improvement – particularly at the end of this past season when he played his best basketball in the biggest of games – led the Magic to making him the No. 16 pick in last week’s NBA Draft. Okeke was drafted near the middle of the first round despite suffering a serious knee injury in the NCAA Tournament that will likely delay his NBA debut until the spring. Still, the Magic had no hesitation in picking the forward because of the growth and determination they had seen from Okeke in his two collegiate seasons.
``(Improvement) is a really important part in evaluating a player,’’ said Magic President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman, who made the final call on Okeke being the No. 16 pick. ``His hard work is evident, and he was on an incredible trajectory before he suffered an unfortunate injury at an important part of the season, which was a shame. But it’s pretty apparent Chuma is getting better, better and better, and the reason is he works at it.’’
A freshman sixth man on an Auburn team that reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament in the 2017-18 season, Okeke completely dedicated himself to his craft over the summer before his sophomore season. Rather than returning to his home in Atlanta to spend time with family and friends, Okeke stayed in Auburn that summer to better his body and grow his game.
The result was Okeke going from a middling player as a freshman (7.5 points and 5.8 rebounds while shooting 45.8 percent from the floor and 39.1 percent from 3-point range) to one who led the Tigers in rebounding (6.8), blocked shots (1.2), steals (1.8) while also boosting his scoring to 12 points a game in the regular season and 15 points per game in the NCAA Tournament. And all of Okeke’s hard work particularly paid off when the games mattered most as he battered Tennessee in the SEC title game (18 points, 13 rebounds, five 3-pointers, three steals and a block) and top-seeded North Carolina in the NCAA’s Sweet 16 (20 points, 11 rebounds, three 3-pointers, two assists, two steals and one block).
Looking back now, Okeke knows the work that he put in a summer ago changed his game and changed his fate as an NBA prospect. Also, he knows that recovering from the knee injury that will delay his start in the NBA will require a similarly singular approach.
``That whole summer going into my sophomore year – Auburn is like a 1 ½-hour drive from my house (in suburban Atlanta), but I barely went home that summer; I just stayed in the weight room and got my body right,’’ Okeke recalled. ``I was always talking to our nutritionist, I stayed in the gym and I just kept working. All of that work paid off.’’
This past season, Okeke unveiled a variety of moves that surprised SEC foes and undoubtedly opened the eyes of NBA scouts. Whether it was his spin move and left-handed finish over Duke’s R.J. Barrett (the No. 3 pick to the Knicks), the face-up 3-pointer over Tennessee’s Grant Williams (the No. 22 pick by the Celtics), the strip steal of Tennessee’s Admiral Scofield (No. 42 pick by the 76ers and traded to the Wizards) or the jab-step drive and dunk past LSU’s Naz Reid (signed a free-agent deal with the Timberwolves), Okeke was clearly a different player than the one he was as a freshman. Those moves and his off-the-charts conditioning – he has 5 percent body fat levels – were products of all the work Okeke put into his game prior to his breakout season.
Said Auburn coach Bruce Pearl of Okeke’s well-rounded game: ``He is a really good player. He can guard inside and he can guard outside. He can score inside and he can score outside. He’s got a really high basketball IQ.’’
Okeke’s basketball world was flipped upside down on March 29 – just as he was experiencing one of his best moments on the court. As Auburn was putting the finishing touches on a 97-80 demolition of North Carolina – one set up by Okeke’s eight-of-11 shooting and three-of-five accuracy from 3-point range – the forward awkwardly wrenched his knee. Despite laying on the floor and writhing in pain for several minutes, Okeke thought he had escaped major damage in the knee when he was able to walk off on his own power. Eventually, however, it was determined that he had suffered an ACL tear that would cause him to miss Auburn’s run to the program’s first Final Four.
``First, I had to pick up my spirits,’’ said Renee’ Okeke, Chuma’s mother, who was in attendance at the game when the injury occurred. ``Immediately, I knew that something was wrong. I got down there as fast as I could, and he was still laying there in pain. Once we got to the back (of the arena) I told, `This is just a small setback and this, too, will pass. Not only will you recover from this, you will come back better than ever. It’s going to take a little time, but you’ll be OK.’ I told him that while we were in the back.’’
Despite the potentially devastating knee injury, Okeke declared for the NBA Draft and kept his name in the mix even though most draft experts had the knee injury knocking him to the second round – a scenario that would have guaranteed him nothing financially.
Orlando’s Weltman, for one, saw Okeke as a lottery pick type of talent and he knows the Magic likely never would have been in position to pick the versatile forward if not for his unfortunate knee injury. Recently, Weltman reminded that the Magic are committing to the long haul and there is little concern about the delay to Okeke’s pro career.
``We try to be consistent with our messaging to our fans, to our players and throughout our organization that we’re going to try to find the right kind of people and remain in their corners,’’ Weltman said. ``That means being patient and going through whatever they go through with them. This league is not easy. It takes time for young guys to grow up, figure out the league and find their place in this league. Patience is very important in that and we’re very committed to staying the course with our young players.’’
Orlando’s front office has taken a similarly patient approach with Jonathan Isaac, Mo Bamba and Markelle Fultz when they suffered injuries early in their pro careers, and it plans to do the same with Okeke. That’s just what those closest to Okeke like hearing.
``It gives me the confidence that he’s going to be OK; he’s in good hands,’’ said mom Renee’ Okeke, who pointed out that Chuma already has a built-in support system in Orlando with his grandmother and an aunt living in nearby Deltona. ``No worries.’’
Similarly, Okeke has few worries about the knee injury that required surgery by the famed Dr. James Andrews on April 2. There’s a brace he must wear on his leg for now and he’s already talked at length with Magic High Performance Director David Tenney about the approach he will take to attacking his rehab this summer. Much like the way he transformed his game while at Auburn, Okeke plans to completely dedicate himself to getting his knee better so that he can get out on the court with the Magic as soon as possible.
``Right now I’m past the painful part; the first month is like the painful part,’’ Okeke said. ``Right now, I’m just working on getting my quad stronger. It’s just about getting my leg back stronger, that’s about it.’’
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