Okeke Can't Wait to Get to Work With Magic

Magic excited about Okeke's do-everything talents
by John Denton

ORLANDO – Contrasting the agony he felt nearly three months earlier – both in his damaged left knee and with his pro aspirations in tatters at the time – with the sheer joy of being a member of the Orlando Magic, Chuma Okeke considered himself to be a very lucky man on Friday.

When the 6-foot-8, 230-pound Okeke heard his name called at No. 16 in Thursday’s NBA Draft, it washed away the pain that came when his prolific college career ended prematurely because of an ACL tear in his knee.

Named by his Nigerian-born father, Chukwuma Julian Okeke’s nickname of ``Chuma’’ means ``God knows.’’ He didn’t always know that his basketball fate would turn out this favorably, but he said time and again on Friday that he was thankful that the Magic put a happy twist on his unlikely journey to the NBA.

``It’s a real good feeling. You know it kind of doesn’t feel real right now,’’ Okeke said somewhat sheepishly on Friday upon visiting the Magic’s headquarters at the Amway Center for the first time. ``It’s just a real blessing after my ACL injury. I really didn’t see this coming, but they gave me a chance.

``(Going down injured) really hurt a lot, but the moment (in Thursday’s NBA Draft), that brought a lot of joy to me, my family, my friends. This is what we all worked hard for together,’’ Okeke said later. ``So, that kind of replaced the pain, I thought.’’

Picking outside the lottery for the first time since 2012 by virtue of winning 42 games and making the playoffs, the Magic were delighted to get a player the quality of Okeke, who played his best late in the college basketball season and was a driving force on the Auburn team that reached the NCAA’s Final Four. The Magic were so intrigued by Okeke’s do-everything talents and his versatility as a two-way player that they were willing to overlook the fact that he might not make his NBA debut until the spring as he rehabilitates his surgically repaired left knee.

``Every team gets excited about the draft and some drafts you get excited about more than others, and we came away with a guy who we were hoping to come away with,’’ said Magic President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman, who has a storied history of finding under-the radar stars in the middle and late-stages of the NBA Draft. ``We feel Chuma will add to our team in every way – on the court, off the court and being somebody who embodies what we want our team to be about.’’

Okeke, 20, shot to stardom this past season while authoring several dominant late-season performances for Auburn. Against Tennessee and first-round pick Grant Williams in the SEC tournament title game, Okeke had 18 points, 13 rebounds, five 3-pointers and three steals in a Tigers’ win. Against top-seeded North Carolina in Auburn’s Sweet 16 game of the NCAA Tournament, Okeke was never better, battering the Tar Heels for 20 points, 11 rebounds, three 3-pointers, two assists and two steals. His numbers in three NCAA games (15 points, 7.0 rebounds and 3.0 steals a game) were even better than his season statistics (12 points, 6.3 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.0 blocks in 38 games), indicating the steady improvement Okeke made over his two seasons at Auburn.

``It’s a really important part of evaluating a player and his hard work is evident,’’ Weltman said of Okeke’s improvement as the season went on. ``He’s improved, and he was on an incredible trajectory. Obviously, he suffered an unfortunate injury at an important time in the season, which was a shame. But it’s pretty important that Chuma is getting better and better and better and the reason is because he works at it. So, that was a very important part of our decision.’’

Added Magic head coach Steve Clifford: ``I think he’s what the NBA is all about now – positional size, versatility, a guy at the defensive end who will be able to switch and guard different players. Offensively, he can shoot, he’s got a high IQ, he’s got a good feel for the game, he can pass and he’s a two-way player. … Watch (World Champion) Toronto. Toronto’s not playing anybody who can’t play both offense and defense and they’ve built their defense with size. I think Chuma fits very well into that (profile).’’

Near the conclusion of Auburn’s March 29 defeat of North Carolina, Okeke suffered a torn ACL in his left knee. Originally, he thought the damage to his knee was minor as he was able to walk off the court on his own power. Later, doctors determined the damage and surgery was performed to repair the torn ligament. He said on Friday that his focus now is on building back the strength in that leg that previously made him one of the most feared dunkers and dominant rebounders in the SEC this past season.

``Right now I’m past the painful part; the first month is like the painful part,’’ said Okeke, who had surgery on his knee in early April. ``Right now, I’m just working on getting my quad stronger. It’s just about getting my leg back stronger, that’s about it.’’

The Magic have shown a willingness to practice patience with young players in recent years as they have battled through injuries. Orlando brought Jonathan Isaac (a series of ankle injuries in the 2017-18 season), Mo Bamba (a tibial stress fracture in 2019), Markelle Fultz (thoracic outlet syndrome surgery in the 2018-19 season) and Melvin Frazier Jr. (stress fracture earlier this month) along slowly following injuries, allowing them to recover fully before returning them to game action. That history of success with players recovering from injuries gives Okeke’s mother, Renee’ Okeke, a pleasant feeling about her son’s well-being.

``It gives me the confidence that he’s going to be OK; he’s in good hands,’’ said Renee’, who pointed out that Chuma has a built-in support system already in Orlando with his grandmother and aunt living in nearby Deltona. ``No worries.’’

Chuma’s only worries now are doing everything in his power to get his leg stronger and get his knee fully healthy so that he can get back on the floor as soon as possible. Following his news conference on Friday, Okeke met with Magic High Performance Director David Tenney for close to an hour to discuss the plan to rehabilitate his knee injury.

Like his steady improvement during his time at Auburn, Okeke can’t wait to get to work.

``I just look at it as me coming here to get better,’’ said Okeke, who had four 20-point efforts, seven double-doubles, eight games with at least three made 3-pointers and six games with four or more steals this past season. ``I feel like they have a really good rehab program for me, and I feel like they’re going to listen and always know what’s best for me. I’m just going to follow their lead. I’m a coachable guy.’’

Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Orlando Magic. All opinions expressed by John Denton are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Orlando Magic or their Basketball Operations staff, partners or sponsors.

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