Player preview: the game changer Chris Obekpa still has growth left in his game

USA TODAY Sports

Chris Obekpa certainly came as advertised.... a shot-blocking monster whose offense could charitably be described as "raw". But as a freshman, Chris Obekpa made a powerful impact on the defensive end, blocking a shot in every game but one against Rutgers (where he played 20 minutes and ended with four fouls).

His impact wasn't just individual. In conference play, the Red Storm allowed around the same field goal percentage from beyond the arc and from the mid-range area, but opponents shot 51% at the rim - down from over 64% against St. John's the year before. (This was evident early.)

That is a real and significant change, vaulting the Red Storm from near the bottom of the league in defensive efficiency to 6th. A look at the defensive numbers allowed by St. John's - all of which improved across the board without an increase in fouling.

St. John's defense, Big East play
2013
2012
Defensive Efficiency
97.5
109.7
Rank
6
14
effective FG%
45.6
52.2
Rank
5
15
Defensive Rebound %
65.7
58.8
Rank
8
16
Opponent Free Throw Rate (FT/FGA)
29.8
28.8
Rank
2
4
2-Point Shooting %
43.7
53.4
Rank
4
15
Block %
15.9
9.9
Rank
2
9

The good things Chris Obekpa did were huge... as were the things he couldn't do.

What Obekpa did well

  • Turn around the Red Storm defense. Chris Obekpa was the best shot blocker in the nation by shot blocked percentage. He changed the game, opposing coaches adjusted their game plans to him. In many ways, he deserved a lot of consideration for Rookie of the Year, since he completely changed the complexion and effectiveness of the Red Storm defense. He did win one Rookie of the Week award for his play.
  • Be more than just a shot blocker. Obekpa recovered well on defense, and even forced a few steals.

What Obekpa can improve

  • Scoring. Averaging three points per game in the Big East, drawing few fouls, and shooting 44% from the free throw line is not a recipe for offensive - or team - success. A player can be defensively-focused, true, but offense at that level becomes a real issue for a team with scoring problems and no post presence.
  • Defensive rebounding. While he (and JaKarr Sampson) improved the St. John's defense immensely, the ability to end opponents' possessions at one shot was lacking. As the biggest big man active on the roster, Chris Obekpa didn't rebound as well as his opportunity should have allowed. Perhaps next to space-eating bigs like God`sgift Achiuwa and Orlando Sanchez, Obekpa can snag a few more rebounds - or at least better position himself and aggressively fight for them.

We haven't seen Obekpa yet due to a suspension for a violation of University rules (class? Did he go into a girls' dorm after hours?) so it's hard to get an idea of what a reasonable improvement will be from him. Certainly, he'll be hard-pressed to repeat the kind of dominance of last year as teams look to go away from him - or directly at him, forcing him to defend positionally on the block.

Obekpa is fluid enough and agile enough that he should be able to score a little more; with some practice in catching and gathering, he can at least be a dunk threat low in the post. And he can take offensive rebounds and in the words of Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan, "make it hurt" - in other words, score efficiently after an offensive board.

A team has to have scoring options outside of the mid range, and if Obekpa can't provide any threat in the paint, there are other big men who could push him for time.

As for the rebounding, perhaps playing next to space-eating bigs like God`sgift Achiuwa and Orlando Sanchez, Obekpa can snag a few more rebounds - or at least better position himself and aggressively fight for them. Rebounding isn't as sexy as game changing blocks, but it is needed; Obekpa blocked more shots (133) than he had defensive rebounds (128).

Even at last year's levels of rebounding and scoring, Obekpa's health and ability to stay out of foul trouble are huge for St. John's. No leap into NCAA Tournament contention will happen without the ways that Obekpa altered the game and made Steve Lavin's crew an elite defensive team.

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