Anthony Gruppuso-US PRESSWIRE
After Tuesday's win, Chris Obekpa showed why so many coaches coveted his skills late in the recruiting season.
They're starting to call him "Oblockpa," and with good reason.
Chris Obekpa made a stellar St. John's debut on Tuesday, contributing 7 points and 11 rebounds in 31 minutes of the Red Storm's close 77-74 win over Detroit. His presence was felt in his first collegiate game - not for his points or boards, but for the St. John's single game record 8 shots he swatted, or the shots altered against Detroit.
Recruiting experts and fans tag incoming freshman with at least one separating quality - good shooting, "freak" athleticism, or, in this case, superb shot-blocking. Despite his potential in other aspects of the game (see: the jumper he shot from about 15 feet, or his one-man transition drive that drew a foul), the forward is almost exclusively known for shot alteration..
After seeing Obekpa play, I have one piece of advice: don't change your initial perceptions.
Obekpa blocked a total of 8 shots against Detroit, many of which came midst the high-pressure, nail-biting second half. His length clearly made the Titans players, including star guard Ray McCallum, reluctant to attack the basket. When they did, they immediately regretted driving the lane.
Yes, he broke a school record in his first game. It's likely that St. John's has never had a player who could make the post a no-fly zone.
"In my experiences as a coach and broadcaster, [Chris] is unique," Steve Lavin said of Obekpa after Tuesday's win. "It's his length and timing, as I call a central intelligence. He doesn't pick up fouls, which is rare. Usually, kids who block that many shots are off balance."
Back in the spring, indications were that Obekpa wasn't even headed to St. John's. He came incredibly close to committing to Cincinnati, and surprised many when he didn't.
"I've been in New York since I came to America, so I feel like it's home," Obekpa told the Rumble. "Instead of going to a new place and starting out fresh, I decided to stay."
The Red Storm is glad he did. Lavin had been courting the Nigerian forward since the day he was hired at St. John's in March of 2010. Trips to Obekpa's high school, Our Savior New American in Centereach, Long Island, became the norm.
"Chris stays down and plays the cat and mouse game," Lavin continued. "He uses his feet well and understands angles. He does it both when he's on the ball and when he comes from behind. He's definitely a uniquely skilled basketball player."
As St. John's won just 13 games a year ago, the team's gaping holes were obvious. Aside from depth issues, the Johnnies severely lacked size - a daunting presence that makes drivers and slashers think before trespassing.
No one understands what it means to have someone like Obekpa more than those who were in the middle of the shortchanges last year.
"It's good to have him around because it allows us up top to guard closer," D`Angelo Harrison mentioned. "After he blocks it, we're trying to grab it so we can start the fast break."
But it isn't just shot-blocking, as much as we make it sound that way. Obekpa runs the floor like a gazelle and, as he showed late in Tuesday's win, has a fundamentally sound jumper. He may be known as a defender, but he will certainly contribute to the Red Storm's offensive cause as well.
So, start the t-shirt printing and the crazed hashtagging. "Oblockpa" is a term here to stay because it's inevitable - the age of effortless, clean looks at the hoop is over.
Many said it in June when he first committed to St. John's, but it may be gaining even more steam. Chris Obekpa's shot-blocking ability is a game-changer for Lavin's Johnnies.
And perhaps even a program-changer.