Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
NEW YORK — For all the early talk about Nerlens Noel, Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Len as shot-blocking big men to watch, another college underclassmen may have added his name to the watch list on Tuesday.
Chris Obekpa, a 6-foot-9 freshman forward from St. John’s, set a new school single-game record with eight blocks as St. John’s rallied from an eight-point first-half deficit to beat Detroit, 77-74, in a nationally televised ESPN game. Obekpa, out of Our Savior New American on Long Island, added 11 rebounds and seven points, including an elbow jumper that put the Johnnies up five points with a minute remaining.
“It was OK, but it could be better,” Obekpa, a native of Nigeria, said of his eight blocks, which eclipsed Robert Werdann’s previous mark of seven set in a 1989 game against Hofstra.
Obekpa’s day was far from perfect. His in-bounds pass to Amir Garrett in the final seconds was deflected and intercepted, giving Juwan Howard Jr. an open look at a potential game-tying 3-pointer that, luckily for St. John’s, fell short.
“It’s not going to happen again,” Obekpa said with a smile.
Obekpa’s performance came on a day when guards D’Angelo Harrison (22 points) and Phil Greene (20) combined for 42 points, including 24 in the second half. Amir Garrett added a double-double of 15 points and 11 boards.
Ray McCallum led Detroit with 21 points, hitting 4-of-12 from deep.
Harrison’s performance came on the heels of him being benched entirely for the team’s second preseason game for behavioral issues.
Still, both St. John’s coach Steve Lavin and Harrison were pleased with his more restrained demeanor against Detroit.
“I don’t think I reacted to anything except when Chris hit his jump shot,” Harrison said. “I went kind of crazy.”
Lavin said he’s still learning about Obekpa’s game, but knows that he has the ability to shoot from distance. If he can perfect the 15-foot jumper to go with his natural rebounding and shot-blocking tendencies, it’s not hard to imagine him as an NBA player.
“He’s been scolded for not taking the open shot because, as you can see, he’s a got very pretty stroke form 10, 12, 15 feet,” Lavin said.
Still, it is Obekpa’s shot-blocking that make him supremely unique and put him in the conversation with the Kentucky freshmen Noel and Cauley-Stein and Maryland’s Len, a sophomore who shot up NBA Draft boards after his 23-point, 12-rebound, 4-block performance Friday in a loss to Kentucky.
“In my experience as a coach and broadcaster, he’s unique to anyone I’ve seen,” Lavin said of Obekpa, whom he landed in the late signing period last spring.
“Different generations there’s been some great shot-blockers. Jelani McCoy at UCLA shattered some shot-blocking records. But he was 6-10, whereas Obekpa is 6-8 but it’s the length and it’s the timing. There’s the central intelligence in motion that’s being used because he doesn’t pick up fouls.
“I saw him in high school get 20 blocks on a number of occasions with one foul, it’s just unusual. But usually, kids that block that many shots they’re going after everything, they’re off-balance and they end up being foul prone. What was unusual is he’s able to block 8, 9, 10, 12, 15 blocks and not pick up a foul or pick up one or two fouls and that’s intelligence in terms of staying down, playing the cat-and-mouse game, using his feet well, understanding angles, taking away air space. And he does it both when on’s on the ball, but also comes from behind well, kind of from the shadows out of nowhere to block shots.
“He’s definitely a very uniquely skilled basketball player.”
Even if his in-bounds passing needs some work.
“He’s an excellent passer so we’re very comfortable with him passing the ball,” Lavin said. “I love him passing the ball. In that situation the trajectory of his pass was just too low and it got picked.”
Like Obekpa said, it was OK but it could be better.
St. John’s left immediately after the game for Charleston where it will play Thursday in the Charleston Classic against Charleston. On Friday, the Johnnies will face either Murray State or Auburn. The championship is Sunday….Lavin said he planned to redshirt senior forward God’sgift Achiuwa but not freshman guard Felix Balamou, whom he expects to play in Charleston. “Felix will play this year,” Lavin said. “We expect Felix to play…He didn’t get a lot of burn tonight but down in Charleston we’re going to play three games in four days so he’s going to get plenty of playing time down there. AT this point, in all likelihood Gift is going to redshirt.”…St. John’s is still awaiting word from the NCAA on forward Orlando Sanchez and wing Marco Bourgault. “We’re waiting to receive word on Marco and Orlando, and of course Jamal [Branch] joins us in December,” Lavin said. “We’re looking at a rotation of nine to 10 players, it could grow to an 11-man rotation.”
Photo: St. John’s Athletics
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Adam Zagoria is a New York Times contributor and Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013.
He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.