• Fenrich

Chuma Okeke: Nightmares & Dreamscapes in Kansas City

Chuma Okeke

6’8”, 230-pounds, 7’0” wingspan, unknown max vertical, turns 21 in August, ranked 16th by Fenrich:

I was lucky enough to be in Kansas City for the NCAA Regionals this past season and see what was arguably Chuma Okeke’s highest and lowest moments as a collegiate athlete against the hallowed program of Roy, Dean, and MJ. That night against UNC, when apparently some of the Tar Heels were afflicted by flu bugs or fevers, Okeke was far and away the best player on a court that featured at least four likely first rounders in the upcoming draft. He put up 20 points with 11 rebounds, 2 steals, and a block while shooting 3-5 from deep in just 25 minutes. Auburn walked away with a blowout victory while Okeke exited with a torn ACL, ending not just his NCAA career, but likely his rookie NBA season.

I’d seen Okeke before this and seen how he could be understatedly effective, but I’d never seen him this aggressive or locked in.

At 6-8, 230 pounds with a 7-foot wingspan, Okeke is both rugged and fluid, happy to bang, but confident letting fly from three with a quick release off the catch.

On this night in Kansas City, his confidence was elevated and with good reason. Counting the North Carolina game, he was shooting 12-24 from 3 in his last four NCAA games which included three tournament games and an SEC championship. All high-leverage situations and he elevated himself to 50% from three with 3 steals and a block/game. It’s odd, but this wasn’t that far off from Okeke’s production for his sophomore season when he shot 39% on 142 3-point attempts with nearly 2 steals and over a block/game.

Given his size and defensive range and versatility, I never thought of Okeke as a distance shooter and he’s nowhere near elite, but rather just good. What I love about his shot and is the decisiveness with which he shoots. His feet are already stepping into place on the catch, his hands at the ready, his release only needing snippets of a line of sight, if any at all, to chuck it up. In his two seasons at Auburn, he was remarkably consistent from deep: 39.1% as a freshman and 38.7% as a sophomore. In the clips I’ve watched, he’s most frequently shooting off-the-catch and this is borne out by stats.nba.com which has 30% of his possessions being spot ups. When not spotting up, he’s capable off the dribble, in the post, or cutting. While he shows shades of attacking closeouts off the dribble and driving to the rim, this part of his game can be highlighted even more than it is. Okeke can finish with both hands and finish through contact; there’s a ton of versatility to his scoring game, but in coach Bruce Pearl’s balanced attack, he was a third option behind two upperclassman guards.

Defensively, Okeke seems like he can potentially guard at least four positions (2 through 5) while maintaining competence guarding point guards. He’s super active both on and off the ball and not just with his feet or hands, but with his mouth too. Either my high school coach or some other coach or every other coach used to yell at us that “a quiet gym is a loser’s gym” and while it’s utter coachspeak, it was accurate in that defenses that don’t talk don’t communicate and defenses that don’t communicate don’t win. Okeke’s not on KG’s level, but he’s visual and vocal: he’s seeing actions unfold and directing his teammates like KG or like a middle linebacker. This awareness is part of what makes him so effective. In seeing entire plays develop, he’s able to anticipate and react. The reactions on a strong frame with a 7-foot wingspan are how you get to a combined 3-plus steals and blocks/game.

Less than limitations or weaknesses, I see Okeke’s lack of offensive aggressiveness as underdeveloped. That’s not knocking Pearl or his system, but rather highlighting what I see as natural evolutions for Okeke.

His handle and passing don’t strike me as either good or bad, but closer to unexplored. In terms of how that projects for him as a pro, like several players in this draft, I like him as a portable player who can slide into a value-adding player in most any scenario.

Value adding is a pretty high floor and, like Grant Williams, I believe the right deployment can unlock a player who likely has a higher ceiling than Williams based on his shooting and defense. He wound up 16th on my board, but I can see at least five players I’d consider ranking him above (Reddish, Langford, PJ Washington, Coby White, and Jaxson Hayes). Those five players may have higher ceilings and better ability to create on their own (except for Hayes), or I may have misunderstood them to have higher ceilings, but I’m not convinced any of them can shoot or defend as well as Okeke and that, despite a torn ACL, immediately raises his floor.