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A conversation about Chuma Okeke with an Auburn writer

Will McLoughlin of the Auburn blog College and Magnolia joins us

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Midwest Regional Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

To find out a little more about Chuma Okeke, we spoke to someone who watched him play on a nightly basis.

Will McLaughlin, a writer for SB Nation’s Auburn blog College and Magnolia, was nice enough to answer a few questions about the latest addition to the Magic’s young core. Also be sure to read Will’s draft profile on Okeke.

How surprised were you that Okeke was drafted with the 16th pick?

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Midwest Regional-Auburn vs North Carolina Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

McLaughlin: I’m going to be honest with you, I was shocked. And not because I didn’t think Chuma was worthy of being the 16th pick, but I had heard absolutely nothing about the Magic’s interest in Chuma and I didn’t think anyone would take him before the 20th pick. In most mock drafts I read, he had been trending early second round but I held out hope he would be a late first round pick. This is pure speculation on my part, but one thing that gave me hope that he would be a first round pick was he was slated to go to the combine and do interviews with teams (since obviously he couldn’t work out there) but it sounds like a team, maybe the Magic or someone else, made a promise to pick him in the first round and that was good enough for Chuma to cancel those interviews before the combine began. Realistically, I felt like the Sixers or Warriors were poised to take him at some point in the 28-35 range, so him going at 16 was quite the surprise.

Having said that, this is a great pick for the Magic in the long-term. I think if Okeke doesn’t tear his ACL in the Sweet 16, we’re looking at a lottery pick and perhaps a Top 10 pick. That’s how good Chuma was playing in March, making the injury to him even more heartbreaking. You hate seeing anybody get hurt but he was playing the game of his life against the Tar Heels, scoring 20 points along with 11 rebounds before the injury (there was still 8 minutes left in the game too).

Once healthy, what does Okeke bring to the Magic?

McLaughlin: Here’s a sample right here:

I have always thought Chuma had a high ceiling as an NBA player. He was Auburn’s best NBA prospect going into last year and he showed it, particularly at the end of the season. You’re seeing a lot of 6-8, 6-9 guys shoot the three on a much more consistent basis in today’s game and Chuma was about a 39% 3-point shooter in his two years at Auburn. Looking at the Magic’s roster from last year, only D.J. Augustin shot a higher percentage from three last season.

He also can make a big shot in a big situation. This shot changed Auburn’s season. It was the first of Auburn’s 12 consecutive wins on their way to the Final Four and it all started in Chuma’s home state with a three to beat Georgia.

I think the big thing right now is to get him healthy and perhaps he can return towards the end of next season and hopefully propel the Magic back into the playoffs. He would be a great asset to have come off the bench next year once he’s healthy enough to play. He has experience coming off the bench as he didn’t start at all his freshmen year at Auburn.

Ultimately, I think Chuma will not only be a great teammate, but he will be a great asset to the Orlando community as well. He’s a high-character guy and I think once he is able to play, Magic fans will love the guy. I know we do in Auburn and he’ll certainly be missed next year.

Which position do you see Okeke primarily playing at the NBA level?

McLaughlin: This year at Auburn, he was the starter at the 4 spot and was thought of primarily as a point forward, but he has the ability to guard multiple positions. I would say for NBA purposes he ends up being a 3, possibly a 4 depending on match-ups.

What are Okeke’s biggest strengths? Weaknesses?

McLaughlin: Strengths: Outstanding athleticism, Chuma’s a great defender, a great 3-point shooter and makes his teammates better around him.

Weaknesses: I would say there are times when he’s too unselfish. There was a stretch (mostly in non-conference play this year) when he took only 5-6 shots a game. With Okeke’s ability to score in bunches, he was a guy that needed to be taking 10+ shots a game. He has the ability to take over any game but there were nights he didn’t do that. I would like to see Chuma become more assertive consistently as he transitions to the NBA.

Which NBA player would you say Okeke is most similar to?

NBA: Playoffs-Toronto Raptors at Orlando Magic Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

McLaughlin: I remember someone in the Magic media asking Chuma this question on Friday at his introductory press conference and I really liked Chuma’s answer: Kawhi Leonard. It’s a bold prediction considering how great Kawhi played in this postseason but here’s my thoughts on this comparison. Neither guy is ra-ra, look at me, I’m the greatest, not at all. They’re both really good basketball players and they know it. Both guys let their games speak for themselves and do their talking on the court. People seem to give Kawhi a hard time for not showing a lot of emotion, and the same can be said for Chuma in that he doesn’t show a ton of emotion on the court, but he doesn’t have to.

In which areas did Okeke most improve during his sophomore season?

McLaughlin: With a bigger role in the offense, Chuma improved in all major statistical categories. He averaged 7.5 points a game his freshmen year but that rose to 12 a game this past year. His rebounds when from 5.8 to 6.8 but the one stat that was significant to me was the increase in steals per game from 0.7 his freshmen year to 1.8 this past year. He recorded seven double-doubles this past year as well. Chuma really improved his defense and the fact that he wasn’t on any of the All-SEC teams was ridiculous.

I mentioned that he needs to be more assertive earlier, but I will say that he got a lot better at this, particularly towards the end of the season. He began to be more aggressive and his offensive numbers improved, as did his draft stock. Okeke was always Auburn’s best NBA prospect but we needed to see it more and we did down the stretch. He was the best player on the floor against North Carolina, and they had multiple lottery picks. He was also the best player on the floor against Tennessee as well in March.

Even in games where he didn’t score as much, he can also make plays like this:

If Okeke didn’t suffer a torn ACL, how far do you think he would have taken Auburn in the Tournament?

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Midwest Regional-Auburn vs North Carolina Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

McLaughlin: I think Auburn wins the whole thing, and I’m not saying that just because I love Auburn Basketball, but having him against Virginia to go up against the likes of DeAndre Hunter, Ty Jerome, Kyle Guy and Mamadou Diakite would have made a big difference. And yet despite that, Auburn is a double-dribble call, a free throw, a don’t foul in the final second moment away from being in the National Championship. And I think Auburn would have run by both Texas Tech and Michigan State, I really do.

Tell us something we might not know about Chuma Okeke, whether on or off the court...

McLaughlin: He was Mr. Basketball in the state of Georgia in 2017.

And while not the most interesting thing: we will see if he keeps a number for more than one season. He wore No. 4 as a freshman, No. 5 as a sophomore and will wear No. 3 next year for the Magic.

Thanks again to Will for taking the time to chat with us!