AUBURN, Ala. — In an age when positionless basketball is becoming the norm, it’s hard to define Chuma Okeke’s role for Auburn basketball.
The 6-foot-8 freshman forward from Atlanta is tied with Horace Spencer as the tallest active scholarship player on the Tigers roster. When he comes off the bench, he doesn’t stay tied down to a specific role — which is common for non-starting freshmen in major college basketball.
An average Okeke substitution stint for No. 8 Auburn can include him playing center, switching onto opposing point guards, hitting 3-pointers, cleaning up the defensive glass, firing passes from the perimeter, and showcasing some of the best post moves on the team. Oftentimes, he’ll do all of that before checking out.
“He’s a really versatile defender,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said this week. “Just as versatile as you see him offensively where he can shoot it, put it on the floor and do a few things and be a good passer. He’s very versatile. He’s a strength for us on the defensive end.”
Okeke has the size and strength to play in the post, but he shoots and defends like a guard. And for a shorter Auburn team that loves to run and spread the floor, Okeke is a huge weapon off the bench.
“I do enjoy playing that way,” Okeke said. “I actually grew up playing that way, since rec ball and AAU. We were just a run-and-gun team. I feel like that’s what this team is, too. So I’m used to it. I think that’s what makes us who we are.”
Pearl’s system takes full advantage of Auburn’s strengths — outside shooting, speed and ball handling from 1 through 5. While still adjusting to the college game, Okeke has shown he is all of that rolled into one 6-8 package.
He was rated as a small forward in high school. At Auburn, he is most often the backup to 6-3 rebounding specialist Desean Murray at power forward. But when Anfernee McLemore is in foul trouble or the Tigers want to play extreme small ball, Okeke slides to center.
“It’s good when all five positions out on the court can all put the ball on the ground,” Okeke said. “It’s very hard to guard that.”
It can be hard to guard Okeke, too. Although he hasn’t started a game, Okeke is fourth on the team in 3-pointers made. He is second on the team in effective field-goal percentage at 57.6. Per KenPom, he has Auburn’s top offensive rating and ranks 75th nationally in that category.
“He’s made shots, he’s rebounding the ball very well,” junior guard Bryce Brown said. “He has a double-double game this year — for a freshman, that’s great. His role coming off the bench for us is big, and he continues to improve every game.”
Chuma Okeke at work. pic.twitter.com/FABm8nyxLy
— Dave Platta WTVM (@WTVMDavePlatta) February 4, 2018
Defensively, Okeke has had to make a bigger adjustment to the college game. Because of his athleticism and length, Pearl isn’t afraid to put him on guards.
Sometimes that has led to foul trouble. In other games, he’s scaled back the defensive aggressiveness too much, and his matchup has taken advantage. It’s a balancing act for Okeke, but it’s one he feels he can master with more experience.
“I think it’s all a mind thing,” Okeke said. “If you can feel like you can lock in and play defense, you’ll do that.”
Okeke’s defense has been underrated for the Tigers, who have risen from 147th nationally in defensive efficiency last season to 25th this season. Hot-shooting Auburn still has had to win games with its defense, and Okeke has logged major minutes in those contests.
Whether it’s matching guards step for step or handling taller opponents in the post, Okeke is confident in what he can do for Auburn as he grows into a future leader for Pearl’s program.
“I’ve just got to lock in,” Okeke said. “I feel like I can guard anybody if I can just lock in on defense. That’s what BP also tells us. All we’ve got to do is lock in on defense, and we can guard any team in the nation.”