AUBURN, Ala. — Mustapha Heron has seen one thing as he’s watched his new freshman teammates this summer: potential.
“They’re going to help us a lot,” Heron said following a practice at Auburn Arena on Wednesday afternoon. “They’ve got potential to be great. Both of them are hard workers. Davion [Mitchell] is like a pit bull, and Chuma [Okeke], he’s a little bit more laid back, but he’s a stat sheet stuffer.”
Coach Bruce Pearl is seeing the same thing when it comes to his newcomers, too.
“It’s like you put those two guys up in the press and they really, really — they’re very aggressive. Very quick. Very athletic. They’re trying to fit in. They don’t do stuff they can’t do, but they’re both really good.”
Of course, Okeke was expected to make a smooth transition. The 6-foot-7 forward stood out among the nation’s best college talent in Colorado Springs, Colo., at the FIBA World Cup U19 team tryouts in June.
If the Fairborn, Ga., native hadn’t suffered a left knee injury, Pearl said he thinks Okeke “probably could have played” for the U.S. in the competition in Egypt.
Mitchell brings another dimension to Auburn’s backcourt. He’s splitting time at the point guard position, competing against 2016 starter Jared Harper and shooting guard Bryce Brown.
Okeke and Mitchell played alongside each other on the AAU circuit. Now they’re transitioning to the college game together — and everything is going according to plan. In fact, they are getting rave reviews from their new squad. And from each other.
“We’ve got a really good connection,” Mitchell said of Okeke. “He brings rebounds. He can shoot. He really does everything. Honestly, I thought he was the best player in our class.”
Auburn’s newest big man has similar confidence when it comes to his longtime point guard.
“He plays lockup defense. I don’t think anyone can stay in front of him. But don’t tell him I told you that, though. He’ll get a big head,” Okeke jokes about the Hinesville, Ga., native. “He just brings a lot of energy to the game.”
Both underclassmen have big goals and plan to contribute immediately in 2017, too.
Mitchell is hoping to be a playmaker while Okeke wants to bring a stronger defensive presence to an Auburn team that struggled on that end of the court last season.
“Yeah, I’ve been really working on my defense,” Okeke said. “I think if no one can get around me, my other teammates will see that and lock up, too.”
As the Tigers prepare for their August trip to Italy, Mitchell and Okeke are just taking everything in. Auburn will face several teams on the foreign trip that will offer different looks. That means Pearl is implementing some versions of what the Tigers will execute against man and zone defenses, as well as parts of several offenses.
“I feel like I’m fitting in,” Mitchell said. “Playing fast is what coach Bruce Pearl wants, and I feel like I fit in because I played fast in high school.”
At first surprised to be learning so much, Okeke says now he’s “starting to get it.”
“I think we’re fitting in great on and off the court,” Okeke said. “We bond off the court; that’s made it better on the court.”
Next stop, Italy.