Oftentimes, those lovable recruits deemed to be “projects” turn out to be just that – basketball’s answer to a diorama, an old shoebox to be jettisoned as soon as everyone realizes “Wait, this isn’t good at all.”
And then there are the projects that flourish in every conceivable way, the guys that leave you wondering “Where in the heck did they find this guy.”
Enter Obinna Ekezie, a fan favorite at Cole Field House who doubled as a more-than-reputable starter for most of four seasons in the late 1990s.
Sure, Ekezie was raw when he first arrived. But he was always athletic, always smart and always worked hard. And that was more than enough to play a prominent role on teams that featured Keith Booth, Laron Profit and Steve Francis as stars.
It’s interesting that Ekezie never averaged more than 12.8 points ot 6.6 rebounds in a season, and really that shouldn’t come as much of a surprise considering he was still learning the game. But he exploited his opportunities and turned into one of the more dependable players of the Gary Williams era.
Maybe there could have been a breakout in the final month or so of his career. Ekezie came off the bench for the first time since his freshman year in an early February defeat of depleted Virginia. But a few days later, he ruptured his Achilles tendon in practice, Lonny Baxter secured a starting spot for good and that was that.
It’s probably the harshest end to a career in Williams’ 20 seasons in College Park; certainly it outstrips becoming academically ineligible or simply losing in the NCAA tournament. In those instances, at least players had a chance to determine their final outcome.
Of course, it wasn’t the end for Ekezie. The NBA, then, now and always ravenous for “potential” and “upside” and “competent big men,” came calling, and Ekezie went early in the second round of the 1999 draft. He bounced between five teams and later spent some time in Europe.
He’s also quite the entrepreneur, as this recent CNBC interview suggests. He founded Zeep Travel, a firm that specializes in business travel to Africa. There’s also a commercial arm to the enterprise.
But back to a little more than decade ago, when Ekezie was still patrolling the paint in CP. His career totals in points (1,172, 33rd), rebounds (671, 19th), free throws made (356, 10th) and blocks (125, 11th) all still check in on the career charts.
But let’s tweak this a bit. If Ekezie didn’t get hurt and if he matched his senior-year averages the rest of that season and if Maryland had reached the Sweet 16 and then lost, then Ekezie would have rolled up an extra 127 points, 59 rebounds, 40 free throws and 15 blocks.
That would raise his totals to 1,299 points (25th), 730 rebounds (14th), 396 free throws made (seventh) and 140 blocks (ninth).
Those are modest improvements, but in retrospect they really aren’t needed to establish Ekezie in this spot on the list. He was a really, really good player on some really, really good teams.
And as a result, he’s one of the most successful projects in the ACC in the last two decades.