{{ timeAgo('2020-01-24 08:08:12 -0600') }} basketball Edit

Orlando Magic proud of Chuma Okeke's rehab, 'can't wait' for future

ORLANDO, Fla. | In the tunnels under Amway Center there’s a wall of Orlando Magic greats — past and present. As the tunnel continues further toward its mouth, where the Magic run onto the court, the murals become more modern. At the start, there’s Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway. At the end, there’s 2019 All-Star Nikola Vucevic and top draft pick Aaron Gordon.

That wall, if followed, leads all the way into the Magic locker room. It’s a massive, circular room with five stretch TVs on one end that are looping film of their opponent this December night, the Atlanta Hawks. The other half of the circle is filled with lockers — roomy storage and changing compartments with charging outlets, iPads for film study, and a shoe and jersey rack (Orlando is going with the black-out jerseys tonight) built in to each.

At the top of each locker are name plates — some recognizable among casual NBA fans, some not. That’s the nature of a fringe playoff team that’s spent the majority of the past decade in rebuilding mode.

Another sign that gives the Magic away as a squad largely rebuilding recently is the number of name plates dedicated to recent high draft picks, such as Gordon, Jonathan Isaac and Mo Bamba.

Their 2019 first-round pick’s locker is nowhere to be found, however. Chuma Okeke’s name isn’t here.

Chuma Okeke (3) during his NBA Rookie photoshoot.
Chuma Okeke (3) during his NBA Rookie photoshoot. (Getty Images)

Chuma Okeke isn’t even in the building, in fact, unless you count the handful of young fans donning his blue and white No. 3 jersey. No, Chuma Okeke is approximately an hour southwest of here in Lakeland, the site of the Magic’s G League team. There, he quietly trains, recovering from his ACL tear last spring.

But Okeke is still a household name in Orlando before he’s played a minute of NBA basketball. The fan excitement for their highly anticipated first-round prospect is obvious. And in interviews with AuburnSports.com, Magic players so too expressed their eagerness regarding Okeke’s eventual arrival.

There’s no rush, though.

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Josh Magette is the Magic’s closest link, in terms of someone on the roster, to Okeke. Magette is on a two-way contract at the time of being interviewed, meaning the shooting guard from Spain Park High School in Birmingham, Alabama, is paid based on whether he’s playing with Orlando or with Lakeland on a given night.

On this night, he’s an NBA player, studying up on the Hawks with one headphone in his left ear. He lets out a big smile and chuckle when asked about what his interactions with Okeke have been like.

“He’s been great,” Magette said, still with a grin. “He’s getting closer to getting back on the court and practicing with us (Lakeland). He’s got a great attitude, really professional for being such a young guy. He comes in and is very supportive and engaged during our games.

“He’s a guy you want around.”

On practice days in Lakeland, Magette said, the G League players don’t see Okeke much. He’s there, though, if you know where to look. Okeke stays for the most part in the training facility, with medical staffers and trainers keeping a close eye on that left knee.

On game days, however, Okeke does everything but play. He doesn’t travel to every away contest, Magette said, but he’s certainly present every time Lakeland plays at home — participating in walkthroughs, and cheering on the bench and listening to coaches’ speeches pre- and post-game.

Okeke practices during Lakeland's 2019-20 season.
Okeke practices during Lakeland's 2019-20 season. (Courtesy of Lakeland Magic PR)

Both franchises — Lakeland and Orlando — know that’s not easy to do; they know Okeke is dying to be on the court, whether it’s G League or NBA hardwood.

“I can’t really relate — getting drafted, then not being able to play for a full season,” Magette said. “But he’s been positive, and he’s come in with the right attitude and the right mindset every day to get back as soon as he can.

“He’s staying positive, and he’s a fun guy to be around.”

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Each member of Auburn’s 2018-19 Final Four team had his own standout personality.

Bryce Brown was the more vocal leader; Jared Harper was soft-spoken but affirmative. Malik Dunbar and Horace Spencer were the jokesters. Samir Doughty was the new face that might seem grouchy if you didn’t know his personality (he said at the Final Four of Auburn football games: “It’s too many people. There’s no sitting down, and I’m the type of person that loves sitting down. At any given moment, I’m sitting down.”)

Anfernee McLemore and Austin Wiley were mostly quiet, but also ragged on their teammates if the opportunity was there. Newbie J’Von McCormick took a lot of that heat, and loved every minute of it.

Okeke wasn’t mostly quiet, though. He was always quiet — the type of player that would go on monstrous takeovers during games, unconsciously draining triples, locking up opponents then dunking on them at the other end, then flashing only a half smile and appearing bashful when his teammates mobbed him.

A silent superstar.

So it should come as no surprise to Auburn fans what Magic players’ impressions have been of him.

“He’s been pretty quiet,” Magette laughed. “But the more comfortable he’s gotten with all the guys, the more talkative he’s gotten in the locker room.”

“He’s very quiet, kind of like me,” Orlando power foward Khem Birch said, just above a murmur. “He’s just himself.”

“He’s a quiet kid, but once he comes out of his shell, he’s really bright and pretty funny,” small forward Jonathan Isaac said.

Isaac, who’s just a third-year player out of Florida State but is a charismatic leader for Orlando both on and off the court, has made sure Okeke hasn’t felt isolated. He wants that transition to be seamless when Okeke moves to Orlando next season.

Isaac reached out to Okeke on draft night as fast as he could: “I told him congratulations, that I was really excited for him to be a part of the team. He was so happy, man.”

At the first opportunity, Isaac picked up Okeke and drove him around the City Beautiful. They ate lunch at Hillstone — often named the best steakhouse in Florida — and talked ball, college and their NBA dreams. Okeke often accompanies his likely future teammate at church, Isaac said.

“I’ve been talking to him about once a week. I’ve been introducing him to some Orlando spots,” Isaac said with a smile.

“But I’m just waiting for him to get on the court. I know how good of a basketball player he is.”

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Everyone knew, but his teammates especially so.

With 8:08 left in Auburn’s Sweet 16 victory over North Carolina, Okeke’s left knee buckled as he drove to the basket. He writhed on the court, holding that knee and pounding the ground with his fists.

Bryce Brown immediately came off the bench with his hands on his head. Doughty bent down and put his face in his hands. Assistant coach Steven Pearl and walk-on Cole Blackstock did the same on the bench.

Bruce Pearl could barely talk about it postgame.

“Chuma … Ch … Chuma was the best player on the floor,” Pearl could hardly utter through tears. “He’s hurt. He’s hurt. But we’re going to rally. So I’ll go hug on him.”

Okeke broke out his sophomore season and was heralded as one of the more pro-ready players in the SEC. But the knee injury didn’t hurt his draft stock much, if at all, as Orlando took him 16th overall, making him the first Auburn player selected in the first round of the NBA draft in 18 years.

“There's no rush whatsoever. We are drafting him to be a long-term player for the Orlando Magic,” Orlando president of basketball operations Jeff Weltman said on draft night.

Okeke and Bruce Pearl are recognized at an Auburn football home game, along with the rest of Auburn's 2019 Final Four team.
Okeke and Bruce Pearl are recognized at an Auburn football home game, along with the rest of Auburn's 2019 Final Four team. (Auburn Athletics)

Orlando stood by that in September. Okeke and the Magic agreed to treat the 2019-20 season as a “redshirt” year for their prized pick.

It was a beneficial move for both sides. Orlando gets more financial freedom for this season, while Okeke will make more money on his rookie deal by signing next season under the 2020-21 draft scale, which inflates annually.

And, with Orlando holding onto his rights by way of a G League contract, Okeke can sign a four-year rookie contract next season, as opposed to wasting one of those years occupying a spot on the Magic bench that is instead being actively utilized thanks to the creative agreement.

“The thing that’s good about [Okeke] right now is that he has the luxury of time with him being down there with the G League,” Orlando forward Al-Farouq Aminu said. “If he would have been up here or something, they would have wanted him back within seven or eight months, where the likelihood of a full rehab actually goes down.

“I think he’s going to be able to get a full, full year of just being able to make sure he gets his knee strong, and then be able to resume playing.”

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Aminu also suffered a knee injury — a torn meniscus — two months ago. He walked into the Magic locker room with a slight limp, heavy wrapping around his knee and by the use of a walking cane.

He feels the need to check in with Okeke often to chat about their injuries.

“I actually asked about him today, in fact, because my trainer was staying behind, and she works over [in Lakeland], as well,” Aminu said. He then softly laughed. “Him being Nigerian, I always ask about him. Gotta stick together.”

A 10-year NBA veteran, Aminu gives tips to the rookie on how to handle rehab and the processes that go with that. But he feels that’s been needed less and less by Okeke as their respective seasons have progressed.

“He’s taking it all well,” Aminu said. “That’s cool to see from a young guy because a lot goes on mentally, as well, when you’re going through an injury. Mentally, he’s strong.”

When it comes time for Okeke to don an Orlando Magic jersey in an NBA game for the first time, his journey since being drafted will be looked back on as an uncommon one. He’s not being straddled between the G League and the actual league; the Magic have made sure he’s comfortable in his situation in all facets. And while he could theoretically play with Lakeland before the season is over, not a single player, coach or trainer has pressured him into doing so in any way whatsoever.

Okeke and Magic head coach Steve Clifford at Okeke's introductory press conference.
Okeke and Magic head coach Steve Clifford at Okeke's introductory press conference. (NBA / Orlando Magic)

That doesn’t mean Orlando isn’t itching to see what he can do.

They know what he can do as a player, obviously, at the previous level. The 6-foot-8, 230-pound forward was one of the more versatile players in all of college basketball last season. During Auburn’s 2018-19 season as a whole, Okeke averaged 12 points, 6.8 rebounds, 1.9 assists and 1.8 steals while shooting 49.6 percent from the field and 38.7 percent from deep.

“He’s a big kid, man — moves like a football player,” Birch said of Okeke.

He upped his game further in the NCAA Tournament, where he averaged 15 points and seven boards. He had 20 points, 11 rebounds, two steals and a block before the injury took him out against North Carolina — the last time anyone saw him play basketball.

Orlando could have used a rookie of his caliber this season. The Magic have been riddled with their own injuries for much of the year, and have often needed a stronger presence on both ends of the floor.

The Magic have their blueprint, however. Bamba and Isaac are two of the better young defenders in the NBA, while Gordon and former Philadelphia 76er Markelle Fultz are hoped to be budding superstars.

All that’s left is for Okeke to join the party as a prototypical, modernized combo forward. Isaac, whose block rating of 8.3 and steal rating of 2.6 rank fourth and 12th in the entire NBA, respectively, seemed ecstatic to work with Okeke particularly on defense — and maybe learn a thing or two from the rookie, as well.

“The type of basketball player he is — he’s versatile, made a lot of great plays defensively,” Isaac said, breaking down Okeke’s film in his head while motioning with his hands. “He uses his hands well, moves his feet well.”

Isaac then paused before nodding his head quickly.

“It’s going to be fun. I can't wait."

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