By Zac Ellis
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Ejike Obinna’s hometown of Enugu, Nigeria boasts an average daily temperature of 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Thus, the shift in climate was a bit striking when Obinna first arrived in the United States as a high school player at Virginia Academy in Ashburn, Va.
“I knew it would be colder,” Obinna said. “But after I got here, it was about 50 degree one day, and I was freezing cold. Now, 50 degrees is alright.”
These days, Obinna is adjusting to much more than the weather. He is a lanky 6-foot-10 freshman on Bryce Drew’s Vanderbilt basketball program, and a raw one at that. In fact, the rookie Commodore didn’t pick up a basketball until age 12.
Five years later, Obinna is a youthful 17-year-old a starter in the SEC. And while he has come to love the game of basketball, Obinna is still learning the ropes.
“It’s important to remember Ejike is still not 18 years old,” said Casey Shaw, Vanderbilt’s second-year assistant coach who mentors post players. “He’s 17. We have signees for next season who are older than him. That puts things in perspective.”
GET TO KNOW the freshman Obinna
Obinna signed with Vanderbilt in October 2016 as the first player from Virginia Academy to earn a full scholarship to a college academic institution. He grew up a fan of soccer in Nigeria before he sprouted to 6-4 by the age of 12. That’s when friends and family nudged him in the direction of basketball. Obinna quickly took to his new sport.
An opportunity to venture to the United States presented itself when Obinna showed out during a basketball camp in Nigeria. He earned a shot at Virginia Academy and blossomed into a 1,000-point scorer, averaging 16.6 points and eight rebounds for his prep career. But Obinna didn’t recognize his potential until he earned his first Division-I scholarship offer as a sophomore. “That gave me confidence,” he said.
Eventually, Obinna evolved into a four-star prospect. He ultimately signed with Drew and Vanderbilt over Clemson, Florida, Oklahoma and Virginia Tech. Once in Nashville, it didn’t take long for Obinna to experience his welcome-to-college moment.
“My first game, definitely,” Obinna said. “Guys are a lot stronger and the game has a lot more speed. You just have to think quicker and react to it. You don’t have much time to decide on what to do.”
That inexperience hasn’t deterred Obinna from emerging as a factor for the Commodores. He has started four of the Commodores’ seven games this season, averaging 3.2 points and 3.2 boards in 11.5 minutes per contest. In last week’s NIT Season Tip-Off in Brooklyn, the freshman put up a combined 14 points and 12 boards against Virginia and No. 20 Seton Hall.
But Obinna knows he has a long way to go. Shaw routinely puts Obinna through ball-catching and footwork drills, and the freshman ends every practice with by shooting least 100 hook shots. Obinna has yet to truly tap into his potential, Shaw said.
“His body is not yet fully developed,” said Shaw, who spent 11 years as a pro player in the NBA and overseas. “I think he’ll put on size and develop coordination. But he shows spurts and glimpses of movement where he’s going to be a force. In my opinion, he’s going to be an All-SEC player. He’s got a chance to play at the next level.”
That’s why Obinna keeps often a keen eye on elder post players, such third-year sophomore Djery Baptiste and sophomore Clevon Brown. Not long ago, Obinna had no interest in basketball. But now the talented first-year player has plenty to reach for on the horizon.
“I try to see what they’re doing and watch decisions they make,” Obinna said. “I try to learn from them, the way they push us all. I just try to learn and be a better man.”
Zac Ellis is the Writer and Digital Media Editor for Vanderbilt Athletics.