Who Is?: Amu Saaka


The 2011 offseason is finally here and the first step to winning the 2012 title is the NBA Draft. With less than a week left until Draft Day, Orlando Magic Daily will profile some players the Magic might be seeking with the 53rd overall pick.

It is pretty clear that finding a NBA-ready player able to contribute on the professional stage with the 53rd overall pick is tough.

Granted, some NBA notables like Monta Ellis, Carlos Boozer, Michael Redd, and Orlando’s Gilbert Arenas all fell to the second round and definitely have developed/are developing quality careers.  However, the list of late-round busts is far longer, even if you only look at the Magic’s history of flops.  Please consider the likes of Laron Profit (1999, 38th), Travis Diener (2005, 38th), James Augustine (2006, 41st), and, most recently, Stanley Robinson (2010, 59th), whose stint with the Magic lasted a whopping total of October training camp and was waived soon after.

Otis Smith and the Magic management surely have a challenge to find a gem Thursday night.

OMD has already highlighted Ohio State’s David Lighty and College of Charleston’s Andrew Goudelock as possible gems, and now we turn our focus toward Furman University’s Amu Saaka, a fellow Southern Conference opponent of Goudelock.

Beginning his college career at USF, averaging 10.6 mpg in his freshman season, Saaka transferred to Furman University seeking more playing time after his sophomore season and proved to be a much welcome gift to the long-struggling Paladin basketball program.  Once Saaka took the court for the Paladins, the team enjoyed a huge resurgence from its role as persistent cellar-dweller in the Southern Conference to a competitive force in 2010-2011, reaching the conference semi-finals with a 22-10 record, the team’s most single-season wins since 1980.

Recognition of Saaka seems to be spotty across various draft analysis websites, with some citing his various draftability traits while others make little to no reference about Saaka at all.  Therefore, Saaka has potential to get a surprise nod from the Magic as a sleeper pick late in the 2nd round.

Granted, Furman University is by no means a basketball powerhouse, as the Paladins have struggled for years against even mediocre to decent conference opponents.  Yet, Amu Saaka’s role as Furman’s go-to guy speaks volumes about his potential to compete at the professional level.  More than any other player to suit up for the Paladins in many years, Saaka’s individual play carried Furman back to competitive status in the Southern Conference and earned him All-Conference First Team honors.

In his two seasons with Furman, Amu Saaka averaged 15.7 points per game with a 45.5 field goal percentage, along with a 36.2 three point percentage.  Such statistics are quite solid, especially for a player who is likely to still be lingering come the end of the NBA Draft.  Futhermore, with an average of 6.8 rebounds per game and an outstanding season-to-season improvement at the free throw line from 69.5% to 87.2% in his senior season, Saaka’s numbers are appealing.  However, his tally of 1.3 assists a game is sure to get a raised, questioning eyebrow from any NBA scout.

The Good:  Saaka’s statistics show that he is an effective scorer, both from the field and from beyond the three line.  Also, shooting over 87% from the free throw line is excellent, as it hypothetically would have been the Magic roster’s second best free throw percentage this season, just a notch behind JJ Redick’s 88%.  When closing out a particular game comes down to the free throw line, Saaka would be a solid guy to shoot two freebies.

Saaka had 12 games of 20+ point showings for the Paladins this season, something sure to draw the attention of Magic scouts.  A couple of his highlights include a season-high 31 points against Appalachian State, with 5 rebounds and a perfect 6/6 from the free throw line, as well as a 20 point performance in a 91-75 upset victory over the South Carolina Gamecocks

Also playing in Saaka’s favor is his size at 6’6″, 210 pounds.  Andrew Goudelock, another potential pick for the Magic, is shorter at 6’2,” making Saaka more appealing height-wise for the Magic who need to steer away from shorter players to bolster the roster’s current undersized weaknesses.

Also, I feel that Furman’s overall improvement as a team when Saaka began playing for the Paladins should garner some attention from the Magic, since Orlando is looking for an additional player who can provide a ‘spark’ on the court.  During the season that Saaka redshirted at Furman after transferring from USF, the Paladins posted an abysmal 6-24 record.  Two years later, led by Amu Saaka, the Paladins finished at 22-10 and received their first post-season tournament bid in many years.  Quite the turnaround, and much of the credit deservedly goes to Saaka’s leadership skills on the court.

The Bad:  While Saaka did have a solid point per game percentage and many 20+ point games, a chart of his individual game performances shows a bit of a scoring rollercoaster in his senior season.  A few times, he followed huge scoring games with very lackluster, almost non-existant outings, including 24 points in a game against Elon and a mere 4 points a couple nights later against Greensboro.

Another potential issue is how infrequently Saaka dished off to his teammates at Furman.  He never had more than 3 assists in a single game, potentially questioning his ability to play pass-heavy, team focused basketball.  However, this statistic could simply be a result of Furman coach Jeff Jackson’s tendency to keep Saaka’s role as the team’s predominant shooter.

Although his height at 6’6″ could draw Orlando’s attention, especially with such height still available late in the draft, 210 pounds is a bit skinny, especially if Orlando is looking for help at the small forward position.  Although Saaka could compete with others in the league height-wise, his weight could be a challenge for boxing out for rebounds.

A major criticism of Saaka that may hurt his draft value may be that he somewhat disappeared in Furman’s biggest games in the SoCon tournament and CollegeInsider.com post-season tourney, stirring a bit of skepticism for his ability to maintain his solid performance in key game situations.  In Furman’s SoCon tournament semi-final loss against College of Charleston, Saaka only shot 25 percent for 10 total points, and he only had 3 points in the team’s opening round loss in the CollegeInsider.com tournament.

The Final Word:

One final issue guiding Orlando’s ultimate draft decision about Amu Saaka could in fact, ironically, have nothing to do with Amu Saaka himself.  The decision could end up being based on Furman’s strength of schedule, considering the Southern Conference is a mid-major conference.  While impressive SoCon talent has certainly succeeded in the NBA (Stephen Curry, Davidson; Kevin Martin, Western Carolina), the level of competition in the conference is less intense than elsewhere in the NCAA.

Therefore, while Amu Saaka has faced the legitimate conference challenges of College of Charleston and Davidson, Furman also plays a lot of bad teams during the season, leaving Saaka with a bit of an unproven track record against quality talent.  The Magic may be hesitant to pick a player who has minimal experience against the nation’s elite college teams.

Amu Saaka is definitely a sleeper in this draft, as only some draft websites even make mention of his name and experience at Furman.  Hands down, he is an offensive player with pretty insignificant defensive statistics.  Picking Saaka is a move to improve offensively with little to no improvement defensively.  With that in mind, after 52 other players have been selected, he may be some of the best talent left.

Also Meet: David Lighty & Andrew Goudelock

Photos Courtesy of FurmanPaladins.com