Chuma Okeke ready to work for Orlando Magic

Chuma Okeke, middle, is introduced as the Orlando Magic's top 2019 draft pick during a news conference at the Amway Center in Orlando, Fla., on Friday, June 21, 2019. At left is Orlando Magic general manager Jeff Weltman, and at right is head coach Steve Clifford. (Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel/TNS via Getty Images)
Chuma Okeke, middle, is introduced as the Orlando Magic's top 2019 draft pick during a news conference at the Amway Center in Orlando, Fla., on Friday, June 21, 2019. At left is Orlando Magic general manager Jeff Weltman, and at right is head coach Steve Clifford. (Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel/TNS via Getty Images) /

Chuma Okeke has talked the talk plenty. He has made his name walking the walk and building himself up. An ACL injury is not going to derail him.

Chuma Okeke was locked into the moment, as players often are in big games. As he went down with an injury against the North Carolina Tar Heels in the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet Sixteen, he did not think anything was wrong. there was no indication that his knee had buckled and he felt like after the doctors checked him, he would be clear to play.

This was a momentary setback. He was there to complete his mission and turn the Auburn Tigers back into a basketball school and accomplish something the program had not seen in more than three decades.

More importantly, he wanted to be back out on the floor for his teammates.

The doctors would not let him do that. Even though he was walking around and not experiencing pain, doctors told him he had torn his ACL.

His season was over. The team he had fought so hard for would have to fight for him.

"“Going into that season we were a real close team coming up from my freshman year,” Okeke said. “That bond that we had was real strong. I knew they were going to play hard for me because I always played hard for them. It was just a real good feeling.”"

It was inspiring watching Auburn rally from that moment, losing perhaps the team’s best player and defeating North Carolina. It was inspiring to see Okeke wheel himself behind the bench and get a piece of the net and touch the championship trophy after the Auburn Tigers defeated the Kentucky Wildcats.

He had as much to do with all of that as anyone else. But it was discouraging too. Okeke was at his lowest moment. He said he felt pain for his family, friends and teammates as much as he did for himself.

His future looked uncertain.

Talks of making the Lottery and jumping to the NBA seemed on hold. There was a long rehab process ahead of him.

Okeke was not sure what would happen on draft night. As the Orlando Magic stood up to select at No. 16, he was shocked his name was called. As he recalled the experience of hearing Adam Silver call his name, it was easy to see the emotional wave he was riding.

He said being up at the podium at the Amway Center, introduced as the latest member of the team with president of basketball operations Jeff Weltman and coach Steve Clifford flanking him did not feel real.

The Magic believed in him at a moment where it would be easy to doubt or pass over him. He will not likely pay until January if even then. It is hard to imagine getting any immediate return for him.

But Okeke was someone the Magic targeted for something more.

"“Every team gets excited about the draft,” Weltman said. “Some drafts you get a little more excited about than others. We came away with a guy we were hoping to come away with and we feel will add every way to our team. A guy who embodies what we want our team to be about — hard work, togetherness, teamwork and humility.”"

The warm and fuzzy part is over now. Now, Okeke gets back to what he does best — he works hard and gives for his family and his teammates.

Okeke said he is past the painful part of his rehab from torn ACL. Sporting a black brace over his suit pants, Okeke is walking and not using crutches. Okeke is at the part of his rehab focusing on strengthening the leg.

There is still no timetable for his return, but Weltman said Thursday after the draft, the team is hopeful he will be able to play in the 2020 season. Although, the Magic will not rush him back.

If there is one thing Okeke knows how to do it is work. There is no concern about him getting back onto the court.

That is how he improved from 7.5 points per game to 12.0 points per game between his freshman and sophomore seasons. How he went from 45.8 to 49.6 percent shooting overall and 67.3 percent to 72.2 percent from the foul line. Okeke is constantly working to improve and get better.

As Chuma Okeke put it, his college coach, Bruce Pearl, told his team that he would talk the talk and build his team up. But the team had to walk the walk. Okeke embodied that at every step of the process.

"“It’s a really important part of evaluating a player,” Weltman said. “Chuma, his hard work is evident. He improved and he was on an incredible trajectory. He suffered an unfortunate injury at an important part of the season. But it’s apparent that Chuma is getting better and better. And the reason is he works at it.”"

A big part of Okeke’s profile was his commitment to his teammates. He said he felt Auburn was a family. That was part of what was so emotional about his injury in the end. He posted on Instagram shortly after his introductory press conference thanking his teammates for helping him get there.

Chuma Okeke said he felt welcomed in by the Magic too as several players — including Jonathan Isaac, D.J. Augustin and Markelle Fultz — got in touch with him to welcome him to the team.

Regardless of whether Okeke projects as a starter or a high-level reserve, he fits the mold for a modern NBA player. And that prospect has the Magic excited.

"“I think he is what the NBA is all about now — positional size, versatility, a guy at the defensive end who can switch and guard different players which makes everything simpler,” Clifford said. Offensively, he can shoot. He’s got high IQ. He’s got a good feel for the game, he can pass. He can be a two-way player.”"

As Clifford pointed out, the defending champion Toronto Raptors do not play anyone who cannot play defense. And they built their defense around their size. Okeke fits into that ethos as the Magic continue to invest in long, versatile players.

But the work is far from done. It never ends.

Okeke will have to get himself healthy first and then work his way back onto the court. He then will have to integrate himself onto a new team and then into a new league.

It is a long and somewhat unexpected journey. One that a day later still seemed beyond words.

Next. Magic select Chuma Okeke with 16th pick. dark

Even in silence, Okeke knows he must walk the walk. And that is what he lives for.