Chuma Okeke’s legacy with Auburn Tigers: Humility and a teammate

SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH - MARCH 23: Chuma Okeke #5 of the Auburn Tigers dribbles the ball as Ochai Agbaji #30 of the Kansas Jayhawks chases after him during their game in the Second Round of the NCAA Basketball Tournament at Vivint Smart Home Arena on March 23, 2019 in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH - MARCH 23: Chuma Okeke #5 of the Auburn Tigers dribbles the ball as Ochai Agbaji #30 of the Kansas Jayhawks chases after him during their game in the Second Round of the NCAA Basketball Tournament at Vivint Smart Home Arena on March 23, 2019 in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images) /

Chuma Okeke was the surprise pick from the Orlando Magic at No. 16. To his teammates and fans, Okeke is the perfect guy to add to the fold.

Fans were caught a bit off guard when the Orlando Magic selected Chuma Okeke with the 16th overall pick in the draft.

The Auburn Tigers forward had plenty of talent and first-round buzz. But a torn ACL in the Sweet Sixteen seemed to send his stock tumbling. Although he had surgery to repair the injury in April, it still figured that he would be out for the entirety of the 2020 season.

President of basketball operations Jeff Weltman said he does not expect a rookie to contribute heavy minutes right out of the gate. But they certainly can play some sort of role. And considering Orlando’s limited free agency funds, it felt like the team might rely on the rookie for some goal.

The Magic though stuck to their principles. They have long targeted players with good length, positional versatility, a willingness to improve and with a defensive mindset.

Without a doubt, Okeke checks off all those boxes.

He averaged 12.0 points per game and 6.8 rebounds per game last year for Auburn. He helped lead the Tigers to the Sweet Sixteen. And his team after his injury propelled the team to its first Final Four in more than three decades.

The injury was devastating to him and his teammates. But they rallied around him, including him in their celebrations — just as sure as Okeke wanted to be out there to support his teammates.

That may be his ultimate legacy with his college team. He was the ultimate teammate, willing to do what was necessary for his team and his program.

Auburn coach Bruce Pearl told Roy Parry of the Orlando Sentinel that Orlando will not regret taking Okeke and that Okeke is all about winning. By the end of the year, Pearl said, Okeke was one of the best players in the nation.

He certainly was one of the most improved as Auburn asked him to take on a larger playmaking role in his sophomore year. He certainly stepped up to the plate.

ESPN and national draft pundits praised the Magic’s pick of Okeke as a long-term play for the team. They believe that when healthy Okeke would have easily been picked at No. 16, if not earlier. The injury seemed like the only thing holding him back.

To get a better picture of Okeke as a player, we reached out to our friends over at Fly War Eagle to discover more about what Okeke meant to the Auburn community and what he brought on the court.

Philip Rossman-Reich (@philiprr_omd), Orlando Magic Daily: What were your impressions of Okeke as a basketball player over the last two years? What did you think he would be entering the season and how did that change as it wore on?

Shea Brennaman (@sheabooskyy), Fly War Eagle: Aside from being an extremely gifted athlete, Chuma Okeke is one of the most humble kids you will ever meet. He is a team player and he plays unselfishly. I love his personality. He transitioned from timidness to assertion in the last two years. The transformation was stark. He was one of the SEC’s leaders in steals and I believe he had the quickest hands in college basketball, certainly for Auburn. His stature and athleticism made him extremely effective.

Rossman-Reich: What effect did the injury have on the Auburn community? It seemed like the team rallied around him too. What was his effect in the locker room on that team?

Brennaman: I think everybody as a result of Okeke’s injury rallied around him as well as the basketball team. His leadership manifested itself when he returned at halftime during the Auburn Tigers’ showdown against the Kentucky Wildcats in the Elite Eight. Kentucky did not stand a chance after that. It solidified not only the fan base but the entire Auburn team as well. We were devastated when he went down. Bruce Pearl said it best, he was the best player on the court in that Sweet 16 matchup.

Rossman-Reich: Before his injury, Okeke was playing his best basketball it seemed. What changed his game as the season wore on?

Brennaman: In January, I went on the record with Fox Sports Shoals about how I wanted to see Okeke play more aggressively under the rim which is exactly how he emerged in play throughout the spring. As the season continued he improved tremendously on defense in steals and played masterfully in transition from the three and in assists.

Rossman-Reich: How do you see Chuma Okeke adjusting to the NBA? Is his skill set a match to the league? What areas will he need to work on?

Brennaman: First of all, Okeke needs to get himself healthy. He has got the tools that would make him a stereotypical forward in the league. His athleticism and skills remind me very much of Klay Thompson. With Okeke being the 16th pick, Orlando saw enough of based on his collegiate career and the skill set that he demonstrated to draft him.

Rossman-Reich: Okeke talked about making Auburn a basketball school again as part of what he and his class wanted to do. That might be going a bit far, but what is his ultimate legacy with Auburn?

Brennaman: Okeke will forever be a part of a team that won the SEC Championship and advanced to the Final Four only to lose to the eventual national champions. This is first time for Auburn, a notable football school, to make such impact in college basketball. He was part of a team last year that won the regular season conference title. Okeke’s career was an integral part of what these teams achieved and it means so much to Auburn.

Chuma Okeke ready to work for Orlando Magic. dark. Next

My thanks to Shea for answering my questions about Okeke. Be sure to check out her work at Fly War Eagle.