Chuma Okeke deferred his dream to rehab from his torn ACL. Now he has signed with the Orlando Magic and his return is imminent.
It was a whirlwind day for him, as it would be for any player taken in the NBA Draft. A lot of pictures taken and memories made as he discussed his future and the prospects of playing in the NBA.
At that time, Chuma Okeke was still wearing a noticeable brace on his knee, the remnants from his torn ACL in March. The Magic knew when they drafted him he would likely miss the entire 2020 season to recover from his knee injury.
There was still a long road ahead of him in his recovery. The Magic would support him how they could. But they also made a key decision, one that would keep him away from his dream for just a bit longer.
Orlando and Okeke decided not to sign his rookie contract in the offseason, holding off his first contract. Instead, Okeke signed with the Lakeland Magic directly, doing his rehab stint with the Orlando Magic’s G-League affiliate. He would rehab in relative anonymity.
That path back to the court grew only cloudier when the coronavirus pandemic hit. Okeke was shooting jumpers and itching to do more when the G-League shut down. He had limited access to the AdventHealth Practice Facility. But Okeke was not interacting with his new teammates or coaches otherwise since he was not yet under contract.
Now, Okeke said is doing skill and conditioning drills. He said the knee is feeling stronger. And he is hoping to be ready for training camp.
There is light at the end of the tunnel. Okeke officially joined the Magic, signing his rookie contract Monday. He is starting to get into the gym and get to know his new teammates as they begin to trickle back into Orlando before the expected December training camp.
It’s not clear what restrictions Okeke will be under when training camp begins. He hopes to be able to participate in full even though it has been 598 days on Tuesday since his last game.
But Okeke is back on the floor at long last. His path back to games is clearer than ever.
“I learned a lot about myself, mainly how important faith is through this journey,” Chuma Okeke said in a teleconference Tuesday. “I’ve always been a patient person. This rehab has taught me to be even more patient. Even when I didn’t want to rehab. At some rehab points, you get to a point where it’s easy let’s do something else. It’s a lot of repetition to get to where you want to be. You always have to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Hopefully, it will pay off in the long run.”
Magic officials have been effusive in their praise of Okeke’s approach, character and work through his rehab. Magic president of basketball operations Jeff Weltman opened Tuesday’s media availability saying how all their background research and everyone at Auburn pointed to Okeke being a selfless teammate and the kind of high-character person the Magic typically target.
They are also getting a pretty solid player too.
Okeke averaged 12.0 points per game and 6.8 rebounds per game in 2019 with Auburn, helping them get to the Final Four. He was injured in the Sweet Sixteen game against North Carolina, but not before scoring 20 points and grabbing 11 rebounds in 25 minutes).
He added a 38.7-percent 3-point field goal percentage and a 57.7-percent effective field goal percentage. Okeke is a solid shooter, but more than that, he is a smart cutter and someone capable of finishing at the rim (at least pre-injury, although there is no reason not to expect a full recovery).
What likely drew the Magic to him was not just those promising offensive numbers, but his attention to detail on defense.
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He posted 2.3 defensive win shares and a 4.1 defensive box plus-minus according to Sports-Reference in his sophomore year at Auburn. That is why so many draft statisticians loved Okeke and valued him highly despite his injury.
That is where Okeke believes he can make an immediate impact for a Magic team hoping to make the playoffs for a third straight year.
Although there will certainly be an adjustment after such a long time away from the game and with a new league to prepare for.
“Hopefully I won’t be rusty because I’ve been doing this for a long time,” Okeke said in a teleconference Tuesday. “Then again, this is all new to me. Hopefully, I won’t be that rusty because it’s still basketball. It’s just with the best players in the world. So hopefully I won’t be that rusty.”
Chuma Okeke said he had some conversations with coach Steve Clifford. But he is still re-introducing himself to the team and his teammates.
The one thing he knows is that Clifford has his focus on defense and how well players move their feet and understand the concepts to execute the game’s defensive plan.
That is an area where Okeke at least built some of his reputation in college to get selected in the first round despite his injury. He said his defense is what he can contribute pretty quickly.
It is all still a bit of a mystery though.
Okeke will have to hit the ground running with a short preseason — teams will be allowed to conduct group workouts beginning Dec. 1 according to Shams Charania of The Athletic. The regular season will begin Dec. 22. And the Magic’s typical caution with injuries likely will set Okeke onto the floor with some restrictions.
But there is light at the end of the tunnel. The long wait to get back onto the court is nearing its end.
Okeke is eager to prove that his patience has paid off and that he was well worth the wait.