Not only was St. John's undermanned with a six-man rotation last season, but the Red Storm was undersized, too. It's a good bet they led the Big East in getting their shots blocked.
But this season, the Storm has the blockers instead of the blockees, and that starts with 6-9 freshman Chris Obekpa, a native Nigerian who played in high school at Our Savior New American in Coram. New big men Orlando Sanchez, JaKarr Sampson and Christian Jones all are leapers with shot-blocking ability, but if he does nothing else, Obekpa will give St. John's a presence in the paint that is up to Big East standards.
At the same time, Obekpa, who averaged 12 points, 13 rebounds and nine blocks in leading OSNA to a 25-5 record, said coach Steve Lavin has encouraged him to do much more.
"He says, 'If you have a free shot, take it,' " Obekpa said Tuesday during St. John's media day. "He said, 'Don't be a robot. Play basketball.' I've been trying."
Obekpa took a special interest in following the Red Storm because he met 6-8 forward God'sgift Achiuwa two years ago when they traveled with a group of Nigerian players to South Africa for an NBA "Basketball Without Borders" camp. "I was coming up behind him," said Obekpa, who is two years younger. "Even here, it's the same thing. I'm following his footsteps. We boost each other."
Lavin joked about the difference in practice from a year ago when Achiuwa basically worked by himself on big-man drills compared with this season, when they have six players from 6-7 to 6-9. But Obekpa admired the grit displayed by last season's 13-19 team.
"Even though they just had six people, they played every game like it was the last one," Obekpa said. "I liked that a lot. They didn't give up."
Achiuwa made a point last season of visiting Obekpa at OSNA and was impressed by his growth. "I never thought we were going to end up at the same place," Achiuwa said. "From the last time I saw him play to now, his game evolved a lot. I went to see him play in high school, and I was like, 'Wow.' Now, he's a phenomenal player.
"Something he does best is shot-blocking. It's something I take pride in doing, but I can learn from him, even though he's younger. He blocks shots, and you say, 'How did he do that?' He has great timing."