One by one, the NBA scouts are becoming intrigued by University of Miami junior center Tonye Jekiri because he is no longer just a raw, skinny 7-foot project.
Jekiri is the leading rebounder in the Atlantic Coast Conference with 10.3 per game, ahead of Duke’s much-celebrated star Jahlil Okafor. Jekiri beefed up from 215 pounds to 245. He benches 300 pounds and averages 7.5 defensive rebounds per game, sixth-best in the country.
Last Saturday, in front of a national TV audience and 31,000 fans at the Carrier Dome, Jekiri recorded a double-double against Syracuse — 13 points, 15 rebounds. He is a big reason the Hurricanes (14-5, 4-2 ACC) are ranked No. 23 heading into Wednesday’s 9 p.m. home game against Georgia Tech.
Jekiri’s rise is remarkable considering that five years ago he had never played organized basketball. He was a 6-10 soccer player living in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, and dreaming of playing defensive midfield for Real Madrid.
It wasn’t until the summer of 2010, when he attended a basketball camp at the urging of a friend (and lured by the free meals), that Jekiri first entertained the thought of taking advantage of his height on a basketball court. He had unusual speed for a kid his size, excellent footwork and boundless energy.
Jekiri caught the eye of Greg Brown, a Fort Lauderdale-based Comcast technician who was a part-time scout for the Nigerian camp. Brown helped place Jekiri at Champagnat, a small Catholic school in Hialeah. Miami — and many other schools — had taken notice by his senior year.
“It’s been a slow and steady climb,” said UM assistant coach Eric Konkol, who has tutored Jekiri at practice and in the video room. “Everything is starting to become habit for him.”
As his game developed, so did his passion for the sport. Jekiri grew up a soccer junkie, and remains one. He spent his free time dribbling a soccer ball, not a basketball. He watched pro soccer, not the NBA. Now, although he still likes to kick it around with the UM women’s soccer team, Jekiri is focusing on basketball.
“I was playing basketball because of my size, but just running around out there, still thinking soccer,” he said. “I didn’t really understand the rules or the tactics of basketball. This season, for the first time, I am enjoying the game as a spectator and a player.”
Last summer, UM coach Jim Larrañaga told Jekiri he would have to be a leader this season. He challenged him to cut down on fouls, improve his jump shot and free-throw shooting, look to score more and grab a rebound for every three minutes of playing time. Jekiri took the meeting to heart.
He started noting on video how top centers position themselves. He focused more at practice. The numbers tell the story.
He is averaging 30.4 minutes and 10.3 rebounds per game, which equates to one rebound every 2.95 minutes. Last year, he averaged 21.4 minutes and 5.5 rebounds (one each 3.89 minutes). As a freshman, he played 6.9 minutes per game, and averaged 1.6 rebounds (one each 4.31 minutes).
His free-throw percentage has improved from 55 percent as a freshman to 58 percent as a sophomore to 72 percent this season. He is even dunking, something that hasn’t come naturally, despite his size.
His confidence is at an all-time high.
“Offensively, we still have a long way to go with him,” Konkol said. “But the way we see it, most guys by 10th grade are in their fifth year of organized basketball. Tonye’s in his fifth year now. Sky’s the limit.”
Wednesday: No. 23 UM men vs. Georgia Tech
When/where: 9 p.m.; BankUnited Center, Coral Gables.
TV/radio: ACC Network; WQAM 560, WVUM-90.5 FM.
Records: UM 14-5, 4-2 ACC; Georgia Tech 9-10, 0-7.
Noteworthy: The Canes are coming off a 66-62 road win at Syracuse. The Yellow Jackets are seeking their first ACC win. They lost 64-62 to Boston College in their last game.