CHAMPAIGN – On a team full of players eager to catch the attention of the new coaching staff this offseason, Nnanna Egwu stood out.
The sophomore from Chicago used spring and summer workouts as a stage, a place to display his work ethic and determination to improve his game in front of coach John Groce.
“He’s the type of guy that if you ask him to do 10 pushups, he does 13,” Groce said. “You tell him you want him to become a better student of the game and he’s up in the office every day begging for DVDs. He goes above and beyond.”
That ambition is important, as the Illini need to find a post presence or two early on to make up for the loss of Meyers Leonard. There isn’t much experienced depth down low, meaning players like Egwu, who averaged just under 10 minutes a game last year, have a chance to earn major playing time.
On top of his strong work ethic, Egwu’s skill-set gives Groce something different to work with, too.
“If you’re an old school guy and you think because he’s 6-10, 6-11, he should be on either block for 40 straight minutes you might not appreciate or like his game as much,” Groce said.
Listed at 6-11, 235 pounds, Egwu has run a 5:20 mile and hit as many as 73 out of 100 3s in practice, proving he’s not the prototypical post player. That’s OK, as Groce says he’ll employ Egwu according to his strengths.
“I think we’re missing the boat if we just stick him down there (in the post) and bang,” Groce said. “He’s going to have to do some of that for him to take a jump to that next level of play, which he wants to do, but we’re going to make him a moving target. He needs to be a guy that can play in all areas of the court as his skill set continues to grow and catch up with his athletic mobility in terms of laterally quickness and speed.”
Groce’s new offensive system and pace should play right into Egwu’s strengths. He’s comfortable running the floor, but knows the team needs him down low at some point, too. That’s the portion of his game he’s working on most right now.
“We’re definitely focused on producing down low,” he said. “We’re working on it in practices and workouts. You just develop. Definitely in games, I’m looking forward to doing something down low in the paint. It just opens up everything for everyone else.”
And the key for Egwu to earn solid playing time or to become a starter?
“I think I need more rebounds,” he said. “That’s the number one thing, is to go in games and rebound for us and help. Get on the boards, get on the glass, even on the offensive glass so we can get more shots up.”
With practice now underway, Egwu’s hard work is sure to continue. His offseason initiative served notice – he’s ready to contribute, ready to take his game to another level and willing to do whatever necessary to do so.
“With a young man like him you just hope he gets to experience some dividends or the fruits of his labor a little bit, in terms of what he sacrificed and the extraordinary commitment that he’s made to our basketball program and in getting better,” Groce said.