When Syracuse takes the court this year, Paschal Chukwu will stand out in warmups. No surprise when you are 7-foot-2 with a 7-foot-6 wingspan. What is unusual about Chukwu is that, despite standing out in any crowd, he seems to be getting overlooked somewhat as Orange fans count off the weeks until the season opener on November 11. So, who is this giant man, and why could he be a key cog in the Syracuse hoops machine?
Chukwu transferred to Syracuse last year from Providence College, where he played in 33 games as a freshman two seasons ago, averaging 2.6 points and 2.4 rebounds, while swatting 23 shots in limited minutes for the Friars. He was able to practice with the Orange last season but could not play in games or go on road trips. Now fully eligible, Chukwu is expected to back up 5th year senior center Dajuan Coleman in a very talented Syracuse front court.
It’s been a long and winding road for Chukwu to put on an Orange jersey. He came to America from Nigeria to get a better high school education. Despite his enormous size, Chukwu hadn’t even played basketball growing up; soccer was his sport. A friend encouraged him to play hoops, and he immediately took to the sport, just before starting his freshman year at Trinity Catholic in Connecticut. He flourished there before transferring to Fairfield Prep for his final two years. Blessed with solid hands, above average athleticism, and the ability to run rim-to-rim, Chukwu’s rise on the hardwood was rapid. As a senior, Chukwu averaged 14.3 points, 11.0 rebounds, and five blocks, and earned a #61 national ranking from ESPN.com and Rivals.com.
After garnering offers from many programs, including Connecticut and Pittsburgh, Chukwu chose Providence. After just that one season with the Friars, Chukwu announced he was transferring, saying he needed a “change of scenery.” Chukwu was targeted by the likes of Michigan State and Kansas, before becoming Syracuse’s tallest player of all-time.
So, what can we expect? Well, we know Chukwu will be ideal for the 2-3 zone. With his length and ability to block shots, he should be a weapon in the middle. The expectation is that Syracuse may play more uptempo, fueled by pressing more and extending the zone. And that’s where Chukwu should have a profound impact. By extending the defense, the Orange will be daring teams to get the ball inside, where Chukwu will not be an inviting presence.
“He’ll cause a lot of trouble for the offensive players when they’re driving down the lane,” Orange freshman guard Tyus Battle told me in May. “We have guys swarming you and then we have (Chukwu) in the middle, just in case someone gets by us. It’s gonna cause a lot of havoc.”
Sure to be raising hell in the half court defense, just imagine the big guy for a moment at the back end of the press – his lanky but imposing frame guarding the rim. At just 226 pounds, it’s a thin body that Chukwu has worked hard on in the Melo Center weight room.
Offensively, Chukwu is clearly a work in progress. Still, it’s not hard to imagine him getting a few baskets a game off lob passes and put-backs alone. If he’s developed any sort of post moves in his time at Syracuse, that would be gravy. Chukwu should be at least a serviceable rebounder, though he might get bodied out of position by stronger players in the ACC.
Expectations are low for Chukwu offensively. Syracuse has enough depth that if Chukwu is not a liability on offense, he should still provide quality minutes and make for a very solid center combo with Coleman. Jim Boeheim has already raved about how he looks in the 2-3 in early practices, so his prowess there is not a question mark.
One other factor that should make Chukwu feel more comfortable is having a year under his belt to learn the SU system. This isn’t some green freshman. He’s a 21-year-old redshirt sophomore who has played in Big East games. Plus, he will have one teammate whom he is very close to: freshman walk-on guard Ray Featherston, who is the part of Paschal’s US host family in Westport, Connecticut.
Nigeria to Central New York and the bright lights of the Carrier Dome is quite the whirlwind for a young player. This season’s Final Four is being played in Phoenix. Will the Orange’s odyssey end there? The X-factor could be a very large man who hadn’t even played basketball until six years ago.
Follow Vince on Twitter @IommiCuseFan