It’s pretty rare for a difference maker like Chris Obekpa to be sitting on the transfer market in the month of August. However, after a late decision to officially leave St. John’s at the end of June, that was exactly the case until the mercurial 6-foot-10 center announced on Wednesday that he would be headed to UNLV for his final season of collegiate eligibility.
Despite being a three-year player at St. John’s, Obekpa is not a graduate transfer and will have to sit out this season before suiting up for the Runnin’ Rebels in 2016-17. The Nigerian import does have his struggles on offense — averaging only 5.8 points on 46 percent shooting last season — but is undeniably one of the best defensive presences in college basketball. He led the Big East in blocked shots in each of his three seasons with the Storm under Steve Lavin, and annually finished in the top-10 nationally in block rate.
By any metric, Obekpa is among the best rim protectors in all of college hoops, and throwing him into the Mountain West shouldn’t stop that from being true. So really, it’s hard to fault UNLV and coach Dave Rice for grabbing a player whose talent level can help them.
But despite that obvious skill that makes him a fringe NBA prospect, I can’t help but wonder about the fit for both Obekpa as a player and for UNLV as a program.
Let’s start with the program involved here. UNLV had a rough season in 2014-15, in large part due to its defense. They finished eighth in the Mountain West in defensive efficiency, according to KenPom, and 139th overall in the country. Basically, that’s not good enough, as only seven teams have received an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament over the course of the last five seasons with a defense that finished that poorly.
However, the problems that killed their defense had absolutely nothing to do with protecting the rim. The Rebs finished fifth nationally in field-goal percentage at the rim against at 48.2 percent, and blocked the second-highest percentage of shots at the rim behind Texas according to Hoop-Math.com. In fact, the Rebels have been among the better schools in the nation in these categories during all four seasons of Rice’s tenure.
Now, regarding last season, a big part of that equation in Christian Wood did depart the program this offseason in an ill-fated NBA Draft decision. However, the Rebs had already replaced him in the best way they could, stealing local five-star prospect Stephen Zimmerman from the likes of Kentucky, Arizona and Kansas. Zimmerman is a 7-footer with long arms who can really protect the rim on defense, and also provide a great offensive presence with his solid feel for the game and his ability to hit jumpers from the elbow. Additionally, Goodluck Okonoboh returns as another big man who can really block shots, as he finished 26th nationally in block rate. Athletes Dwayne Morgan and Derrick Jones also round out the frontcourt as young guys who should also be in the mix in 2016-17 along with Oregon transfer Ben Carter.
Basically, the singular skill that Obekpa provides better than just about anyone else in America should be well-covered in Vegas already, in some cases by more well-rounded players. Plus, it’s not like Obekpa is a sure thing in his personal life either, given that he’s had problems with suspensions and ejections in the past. So, despite the fact that Obekpa’s pure talent level is better than anything the Rebels could have hoped for, it’s pretty easy to wonder if the marginal value of his scholarship could be better utilized elsewhere.
And that’s why the fit for the player is also a curious one. Obekpa is entering a frontcourt situation where it seems rather likely that his playing time could actually decrease if Zimmerman isn’t a one-and-done guy — a situation that seems possible on its surface due to his tremendous talent level, but necessarily likely either.
Also, there’s the uncertain situation surrounding the coach that Obekpa is tying his hopes to in Rice. Rice enters his fifth season in Sin City on the hot seat, likely needing a successful season to keep his job. There have been rumors about Rice’s practice habits not getting through to his players, and Rice’s status following this past season was pretty up in the air according to CBS Sports’ own Gary Parrish. He’s leaving one tumultuous situation last year with Steve Lavin’s job status, and entering another one with Rice.
By transferring to UNLV instead of other schools he apparently considered like Oregon, Arizona State, NC State and Minnesota, Obekpa is putting himself in a more precarious position than the one he is leaving in St. John’s.
For the sake of all of the parties taking a risk here (the university, Rice, Obekpa himself), let’s hope things work out for the best and hope that Obekpa will be happy in Las Vegas. But the jury is certainly still out on this one working out as well as everyone hopes.