ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Greg Eboigbodin is one of those basketball prospects that is best viewed through squinting eyes that blur the image and activate the imagination.
Imagine him two years from now, is what most college coaches will tell you.
Illinois’ 6-foot-9, 225-pound freshman is what other coaches would kindly call “a project,” a player with raw skills but badly in need of teaching and development. Bring him along slowly and you just might have something. That's what even the Illini coaches said about him when he backed out of his commitment to sister school Illinois-Chicago and decided to follow Illini assistant coach Chin Coleman to Champaign.
Ebo, as most of those in the program call him, is from Nigeria and didn’t arrive in the United States until 2013. Basketball wasn’t his thing. Soccer and video games were.
But one look at his long, 6-9 frame and any basketball coach with an opportunity to do so would at least ask him, “Son, you play hoops?”
The answer was no. But at Jesuit High School in Detroit, he began learning. Although he had to adapt to the game quickly, and although he never had the 12-months-a-year exposure to the game and top level competition, he proved to be a quick learner.
As a junior his high school team won the Michigan Class A state title with a perfect 28-0 record.
As a senior, he averaged 13.8 points, 13.4 rebounds and 1.5 blocks while shooting 66 percent from the field. A dunk, he has learned, is a high percentage shot.
Until this past week, Ebo has gotten only a few minutes for the Illini. He mostly shuffled around the lane without having much of an impact on the game. That’s what happens when a young freshman isn’t sure where to go, how to defend and how stay out of his own way.
At times he looked lost and clumsy.
But coach Brad Underwood has been telling anyone who will listen to keep an eye on Ebo. The lights in his basketball brain have been going on. He’s been doing good work in practice. And in Underwood’s world, good practices lead to good games.
Ebo’s breakthrough started Wednesday at Minnesota. Illinois was dreadful in the first half that night and lost, 77-67. But a bright light was the play of Ebo, who scored a career-high nine points in 15 minutes.
Then Saturday at Michigan, in another loss, Ebo shined again. This time he played 16 minutes and scored 10 points with six rebounds and two blocked shots.
After the game, he was all smiles as he greeted family and high school classmates and they congratulated him for the best game of his college life. He spoke excitedly to some in Nigerian.
“I am really proud to come back to Michigan to play,” he said. “I haven’t been back here for a while. I was really hoping to see me win, but I have three or four more years and hopefully I will win in front of them here one day.”
The breakthrough for Ebo is quite simple. He has listened to Underwood and assistant coach Orlando Antigua and is doing exactly what they’ve told him: Set a screen, then burst to the basket. Five times Saturday teammates found him rolling to the hoop and he began creating an inside scoring presence they didn’t have with Leron Black struggling with flu-like symptoms.
“For the past two or three weeks, my confidence is up,” he said. “I’m getting comfortable now.
“Rebounding is really my strong suit but until the last two games I’ve been struggling with it. But I’m getting comfortable with that, too.”
The other thing Ebo brings to the party is shot-blocking presence at the rim. Illinois simply doesn’t block many shots, opting instead for trying to draw charges. But Ebo, who bring to mind a young Nnanna Egwu, could fill a hole in the Illini defense.
Egwu, who played for Illinois from 2012 to 2015, is the career leader in blocked shots with 201.
Eboigbodin has a ways to go. He is not confident catching or handling the ball in traffic. His free throw shooting is not pretty. If he has a jump shot, he has yet to show it.
But setting screens, making himself available to passes at the rim and blocking shots – those all have a place on an Illini team that could use more size and more depth.