Even as a freshman, people could tell that Nnana Egwu was a big-time basketball player.
As he roamed the hallways at Chicago’s St. Ignatius High School, the 6-foot-5 14-year-old was literally head and shoulders above everyone else. With long arms and a lean, athletic build, it was easy to visualize him on the court. He just looked the part.
Problem was, he didn’t play basketball.
No, he was enrolled at St. Ignatius because of academics, because the school had pegged him as an outstanding student. When he got there, his basketball experience was limited to one summer of park district ball and catching the occasional game on TV.
Six-foot-five or not, Egwu wasn’t actually a basketball player. Yet.
“He got to school and they saw him walking the halls at 6-5 as a freshman,” said Mike Mullins, who coaches Egwu’s AAU team, the Illinois Wolves. “And they asked him if he would play basketball, and he said, ‘Sure.’
“He’s 6-10 now and the rest is history that’s still being written.”
The most recent chapter of that history includes a handful of offers from Division I programs, including Northwestern. Illinois, Oregon State, Wisconsin, Purdue and DePaul have also offered the three-star recruit, ranked by Scout as the No. 16 center of the 2011 class.
And when you consider that Egwu has only been playing the game for two years, it should shock no one if more and more schools come knocking with offers.
“On the court, it’s night and day,” Mullins said of Egwu, a rising junior. “He’s developing into a great basketball player. He’s still got a long way to go, but he’s gone from explaining the rules of the game two years ago and getting him involved to being a guy who’s hitting shots and running the floor and blocking shots. It’s the result of a lot of hard work by him and his coaches….
“He’s beginning to put combinations together and run plays. There are kids his age who have played their whole lives who can’t do that. Now he’s learning to play instinctively and creatively – that’s the next step.”
Egwu, is originally from Nigeria, moved to Chicago in 1998. His father, Emmanuel, had already immigrated to the States, hoping that he could eventually afford to bring the rest of his family over. And when Nnana was about five years-old, that’s what Emmanuel did.
But basketball was never part of the equation; school was always more important. So as a grade-schooler in Chicago, Nnana attended St. Ignatius’ summer school program, designed for younger students to attend classes and get a taste of high school.
While there, Mullins says that Egwu and his twin sister were identified as outstanding students. As a result, St. Ignatius wanted Egwu to enroll there once he reached high school.
The feeling was reciprocal.
“I went there,” Egwu says, “because I went to their summer program a few years in grade school and I really liked it. That was always the school that I wanted to go to.”
So it was only after Egwu was identified as a great student that he was identified as a potentially great basketball player. To that point, though, Egwu’s hoops career was confined to the occasional pick-up game. But a 6-5 freshman is a 6-5 freshman, and a St. Ignatius’ coach asked Egwu if basketball sounded good.
It did. And it’s looked better and better ever since.
“He had the frame athletically that you look for in a player,” Mullins said. “He had good hands, good feet, runs well, jumps well and was very intelligent. The rest of his stuff will continue to come in time.
“He’s extremely slender and he’s just recently begun to lift weights. There’s much to be developed, but with the combination of his physical gifts and mental capacity, he’s got incredible potential. He’s far from a finished player, and he’s got a long way to go. We know that. But it’s amazing to see him get better all the time.”
A lot of hard work, yes. But it’s not like basketball is some chore for Egwu. Even though he didn’t play it as child, he loves the game.
“I always look forward to playing,” Egwu said. “When you’re in the game, you just love it. I’m just playing out there. I really get into it, and that’s one of the reasons is that I’ve been so successful – I just play. The coaches see that and how hard I work. That’s one of the things that’s put me in the position I’m in right now.”
That position is part on-going project and part big-time prospect. Egwu readily admits that he has a lot of work yet to do on his game. And that notion is seconded by Mullins, who says that while Egwu has turned into quite a presence on defense, he still can’t bang with wide bodies down low.
“At this point, the guys who are 7-foot are easier for him than the 6-6, 240 guys,” Mullins said of Egwu, who tips the scales at only about 190 pounds.
For what he lacks in basketball polish, Egwu is certainly an intelligent, thoughtful teenager. After all, it was his academics – not athletics – that put him in the halls of St. Ignatius in the first place.
Thus, it’s no surprise that he has no plans of letting his school books collect dust in the name of basketball.
“You can’t know how far basketball is going to take you,” Egwu said. “So you need to get (academics) straightened out and go from there.”
Of course, Northwestern and academics oft go together. And that is one thing that the Wildcats may have in their favor as part of the ever-growing list of schools vying for Egwu.
“I will consider (Northwestern),” Egwu said. “Their university competes, and is also really up there in academics, so that’s something to consider.”
Again, though, Egwu has only has only been playing ball for two years. He will continue to improve, and more and more schools will continue to take notice.
Only time will tell if the Nigerian Forward will become a Northwestern Wildcat.