Bob Lutz

Bob Lutz: Orukpe will get his chance for Shockers

Ehimen Orukpe feels your love, Shocker fans. He knows how much you want him to succeed as a basketball player. He notices how every time he enters a game, you give him a little extra applause, a little louder holler.

And he vows to validate all the positive vibes you send his way with a season worthy of your admiration. It's his biggest season yet.

"I feel it from them,'' he said, without defining it. "I'm going to make sure I give them everything they want from me. That's my goal. It's such a great atmosphere out here. The fans love you so you just play your heart out to become the best player you can be.''

Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall, his staff and the WSU administration went to great lengths to bring the 7-foot Orukpe to the United States from Nigeria. Then he spent two years at a junior college in Missouri, one as a redshirt. Last season he mostly watched from the Shocker bench.

Now is his time. He's a junior. Wichita State can use him on the front line, where it has lost heavily to graduation.

What can he accomplish? What can he become?

We're about to find out.

Against Emporia State on Tuesday night at Koch Arena, in the Shockers' only exhibition game, Orukpe played 13 minutes. He had six rebounds and three blocked shots. And he scored three points and had two turnovers. He missed four of his five free throws. He made some good decisions and some that weren't so good.

"He played better then he did in our scrimmage (against Texas-Arlington) or at Shocker Madness,'' Marshall said. "So maybe he's getting a little bit over his stage fright. He's going to play this season and hopefully he can play well. He's an integral part.''

Seven-footers with Orukpe's speed and athleticism don't come along very often. But Orukpe had limited basketball savvy when the Shockers' coaching staff first spotted him, and teaching him to play has been a challenge.

And a process.

Here's what we know about Orukpe: He's tantalizingly big and athletic. He has trouble keeping his jersey tucked in. He makes anybody's All-Airport team. And there's a different sound inside Koch Arena when he's on the floor, a sound of anticipation.

Orukpe had a connection with the Shocker fan base before he ever arrived on U.S. soil. Many followed his plight in just getting here with great interest. There were times when they felt it was hopeless, but after many snafus and a struggle with international red tape, Orukpe arrived.

That's partly why he's such a big hit with Shocker fans. And it doesn't hurt that he's a mountain of a man who looks the part of a dominant Missouri Valley Conference center.

But looking the part and playing the part are two different things. And Orukpe has a ways to go before he goes to central casting.

Against an outsized Emporia State on Tuesday, Orukpe got a hand on three shots and changed a couple of others. He is a force just by planting his big body in the paint and daring shooters to loft the ball over him.

He has a higher comfort level playing defense.

Offensively, there are still kinks to be worked out.

He plays too mechanically and sometimes looks unsure of what to do with the basketball when he gets it. His hands aren't soft by any means but they're much improved from last season, although he let a couple of passes slip through them against the Hornets.

"I think there were a couple of ooh and ah moments for Ehimen,'' Marshall said. "Some positive and some negative. He had one really great blocked shots and a couple of rebounds that only he can get.''

It looks like Marshall will have a lot of things he can do with his lineup again this season, thanks to what appears to be good depth. But he is adamant about giving Orukpe every opportunity. It's time to see what the big fella can do.

"If this crowd had seen Ehimen play (Monday) in practice, he was an all-conference player,'' Marshall said. "And the day before that he was second-team all-conference. He blocked shots, dunked, ran the floor, rebounded, played aggressively, didn't drop the ball. He just played within himself and played with toughness, agility and the kind of aggressive athleticism that few people can do with his size.''

Reading that assessment, I'm sure, makes Shocker fans' mouths water. They see a basketball player inside that big, athletic body. And they're dying for it to come out.

So is Orukpe, trust me. He was dismayed by his 1-for-5 free-throw shooting Tuesday night and bothered that he didn't score a couple of more field goals from close in.

"I get really upset when I miss those free throws,'' Orukpe said. "It's annoying. Those are points, man. Those are points I'm just missing out on.''

Time will tell what kind of basketball player Orukpe. But at long last, his time is now.

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