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Ejike Obinna is big, and still developing

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Obinna’s redshirt year didn’t seem to accomplish much.

NCAA Basketball: Vanderbilt at Mississippi Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

By the Numbers

Ejike Obinna 31 15 102.7 12.50% 18.2 3.8 4.3 0 0.2 0.5 57.00% 0% 54.90% 1.25% 0.9

On the heels of his termination by Vanderbilt in 2019, Bryce Drew made the seemingly preposterous comment — in an interview with Pete Thamel, who very much strived to present Drew as the good guy and Vanderbilt as the bad guy for, apparently, expecting the head basketball coach to win an SEC game in his third year with the program — that he could have won a few games if only he’d burned Ejike Obinna’s redshirt.

This was, of course, indicative of a major problem: either Drew had badly misevaluated Obinna (because why on earth would he redshirt a guy who would be a difference-maker in at least three SEC games) or he simply did not believe that he would be judged on wins and losses. As far as Obinna goes, the good news for him is that every Vanderbilt fan understood that the comment was ludicrous and Obinna wasn’t that good — but the surprise was that he hadn’t made the growth during his redshirt year that Drew’s comment implied that he had.

Because as a redshirt sophomore, Obinna was practically the same player he’d been two years earlier as an extremely young (he turned 18 during the season) true freshman. His playing time doubled, he was a decent mop-up guy around the rim, and he was a pretty good rebounder — he finished second on the team in total rebounds in spite of playing just 18.4 minutes a game. But then, he was those things as a freshman as well, albeit in limited playing time. He was a bit better at staying out of foul trouble — committing 4.9 fouls per 40 minutes after committing 8.5 as a freshman — but that seems like a low bar, and he still fouled out twice, both times in 16 minutes of action.

What didn’t improve was his ability to block shots — in spite of being 6’10”, Obinna only blocked seven shots all season, or one behind 6’5” Jordan Wright (who played 51 fewer minutes on the season.) Nor did his court vision or ball-handling ability; Obinna continued to be a turnover machine for a guy who doesn’t handle the ball a ton, and also failed to log a single assist all season. That’s... not good. Nor did he develop any offensive game outside of five feet.

Vanderbilt fans have certainly seen their share of big men over the years who take a few years to Get It before becoming useful players — Festus Ezeli, for one, didn’t really become much of a contributor until his fourth year on campus, including a redshirt year, and of course Ted Skuchas needed five years to become an all-timer of a crowd favorite. Maybe Obinna is on that same path, but then history is also littered with the corpses of big men who never developed into much of anything (looking at you, Darius Coulibaly.) The bigger question now is what exactly Obinna’s role on the team is now: with Clevon Brown being granted a fifth year of eligibility, and Rice transfer Quentin Millora-Brown now eligible after sitting out last season (and Dylan Disu also capable of doing a lot of the things you’d expect Obinna to do), it’s not entirely clear how much playing time is available for Obinna. While he does have his uses, his rather startling inability to contest shots at the rim is a bit of a liability.