Johnnies’ Force Down Low

The scene is familiar; there is less than three minutes to play and St. John’s has just completed a late comeback and is trying to close out the game. Up by three, 6’8” Center Chris Obekpa lines up a deep jumper, leans back and nails it, giving the Red Storm a crucial bucket. Such was the case Saturday afternoon against NJIT as it was the opening game of the year versus Detroit.

Obekpa, who one reporter described fondly as “not known for his offense” has now twice sealed a victory for the Johnnies on a long range shot not normally attempted by a man of his stature.

“During the flow of the game we have confidence for him to pick and pop,” said St. John’s head coach Steve Lavin.

Obekpa, who has been nicknamed “the game-changer,” has done just that in a variety of ways this season. On Saturday, it was an emphatic dunk after a fake to D’Angelo Harrison at the arch to give St. John’s their first three point lead, followed by the jump shot to make sure there was no chance of giving it up.

In the opener against Detroit, it was not only the late bucket but also a St. John’s record eight blocks in his first collegiate game.

When discussing Obekpa, it is impossible not to mention his natural ability to dismiss opposing shots. On Saturday he added five, contributing to his season average of 4.4 per game, good for fourth in the nation on a team that averages a daunting 8.9 per game, which is second in the country.

“His nature is very selfless,” Lavin said. “He’d rather play defense and block shots and contribute at that end of the floor.”

Lavin knows that at this point in Obekpa’s young career he is not an offensive juggernaut, but believes he has the tools to be a special player at both ends of the floor, – something he has showed glimpses of early in the season.

“He’s got very nimble feet and is graceful,” Lavin said. “We have to utilize him in a way to our advantage, in a way that is going to put opponents at a disadvantage with his foot speed and his skill to create a footrace to the basket.”

Obekpa flourishes even more down low when he isn’t shooting the ball, allowing other players to find success as slashers.

“He has great post-feeding abilities,” Lavin said. “He can really find, with precision, the cutters.”

For such a young player, Obekpa demonstrates a unique balance of confidence and poise, taking the shots when he has them but dishing the ball and positioning himself for a rebound when he doesn’t.

“I won’t force it,” Obekpa said. “I’ll just take it if it’s open.”