Miami coach Jim Larranaga is on an “unofficial” campaign to get center Tonye Jekiri recognized as the Defensive Player of the Year in the Atlantic Coast Conference as well as raise the 7-foot senior’s stock for the NBA draft.
Larranaga’s case is that Jekiri’s value to the Hurricanes goes far beyond the 8.8 points, 9.3 rebounds, and 1.1 blocked shots he averages a game.
“It is really hard to put a number on how much he impacts the game,” he said at his usual press briefing this week. “They showed a number on TV that he’s a plus-52 (points) when he’s on the court and we’re a minus-12 when he’s off. That’s obviously a huge number, but it’s even greater than that.”
Larranaga pointed to a trio of plays where Jekiri made that impacted the team’s 64-61 victory over Virginia that put Miami alone in second place in the conference race with three games to go in the regular season.
One was when Jekiri forcefully won a tug of war for a rebound with Virginia forward Anthony Gill.
“That was so impressive. He could not have done that as a freshman,” Larranaga said of Jekiri, the lone holdover from Miami’s 2013 ACC championship team. “He just wasn’t experienced enough, he wasn’t strong enough, he wasn’t competitive enough in that area of rebounding. Now he makes it his mission to control the backboards.”
A second: Virginia ran a play that Miami calls “closing the door” in which two players essentially allow a teammate to run between them, then close off the gap to prevent a defender from getting through. The result usually is an open jumper.
“They ran it against us late in the game to get Malcolm Brogdon a shot, and instead of Malcolm being able to get through the door so they could close it, Tonye closed it for them,” Larranaga said. “He went in the way of the path that Malcolm would have gone through, and that prevented a 3-point basket.
“Those are the things you can’t measure.”
Considering Brogdon was on his way to matching his career high with 28 points, it could have been a momentum-deciding play. The Cavaliers senior guard was 12 of 18 from the field overall and four of seven on three-pointers.
And a third: Earlier in the game, Larranaga said, a Virginia player was on his way for a layup until Jekiri left his man at the top of the key to prevent the attempt. When the ball was kicked out to the perimeter, Jekiri was right back there do defend against the three-point attempt as well.
“And the guy didn’t shoot it,” Larranaga said. “So he prevented a two-point basket and then he prevented a three-point basket. If he’s not the ACC Player of the Year, I don’t know who is — Defensive Player of the Year.
“I don’t know where we would be without him. We certainly wouldn’t be one of those six teams vying for the regular-season title. We would be at the bottom of this league.”
Though NBA teams these days seem to be infatuated by one-and-done prospects in the draft, Larranaga thinks some club would be well-served by bringing in Jekiri and spending time developing his individual skills, which Larranaga laments he and his staff haven’t been able to do at Miami because of NCAA limits on practice time.
As far as he has come since his freshman year, Jekiri still has significant untapped potential. Though he will be 22 years old in July, he is younger in “basketball years” because he didn’t start playing the game until 2010.
“Most kids start playing when they’re seven, eight-years-old,” Larranaga said. “My grandson started playing when he was three. So when my grandson gets to be 18, he’s going to have 15 years of basketball skills developed. Tonye’s not going to be there until he’s 30.”