AUBURN — Coaches and players spent much of the 2018-19 season touting Chuma Okeke as Auburn's best NBA prospect.
Tigers coach Bruce Pearl said more than once that the sophomore forward has "great ability inside and out, and there’s not a matchup out there offensively or defensively where he’s going to get overwhelmed." Teammates Bryce Brown and Samir Doughty said it more simply: "He's a pro."
Okeke plans to test that idea — the 6-foot-8, 230-pound Atlanta native has announced that he will enter his name into the 2019 NBA Draft. Auburn made the news public Saturday, which is one day before Sunday's early entry deadline.
He's the second Tigers underclassman to declare, joining junior point guard Jared Harper. Okeke will have the option to return to school for his junior season before the late-May deadline even if he does hire an agent.
“After talking with my family, Coach Pearl and the entire staff at Auburn, I have decided to declare for the 2019 NBA Draft,” said Okeke, who is recovering from a torn ACL suffered in Auburn's round-of-16 win over North Carolina on March 29.
“I want to thank God, my family, my coaches and teammates, and the entire Auburn Family for their continued support these past two seasons. I’m grateful for all that we have accomplished the past two seasons. Together, we’ve won championships and made history at Auburn."
Okeke faces a fascinating decision. Whereas Harper, Auburn's three-year starter at point guard, may have already maxed out his NBA Draft stock as a 5-foot-11 point guard coming off a stellar NCAA tournament, Okeke seems to have only scratched the surface of his abilities.
The former Georgia Mr. Basketball averaged 12 points in 49.6-percent shooting (38.7 percent from 3-point range), a team-leading 6.8 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 1.8 steals and 1.2 blocks over 38 games in his sophomore season, his first as a starter. And those numbers don't even tell the whole story — Pearl championed the cause for the sophomore to be named to the SEC all-defensive team.
"He is a tremendous defender," Pearl said in March. "He can guard Jordan Bone. He can guard Kira Lewis on switches, and Admiral Schofield. One of the reasons why he has a tremendous future in the NBA is he can guard any position on the floor. He has the size, the length, the foot speed to stay in front. He is always in the right place defensively. Always.
"He’s as good as I’ve coached defensively.”
But Okeke won't have the chance to prove that in front of NBA teams during the pre-draft process. There is plenty of good game tape of him, and he finished with perhaps his best performance of the season against the Tar Heels (20 points on 8-for-11 shooting, 11 rebounds), but the knee injury he suffered in the second half that day in Kansas City, Mo., is a significant curveball.
He underwent successful underwent surgery four days later April 2, but even in the best-case scenario, Okeke wouldn't be able to do on-court work for at least a few months. The NBA Scouting Combine takes place from May 15-19, and the draft takes place June 20.
But that may not stop Okeke from getting drafted — ESPN still ranks him as the No. 41 prospect in the 2019 class, and some outlets still project him as a potential late-first-round pick.
If Okeke returns to school, and continues the ascension he made late in his sophomore season, he could very well end up playing himself into the lottery discussion in 2020. But he also might have a legitimate chance to start his NBA career this summer despite his injury.
Again, it should be fascinating decision.
“I’ve been doing this a long time, and Chuma is one of the most versatile players I’ve ever coached and impacts the game on both ends of the court,” Pearl said. “I’m so proud of how hard he’s worked and how much fun he is to coach. When he recovers from this injury he will be better than ever.”