Nnanna Egwu Continues His Development

The Fighting Illini basketball team has only five scholarship players who were on the team last year. Freshmen have to provide a lift, but they are still in learning mode. Center Nnanna Egwu doesn't see a lot of time on the floor, but he is improving with each game. The diligent worker is refining his skills and should become a potent force with time.

Nnanna Egwu has enjoyed a meteoric rise as a basketball player. Starting from scratch five years ago, Egwu has developed a game that will see increased playing time at Illinois as he goes along.

However his strong sense of responsibility, combined with a lack of knowledge of the complexities of Bruce Weber's offense and defense, have made him nervous and even hyper at times. He wants desperately to be perfect; at times he tries too hard. Learning to relax and have confidence in his game has been difficult for him.

With more than half the season now in the books, the 6'-10", 235 pounder is getting over his nervousness.

"Yeah I'm getting into the flow of the season, getting more practices in. Getting over the nervousness more, things are going better.

"As a freshman, you want to try to do the best you can. You'll learn new stuff, and then you try to adjust to all those things. I think the more practices and the more games, the more comfortable I get.

"You relax because you know what to expect a lot more. Each game you get more experience and know what to do in any situation, things you didn't know the first time you experienced them."

He had what many consider a breakout game at Northwestern. He hit three of three from the field and all three of his free throws. It gave him a confidence no coach could otherwise instill.

"Oh definitely. You have to be able to make those shots. When the first shot goes in, the more confidence you get to make the second shot."

Weber senses the improvement also.

"I think so. His high school coach was all excited after the Northwestern game. Nnanna takes everything literal. The game was moving so fast. He told his coach, who related to me, 'I'm starting to slow down. I'm starting to get it.' I was just happy he caught the ball, took his time and scored. That was a nice confidence-builder for him."

Egwu not only backs up Meyers Leonard in the post, at times he has played power forward alongside Leonard. Considering how far he has progresses since the early days, it is obvious his work ethic allows him to continue learning new things that help him improve his game.

"I've kept working hard on my skills, working on different skills and getting comfortable. But the biggest thing is getting comfortable on the floor. This is so I can react and not think about stuff. I like the way I'm progressing. I still have a long way to go competing in college and helping this team win."

The Chicago St. Ignatius product has a mature outlook. He realizes that stagnation leads to deterioration.

"Oh yeah, I have to keep adding skills. Once you stop, you no longer gain. You actually get worse once you stop improving. That's what each player wants to do is keep improving his skills. We're working on our own time to improve our skills. If there's one more thing to improve, that's what we have to do."

In the past, Egwu has used his shot-blocking skills to good success. But it sometimes takes him away from the basket, preventing him from getting rebounds the team needs from him. He is working to become a better rebounder.

"You have to box out and have a nose for the ball. Just being on the pursuit of the ball all the time. You have to box out, you have to be strong and you have to have an instinct for the ball. As long as we keep improving in practice, we should be fine."

Another asset the big man has is his speed in the open court and determination to participate on fast breaks. He got a layup at Penn State the other night by beating his defender down the court.

"I enjoy running the floor."

Egwu says he has learned a great deal in his first season on campus.

"Just learning the offense, knowing what to do more than scoring the ball. Being able to screen, being able to go up and cut to the ball to find yourself open, things like that. And it's helped to be a help defender and learn more about the system."

And he has learned the hard way how essential it is to prepare fully for every opponent, especially in the Big 10.

"Every game is important in this conference. Every team is a contender and has a chance to beat you, especially at home. No one's going to lay down in this conference."

Weber gave him a brief exposure to defending probably the most dominant post player in college basketball today. Ohio State's Jared Sullinger is a handful, as Egwu found out first hand.

"It was a lot of fun. You watched them from last year, and you know how dominant he is. He's one of the best players in the Big Ten and the country, so going against him for a couple of plays was big fun."

Each experience helps Egwu develop. The Sullinger encounter was important, but the biggest help comes daily in practice.

"I'm competing with Meyers every day. He's gotten a lot better, and I've gotten a lot better because of him. Not many players get to practice against a top lottery pick every day in practice. That's a big plus for me and will definitely help me in the future."

Egwu's long-term potential is excellent. He may even become more of a force before this season concludes. Regardless, he will be an entirely different player next year, and with time he could develop into an NBA prospect. Weber reminds how much offensive game Egwu has.

"People prepare for Meyers, but now if you get some points inside...he actually posts up stronger than Meyers does. If you watched him as a high school senior, he was a really good scorer. It was hard to stop him."


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