Nwankwo hopeful about overcoming injury bug

For an athlete, there are few things more frustrating than having the start of your college career delayed by injury. One can imagine, then, just how trying it would be to have your collegiate debut threatened for a second consecutive season.

Yet this is precisely the situation Davis Nwankwo is facing. Forced to redshirt last year after numerous injuries, the 6-foot-10 forward from College Park, Md. is now battling a knee injury that could prove to be chronic. The redshirt freshman is nevertheless hopeful that he will finally see his first action as a Commodore in a few weeks.

"I'm definitely excited," Nwankwo said. "With all the hype coming in—‘this is the best team Vandy's ever had'—I'm just looking to contribute some way, defensively or offensively. The first game is in the marks, so we can't wait. We're working hard right now—all I can ask is just to get better and better."

Coaches and teammates are certainly keeping their fingers crossed in light of the tremendous athleticism Nwankwo has displayed in practice, particularly as a defensive presence in the low post.

"If you just evaluated him as a guy who's a freshman that's never played a college game," coach Kevin Stallings said, "you would be so excited about his future, because he does things that freshmen just can't do on the collegiate level."

Heralded by his coach as the "by far the best shot blocker" on the team, Nwankwo would add a Mutombo-like presence underneath the hoop that the Dores have been lacking in recent years. With his strength and lankiness, the forward is also adept at cleaning up on the glass.

The added physicality that Nwankwo potentially adds to the team is even more marked considering that personnel-wise, he is replacing graduated forward Dawid Przybyszewski. In contrast to Przybyszewski's perimeter game, there is no doubt that Nwankwo is most at home in the paint.

"He's a very gifted shot blocker," Stallings said. "He blocks his guy's shots—he blocks other people's guy's shots. He brings a defensive and rebounding presence down low. He's the opposite of what Dawid was—he's a defensive, physical, and athletic presence whose game is near the basket."

Despite the optimism surrounding his raw athleticism, Commodore fans' excitement must be tempered until it is known for certain whether or not Nwankwo will be able to overcome the injury bug. Numerous injuries kept him out of action last year, but the potentially chronic knee problem that he is attempting to work through this preseason is a new development.

"He'll play through the pain if at all possible, but we have to make sure that the knee isn't going get injured more," Stallings said. "That's something our medical staff keeps daily tabs on. If he can play relatively pain free for the next four years, he's going to be an outstanding player."

Indeed, the conventional wisdom concerning Nwankwo is that he has the potential (assuming he gets through his injuries) to help the Dores to some extent this year, and to an enormous extent in years to come.

"If he's healthy, Davis is going to help us this year, but he's going to help us immensely as his career goes along," Stallings said. "He really has a chance to be an exceptional player, but, again, so much of it is dependant upon his health. We're really pleased with how hard he's worked and how much progress he's made in the year."

Nwankwo's hard work does give reason to be hopeful about his playing future. The redshirt frehsman has not only done everything he can to rehabilitate himself, but also invested lot of time during the offseason training both on the court and in the weight room, developing his game and adding bulk to his naturally lean frame.

"We were here this summer taking summer classes, lifting, and working on our game," Nwankwo said. "They did individual workouts with each of us, so each guy got a partner and worked out. Over the summer, we got bigger, we got tougher, and did a little bit of conditioning. Overall, it was big plus—everybody got better."

Certainly, the proof is in the numbers.

"When I first got here, I probably maxed about 200 [lbs.]. Now I bench about 260 [lbs.], three times," Nwankwo said.

If hard work does truly pay off, then perhaps it won't be long before Vanderbilt fans will be able to see in action the exciting athleticism that led Arizona, Stanford, Georgia Tech, and Maryland (among others) to recruit Nwankwo coming out of high school. But until then, they'll just have to keep their fingers crossed.

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