7-foot Tonye Jekiri a big reason for Hurricanes' success
Coral Gables, Fla. — In his most recent game, Miami Hurricanes senior Tonye Jekiri twice saved balls from going out of bounds under his basket, forced a turnover at midcourt and was the first player down the floor on a fast break.
For a seven-footer, Jekiri gets around.
The Nigerian is not a big scorer, averaging barely half a dozen shots and 8.1 points per game. But he's a big reason for the success of the No. 12-ranked Hurricanes (19-4, 8-3 Atlantic Coast Conference), who trail league leader North Carolina by one game heading into Sunday's game at Florida State.
"I'm a Dennis Rodman and Kevin Garnett fan," Jekiri said Thursday. "Those are guys who play with so much energy and passion. I've always tried to do that, and I think my team feeds off me sometimes."
Coach Jim Larranaga agreed. He said Jekiri deserves serious consideration for ACC defensive player of the year after finishing third last year.
"He has such a big impact on the defensive end," Larranaga said. "There are plays he makes that there is no statistical category for."
Jekiri's especially adept at helping guards defend ball screens, forcing the opposition to its second or third option.
His impact was evident in Tuesday's win over Pittsburgh. In the first half the Panthers made 10 free throws, all with Jekiri on the bench because of foul trouble. In the second half he played 19 minutes, and the Panthers made no free throws.
"When he's in there, we're not fouling," Larranaga said.
Jekiri said his fondness for defense dates to his days playing soccer in Nigeria, before he moved to Florida in 2010 to pursue a basketball career.
"I've always been on the defensive side playing soccer," he said. "That has always been my mindset — having to make stops."
The soccer background also helps explain Jekiri's uncommon agility for someone with size-16 shoes. He has developed a nice shooting touch inside, and his field goal percentage has improved from 46 percent as a sophomore to 50 percent as a junior and 55 percent this season.
Another area of progress has been choosing when to be aggressive on defense, which is why he has yet to foul out of a game this season. With a laugh, Larranaga recalled that when Jekiri was a freshman, he would commit a foul on virtually every possession in practice.
"The game fast for me," Jekiri said, "and I was asked to go against guys who weighed 10 times more than me. Sometimes you had to foul to slow them down."
No more. He's a muscular 245 pounds, which also comes in handy on the boards, where he ranks among the ACC leaders at 9.8 rebounds per game.
Jekiri concedes his defense is ahead of his offense, in part because the Hurricanes have other players to do the scoring. Four teammates are averaging in double figures.
"That's what a team is supposed to be," Jekiri said. "You have to have a guy who really scores, and guy who really plays defense. You put them together, and it's kind of like you're building a brick wall."
Jekiri is excited about his potential in the NBA, and because he became serious about basketball just five years ago, scouts figure he still has room for development.
But he's a late bloomer, which will likely prevent teams from considering him as a lottery pick.
"They're intrigued," Larranaga said. "They see his improvement. They like the way he plays team defense. They like his rebounding numbers. But he's a senior, and they don't like old guys — 22 is too old for them."
The Hurricanes like their senior center just fine.