We're continuing to roll through our player evaluations for the 2014-15 basketball season, and next up is senior center Nnanna Egwu. We'll finish up the graduating class over the next week before moving on to the freshman, sophomores, and juniors in that order. You can expect the segments to be published about every two to three days.
Nnanna Egwu | Senior | C
Egwu had an up-and-down season to say the least. He started out quietly on both sides of the ball, collecting a total of three rebounds and ten points three games into the year. But as the quality of opponent increased, so too did the 6-11 center's productivity. He pulled down nine rebounds in a win over Baylor in the Las Vegas Invitational championship game, and followed that up with an 8 points, 9 rebounds, 4 blocks performance in a loss to Miami. While his offense wasn't always there, his ability on the defensive end of the floor was never in question.
Going into the conference portion of the schedule, Egwu was averaging 7.7 points and 7.5 rebounds per game. His consistency was growing along with his confidence, and the Illini grew accustomed to expecting six or seven rebounds as well as a couple blocks from their big man on a nightly basis. But there will always be haters, and some Illini faithful questioned Egwu's ability on offense, critiquing his tendency to back away from the basket instead of taking defenders into the paint. One of his biggest issues this past season that went a little more unnoticed, however, was his inability to stay in the game. He fouled out four times during the Big Ten season alone and collected four fouls in another six games. It's not hard to wonder if his stats might have looked even more impressive if he'd been able to stay on the court for longer periods of time.
Nnanna also managed to become the Illinois' all-time blocked-shots leader, and had a season-high five swats against Hampton in the non-conference portion of the year. He was named to the Lefty Driesell National Defensive Player of the Year award finalist list, but Virginia's Darion Atkins ultimately took home the hardware.
Egwu's best performances this season actually came in back-to-back crucial games, the first being in East Lansing against the Spartans and the latter taking place in a sold-out State Farm Center against the Wolverines.
@ Michigan State | February 7th
In a whopping 39 minutes of game action, Egwu nearly collected a double-double with nine rebounds and twelve points. He also went five-of-seven from the free-throw line and two-for-three from behind the arc to help ice the victory for the Illini. His defensive presence was certainly felt as well, blocking four Michigan State shots and creating two turnovers that led to clutch baskets.
vs. Michigan | February 12th
Although the first half of the game was a very poor one for Egwu, he turned it on down the stretch. Down by five with only just over a minute to go, Egwu forced a key turnover (five-second count) to give the ball back to the Illini. Kendrick Nunn did the rest, scoring back-to-back buckets to send the game to overtime. And that's when Nnanna really took control of the game. He tossed in three straight layups including a beautiful putback and then dished out a fantastic outlet pass to Ahmad Starks to seal the comeback victory for Illinois. He also pulled down twelve boards, his highest total of the season.
Final Grade: A-
I was on the fence between a B+ and an A- for Egwu, but his defensive presence swayed my decision to the latter. As if I hadn't stated it enough times already this season, I'll put it simply one more time: Nnanna Egwu had an incredibly underrated senior campaign and was truly one of the best defenders in the conference. The team's performance and presence totally changed when he was forced to sit on the bench due to foul trouble, and it will only become more painfully obvious what a defensive whiz he was in the upcoming season. I could look at tape of Egwu on the defensive side of the ball for hours, but to illustrate his unique ability to lead and guard, here's just a few examples from this past season:
Honestly? This is about as good as one player can play on one defensive series. https://t.co/637cNSgOXK— Robert (@ALionEye) January 8, 2015
Nnanna Egwu: The Ultimate Highlight pic.twitter.com/hJcke6MQAf— IllinoisLoyalty (@IllinoisLoyalty) February 13, 2015
Nnanna Egwu's defense tonight pic.twitter.com/cDCtDlDs2s— Illini Pride (@IlliniPride) January 8, 2015
Going into the season, Egwu was arguably Illinois' best draft prospect. His size, athleticism, and defensive prowess were assets that few big men around the country possessed. He's got a prototypical body for the center position, but obviously needs to display some improvement on the offensive end if he wants to make it to the NBA.
With that said, Egwu possesses an elite skill and countless players have gone on to have productive professional careers as specialists. He probably won't be drafted (late second round pick if at all), but Egwu will almost certainly be getting a camp invite this offseason so don't be surprised if he ends up making a roster.
Next up on our evaluation schedule is Ahmad Starks--make sure to check back this weekend.