Chuma Okeke is one of the most important players in the recent history of Auburn basketball when it comes to shaping the program into what it is today.
The 6-foot-8 forward is the 12th highest-ranked recruit in the history of the program and played a vital role in helping the Tigers get as far as they did in the 2019 NCAA Tournament despite suffering an injury in the Sweet 16 against the North Carolina Tarheels.
Okeke was an important part of the team's culture, and when he got injured, the team rallied and made it to the Final Four for the first time in program history.
A lot of people were surprised when Okeke chose Auburn. The Fairburn, Georgia native held offers from programs such as the LSU Tigers, UConn Huskies and Virginia Cavaliers. Okeke elaborated on what made him decide to bring his talents to the Plains.
"I just had trust in the coaching staff," Okeke said. "Chad Dollar was recruiting me and it just felt like a family environment. Chad Dollar is from around where I'm from. At that time they had Chuck Person as the shooting coach and that's something I felt like I needed to work on to expand my game."
Bruce Pearl has gained a reputation as one of the best coaches in college basketball. He has won at every stop and has coached many great players who all seem to remember a certain aspect of playing for him particularly well.
"I think my favorite BP moments were his pregame talks," Okeke said. "That's probably the most energized motivation I've ever felt before every game. You know how you watch a sports movie and you'll feel motivated at one scene because the coach is talking and the music is going? That's the kind of effect that BP had on me at least. He'd just start off real slow and the next thing you know he's just fired up."
Auburn has become a program that consistently develops next-level talent. Since Pearl took over, Auburn has produced seven NBA Draft picks. The first one was Okeke, who was selected by the Orlando Magic with the 16th overall pick in 2019.
"I think the number one thing it prepared me for was the physicality of the NBA," Okeke said on how playing at Auburn helped prepare him for the NBA. "That was another reason I decided to go to Auburn because I felt like they knew what to do with my body. The SEC is a very physical conference and everybody playing there looks like they should be on the football team. It's the same thing in the NBA, everybody is big, everybody is physical, everybody is strong."
The 2019 Auburn Tigers were a perfect example of getting hot at the right time. The team did not look capable of making a deep tournament run all season long, but they were able to make it happen by stepping up when it mattered the most. Okeke remembers the moment when he felt like it was possible.
"I feel like everything clicked once we got blown out by Kentucky," Okeke said. "We went into that game feeling good about ourselves then got blown out. At that point, we were like, what are we going to do? Are we gonna get right or are we gonna let the season pass us? After that, we knew what was at stake and we knew what we wanted."
Okeke helped lay the foundation to help the Auburn program get where it is now and he is helping the Magic do the same thing.
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