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UNC Basketball Summer Preview: James Okonkwo

Can we expect a significant role for the big man out of West Virginia?

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament First Round-West Virginia vs Maryland Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

Since the ending of last season, Carolina has seen its roster completely transform, with just four players from that team remaining. After Elliot Cadeau’s reclassification and the subsequent de-commitment from Simeon Wilcher, it seemed like the final dominoes had fallen. However, the sudden departure of Bob Huggins from West Virginia opened the door for Hubert Davis and his staff to make a sneakily important addition in the form of James Okonkwo.

Past Previews links:

Armando Bacot

Cormac Ryan

Paxson Wojcik

Jae’Lyn Withers

RJ Davis

Jalen Washington

Harrison Ingram

Admittedly, when I mentioned Okonkwo in my preview of Jalen Washington, I hadn’t yet become super familiar with his game. His measurables and stats don’t pop out at you but there’s more to Okonkwo than meets the eye. He has incredible strength, above-average athleticism, and is a very capable rim protector. At 6’8, I wasn’t initially sure if he could play the five, but from what I’ve seen now, that should not be an issue. He could be the Armando Bacot reliever the Heels have been searching for.

Last season at West Virginia, Okonkwo averaged 2.5 points, 3.2 rebounds, and 0.7 blocks while recording 11.0 minutes per game. Although he didn’t play a ton, he was an impressive 57.4% from the floor. He was very successful in pick and roll action and often on the receiving end of alley-oops. Okonkwo also clears out space in the paint and does well cleaning up the glass.

Really for the last couple of the years, the Tar Heels have been missing this kind of big man. In ‘21-22, there was literally nobody besides Bacot. Last year, Washington did a nice job backing up Bacot, but his game is more spread out. He’s still a bit too slender to get extremely physical in the paint. Okonkwo is not afraid of the contact and he asserts himself down low on both ends of the floor, a task Bacot has become known to handle.

What makes Okonkwo special is that he and Bacot can coexist peacefully. While he’ll likely get some of those backup center minutes, he’s more than capable of playing the four. The two might be similar in their basketball tendencies but Okonkwo doesn’t command nearly as much offensive production, allowing him to focus on setting screens and wreaking havoc under the basket. With the right guys around them, that could be a dominant frontcourt duo.

What stands out the most about Okonkwo is his rim protection. He averaged over 2.5 blocks per 40 minutes last season. He’s very aware and intelligent defensively and has great timing on his shot contests. With a 7-2 wingspan, Okonkwo’s length can be very bothersome and he’s athletic enough to make highlight reel plays. Don’t be surprised if he’s the team’s leading shot-blocker by the end of the season.

All in all, Okonkwo was a really nice late addition for a Carolina roster that felt like it needed another piece. Just based on raw physical ability alone, there’s a lot to be excited about. Although Okonkwo hasn’t really played significant minutes yet, his role is likely to increase with this Tar Heel team. He’ll still have to battle Washington and others for playing time at both the four and the five but Okonkwo’s unique skill set could set him apart.