CHAMPAIGN — There were a couple of times during Thursday’s Orange and Blue Scrimmage at State Farm Center that Illinois assistant coach Dustin Ford said to those around him that Nnanna Egwu looked like Wilt Chamberlain.
The colorful Ford was joking of course. But looking at the 6-foot-11 junior’s production during the intrasquad showcase gave all associated with Illini basketball reason to smile.
Egwu tied Rayvonte Rice as the high scorer with 17 points — on 8-of-9 shooting — to go along with six rebounds in about 20 minutes.
“He’s played well. He’s probably been one of our most consistent guys in practice,” Ford said. “It’s good for him to have success because, to be honest, he deserves it. He probably works harder than anybody in our program and he has done that for the past year and a half that we’ve been here.”
Egwu’s motor and work ethic have been constant points of conversation since he arrived on the UI campus from Chicago’s St. Ignatius two years ago. His potential, too. As a junior and one of the team leaders on and off the court, the potential is beginning to show.
“I’m pretty comfortable. Obviously Coach Ford did a good job working with me all summer. I’m feeling good,” Egwu said. “I’ve still got a lot of work to do, obviously on both blocks, but I think I’ve gotten a lot better this summer working with Coach Groce and Coach Ford on development.”
Egwu bulked up to about 250 pounds this summer, and the added muscle showed up in consistent touches and buckets in the post.
“The strength has helped him maintain seals, helped him finish, it’s helped his confidence,” Ford said.
He’s still got his soft touch outside the paint, too. Egwu buried a pair of fadeaway jumpers from about 15 feet, a new move he’s been working to perfect through the offseason.
“I’m pleased with where he’s at but by no stretch satisfied, and he’s nowhere near a finished product,” Ford said.
In his first two seasons at Illinois, Egwu averaged 1.9 and 6.5 points, respectively. For Illinois to compete, he’ll have to make another big jump in the scoring department. The extremely early returns show he might be capable of handling the load.
“I think it’s the first time a team has counted on him to be a scorer a little bit,” Ford said. “He’s got some confidence, we’re throwing it to him more at practice, he’s catching it better.”
Rice, who might be Illinois’ top scoring threat, is hoping Egwu can be a serious scoring option, too. It makes life easier for him on the perimeter to create his own scoring opportunities.
“Nnanna was a beast down there, man,” Rice said. “Every time he got it he either scored or made a play for his teammate and that’s the kind of guy you want on your team.”
Another bright spot for Egwu, the usually foul-happy big man was only whistled for three infractions Thursday in his 20 minutes.
“There were a couple fouls that were mental, kind of dumb, I should have stayed away from it,” he said. “I think overall I just have to keep working on it and continue to be smart.”
It was just one performance against familiar faces, but everyone in orange and blue Thursday was pleased with the promising big man. If his motor keeps running, they’ll be smiling a lot.
“He’s improved a great deal. Those things are a by-product of who he is and how hard he works and we’ve got to continue to develop him,” Illinois coach John Groce said. “He’s hungry; he’s fun to work with.”