Chris Obekpa’s rim protection is the key to St. John’s stifling defense
The center almost transferred this summer after a frustrating sophomore year. St. John’s is glad he didn’t.
Steve Lavin headed into this season knowing he had the backcourt to make his second NCAA Tournament run at St. John’s. Sophomore Ryseed Jordan and senior D’Angelo Harrison were both former top 100 recruits who entered the year with glowing resumes: Jordan was a Big East All-Rookie selection and emerging NBA prospect while Harrison was a first team All-Big East choice a season ago.
The Johnnies had one of the better backcourts in America. They also had what was looking like a big problem up front.
In late October, junior college transfer Keith Thomas was ruled academically ineligible. Less than two weeks later, 6’11 freshman center Adonis De La Rosa suffered the same fate. For a St. John’s team that already lost JaKarr Sampson to the NBA, it sure looked like there was going to be major issues rebounding and defending the interior.
Fortunately for Lavin, it’s a player he convinced to stay who looks like the key in the Red Storm’s surprising 8-1 start, one that has them sitting at No. 24 in the AP Poll.
When center Chris Obekpa announced his intention to transfer this summer, it wasn’t difficult to see why. After putting himself on NBA radars as a freshman, Obekpa saw his playing time drop from 26 minutes per game to 20 as a sophomore. It was a long and trying year for Obekpa that began with a two-game suspension for violating team policy and ended with him playing only two minutes after starting St. John’s lone Big East tournament game because he took a jump shot Lavin didn’t appreciate.
Ultimately, Obekpa was convinced to return to St. John’s, and it’s paying off for both the player and the team.
There’s no one else on the Red Storm who can do what Obekpa does, because there aren’t many players in America this physically gifted. At 6’10, 240 pounds with wingspan close to 7’5 and great athleticism, Obekpa has lifted St. John’s to the No. 9 defense in the country, according to KenPom. Sure, the guards are applying quality ball pressure, but it likely wouldn’t mean as much without one of the best rim protectors in the country behind them.
At the moment, Obekpa is No. 15 in the nation in block rate at 13.2, per KenPom. He and Sir’Dominic Pointer, a skinny 6’6 senior, have been able to put a bandage on the Red Storm’s rebounding issues, as well. It’s already led a couple huge non-conference victories.
Obekpa had 10 points, nine rebounds and three blocks in a win over a solid Minnesota team at the end of November. He added five points, 16 rebounds and four blocks in St. John’s biggest victory of the year so far, a 69-57 triumph over Syracuse. The Johnnies were also damn close to handing Gonzaga its first loss of the season in a game where Obekpa was giving up major size to Bulldogs center Przmek Karnowski, but still held his own.
It’s no coincidence that St. John’s defense is incredible right now. Teams are only shooting 26.5 percent against them from three-point range (No. 15 in the country) and 40.6 percent from the floor (No. 28 in the country). With Obekpa holding down the backline, St. John’s is No. 5 in the country in block rate. Jordan’s ball pressure is a big reason why the Red Storm are No. 43 in steal rate, too.
Obekpa has received far more attention for his short shorts than his play, which we’re not complaining about. For a proud program that’s only made the NCAA Tournament once in the last 12 years, though, on-court attention is going to come if the Johnnies can keep this up.
The Big East has been really impressive thus far, so St. John’s will have to earn that at-large bid. As long as the defense keeps dominating like this, though, they should be in a good spot.