By Jon Cooper | The Good Word
- The practice court at Zelnak Center was empty except for Sylvester Ogbonda.
He dribbled to his left, stopped and swished a baby hook. Emotionless, he grabbed the ball and did it again, and again, and again.
He then dribbled to the foul line, bounced the ball a few times and calmly put up a free throw. It rimmed out. He corralled the rebound, stepped back to the line, followed the same routine, and this time swished the shot.
A few foul shots later he’d worked his baby-hook routine, this time going to his right.
Practice was still an hour away but the only clock was the imaginary shot clock in his head as he went through his regimen.
It’s been like this for Ogbonda all summer.
“I put in serious work this summer. I worked days I didn’t want to work. Days I didn’t feel like it, I came to the gym every single time,” said the redshirt sophomore from Port Harcourt, Nigeria, finally showing some emotion by breaking into a smile. “It started with working with (player development coach) Dan (Taylor) in the weight room, trying to get my body fat down, my weight up, getting stronger in the weight room, getting more explosive.
“From a basketball standpoint, I’ve been working with ‘Coach Rev’ (assistant coach Eric Reveno) and the G.A.’s in touch around the rim, feel for the game, the baby hook, just overall basketball play,” he continued. “I worked with (former graduate assistant) Taj (Finger) a lot. I dragged A.D. into the gym with me, we played one-on-one a lot, post plays just to get better. I just made up my mind that ‘I want to get better.’ I think I’m on the right track right now.”
Getting on the right track really hit home after he returned to Atlanta from a visit home, his first trip to Nigeria in six years.
“It was like getting that fire back that you came to the United States with,” he said. “Working hard every time, doing the right thing every time, going as hard as possible. I went back home, saw my parents, my brothers. I just wanted to make a change. I’m determined to work as hard as I can.”
The change is more in focus than to his commitment.
“He was always committed, but he understands his role better. He understands what was expected of him,” said Reveno. “He’s unique and a pleasure to work with to the extent that he doesn’t need to talk about it, he just does it. A lot of guys will talk about it and plan it and figure out their strategy. He just gets to work. It’s refreshing.
“‘Ves really did a good job of getting in the gym,” he added. “We’re only allowed to work two hours a week most weeks during the summer. You could tell he’d been working at it, shooting jump-hooks in the low post, shooting free throw line jumpers. So his ability to score with his back to the basket in the low post is really improved.”
“He’s always been committed. I think it was more of a heightened focus,” agreed Taylor. “I think it was the ability to have some age and experience of being here for a couple of years. It was never a question of commitment. It was more about focus and awareness was different with him. Josh O. is like that -- very laser-like focus on every area and, obviously, they’re both academically that way, too. The sky’s the limit.”
Taylor oversaw and was impressed by Ogbonda’s dedication in the weight room.
“The first thing that makes him special is he’s a high-caliber guy, with a very, very high level of desire,” he said. “Most of our guys are like that. To be good in the ACC you need to be talented, you need to be a certain kind of physiology, athleticism, but you have to really WANT to be good. He really wants to be good.
“In terms of strategy, it was kind of ‘strip it back, take a look at it and see where the main needs were,’” he added. “So big, physical, powerful guy, but does he move well?’ We spent a lot of the early phases in the summer making sure that the movement quality was there. The fun thing with ‘Ves is because he has a high capacity to move a lot of weight, we could load certain lifts up and just keep working on his strength threshold to make sure he still is a big, powerful, strong guy, because that’s where he’s most effective. So it’s one of those things where you take a guy with high desire, you take a look at the sort of details behind what his body can and can’t do and then layer and layer and layer on top of that and build a program out of it.”
The tougher part for Taylor is trying to fill out Ogbonda’s frame. He’s 6-10, 238, but coaches would prefer he be closer to 245.
“It comes down to nutrition,” Taylor said. “You have to eat. That’s one of those things when the work rate is so high that his caloric expenditure is also really high so now you’re in a situation where you’re a young guy, high metabolism, high output from sport and activity so you have to almost double-time that in food. That’s a big step for these guys. But ‘Ves, like all the other things, he’s willing to attack that head-on and he’s an organized guy -- which is probably indicative of Georgia Tech students in general because they have to be. It became part of his overall strategy. Because Georgia Tech helps guys understand how to do time management, it fit right into his wheelhouse.”
On the court, Reveno stressed Ogbonda channeling his physicality, which led to an inordinate amount of whistles against him -- he averaged 1.2 fouls in 5.2 minutes played last season.
“It’s hard with limited minutes to get a rhythm, especially for a kid who’s not just comfortable with contact but LIKES contact and seeks out contact and brings that good physicality,” said Reveno. “It’s hard to find that balance of good, smart, legal, physical play, not an excessive shove or a foul when it’s unnecessary, but he’s gotten better.”
“I got in foul trouble a lot, almost every game I played because of how physical I like to play,” said Ogbonda. “So I think knowing when to use my physicality, when to take a charge, instead of going to steal the ball go for a blocked shot, the pace of the game, how fast it is, knowing what to do when you get on the court and when to just be, I’ll say a little bit finesse. Ben (Lammers) is good at that, knowing when to be physical and knowing when to just let it slide a little bit.”
Reveno believes that Ogbonda’s work this summer should lead to him playing a bigger role, especially on the offensive end.
“His jump hook is pretty good now so someone just can’t leave him alone,” he said. “They might have to double, they might have to at least be conscious of him handling the ball in the low post.”
That effectiveness means working that clock in his head.
“Coach Rev always tells me to be patient when I get the ball,” said Ogbonda. “Instead of trying to do things in your head before you ever catch the ball and end up not catching it, Coach Rev’s talking about being patient, knowing what to do, just have a good feel for the game -- play at a good pace, catch the ball, know what to do, read the defense then just go to my move from there.”
With these improvements, Ogbonda may have opened doors for himself and windows for different looks for the Jackets -- including potentially playing WITH Lammers, and allowing Ben to float out to the perimeter.
“This year’s team, there’s a lot of versatility in terms of lineup. You can do all kinds of things, so it’s kind of fun,” Reveno said. “‘Ves should be proud of the work he’s done and to put himself in the position where he’s one of those guys you kind of want to see what he can do when he gets on the floor. With Ben’s perimeter ability, that’s definitely an option.”
More minutes for Ogbonda more likely could translate into more rest for Lammers, who averaged a career-high 35.4 minutes per game, playing at least 35 minutes 26 times, including an incredible stretch of 197 out of 200 minutes in five games between Feb. 11-26.
Lammers is a big fan of the rest idea and of Ogbonda.
“He’s kind of fitting a missing piece, because I’m obviously not the most big, strong guy,” he said. “He’s a true five guy. He can guard anyone. Because he’s so strong nobody can bully him out of the way. I think he’ll definitely contribute to the team this year. I don’t think I mind sharing an extra five minutes or so with him.”
Ogbonda would gladly accept the minutes if, for nothing else but to help give Lammers, a senior, a proper send-off.
“He’s had a terrific career at Georgia Tech. What more do we want to give to him than going to the NCAA Championship his senior year?” he said. “Honestly my expectations are to go to the NCAA Tournament. As an individual, just contributing to my team whatever way, scoring, rebounding, passing, taking charges, setting good screens, just being a good teammate.
“I think everybody has gotten better. We’re deep on the bench, so hopefully we’ll see more rotations, and I can help Ben out as a solid backup. When Ben comes out of the game hopefully you can’t tell because of how impactful I hope to be this season and going forth.”