ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Chuma Okeke conceded there were times over the past two months when he wondered whether a knee injury suffered during Auburn’s surprising run to the Final Four had ruined his chances of being selected in the NBA draft.
An earlier than expected phone call from the Orlando Magic, who took him in the middle of the first round — No. 16 overall, quelled those fears on Thursday night.
“It’s a blessing to be selected that early in the round,” the 6-foot-8 forward said. “I had a lot of doubts, just because of the injury. I was scared people wouldn’t take a chance on me.”
The Magic is counting on the 20-year-old’s torn left anterior cruciate ligament, suffered during Auburn’s regional semifinal victory over North Carolina, will turn out to be merely a “bump in the road” for Okeke.
“We believe in this player, we believe in this person,” president of basketball operations Jeff Weltman said, explaining the decision to draft Okeke even though his rehabilitation and recovery time likely will extend deep into Okeke’s rookie season.
“We felt he was an under-the-radar player,” who was playing the best ball of his college career when he went down while averaging 15 points, seven rebounds and three steals in the NCAA Tournament,” Weltman said. “Obviously that’s going to have an impact on anyone’s draft status. But we’ve done all of our research and are comfortable taking him.”
The Magic are coming off a 42-40 finish, the team’s first playoff berth in seven years and drafted outside the lottery for the first time since 2012.
They selected sixth or higher in five of the previous six previous drafts, although only three of those picks — Aaron Gordon (2014), Jonathan Isaac (2017) and Mo Bamba (2018) remain on the current roster.
In Okeke, they acquired a prospect that Weltman described as an unselfish, team-first player whose versatility will be an asset offensively and defensively.
“His versatility will help him fill in wherever we need,” Weltman said, adding Okeke would have been a sure lottery pick if he had not injured his knee.
“I’m doing good with my rehab. … Hopefully, I come back stronger and better and will be able to help the team in big ways,” Okeke said.
While the Magic expect their top pick to play at some point next season, Weltman stressed there’s no definitive timetable to get him back on the floor.
“There’s no rush, no rush whatsoever. We are drafting him to be a long-term player for the Orlando Magic,” Weltman said.
The Magic averaged 26 wins per season during its six-year playoff drought, so winning 42 games and earning the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference in their first season under coach Steve Clifford was a significant step forward.
Weltman’s top offseason priorities are trying to re-sign center Nikola Vucevic and sixth-man Terrence Ross, as the well as the progress of Bamba (left tibia fracture) and guard Markelle Fultz (thoracic outlet syndrome) who are recovering from injuries.
Bamba was the sixth overall pick last June and Fultz, selected No. 1 overall by Philadelphia in 2017, was acquired in a February trade.
Both players are just 21 years old, and along with Okeke, could be part of a solid foundation moving forward.
This is the third draft in Orlando for Weltman, who spent four years with the Toronto Raptors, including one season as general manager, before joining the Magic in March 2017.
The Raptors, who eliminated Orlando in the first round of the playoffs, won this year’s NBA title without a lottery pick on their roster.
“The guys that are drafted outside the lottery and become superstars, you never expect that the day you draft them. You just want to draft the best player you can and coach him up,” Weltman said before the draft.
“Those guys are self-made players to an extent,” Weltman added. “They’re such incredibly hard workers, and we’re always looking for those guys, the guys that are going to outperform their draft slot.”
That’s the hope for Okeke.
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