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St. John’s bolsters roster with LI grad

TimesLedger Newspapers

Steve Lavin proved to be true to his word.

Early in the spring, the St. John’s University head coach promised a dynamic incoming class. Chris Obekpa made that a reality, completing the Red Storm’s six-man class.

A native of Benue, Nigeria, who spent the last two years at Our Savior New American on Long Island, the 6-foot-9 shot-blocking dynamo picked St. John’s Monday after his visit to the Queens school. He announced it on Twitter with a photo of himself in a St. John’s hat and shirt in a post that read, “Keeping my talent in the MECCA.”

Cincinnati finished a close second and Oregon, Connecticut and Providence were also involved at one time or another in the lengthy process, which began last summer after Obekpa broke out on the AAU scene with New Heights.

Obekpa will join Our Savior teammate Felix Balamou, Monroe College JUCO tandem Orlando Sanchez and Marco Bourgault, forward JaKarr Sampson of Brewster Academy, Harvard transfer Max Hooper and Texas A&M transfer Jamal Branch. That group goes with an already talented existing core.

“I’m excited that the decision has been made and the stress is over,” said Obekpa, scout.com’s 19th-ranked center in the class of 2012. “St. John’s really appealed to me because it’s close to home, my home away from Nigeria. I’m excited to have my former teammate, Felix Balamou, at St. John’s so we can play together again. Coach Lavin and I have a great relationship, and Coach [Mike] Dunlap and the other coaches stayed with me and came to see me all the way through last season, too.”

While some found it odd Obekpa waited so long to come to a decision, Our Savior assistant Erik Jaklitsch said otherwise. Obekpa’s recruitment began late and he was diligent about which program best suited him. He did his homework, researched minute details of different programs and campuses, Jaklitsch said.

“It was really smart of him,” Jaklitsch said.

Whereas other schools pushed for a commitment, St. John’s made it clear it wanted Obekpa, but also gave him his space, Jaklitsch said.

“The way they recruited him fit Chris’ personality,” Jaklitsch said. “They were always kind of in the mix. He decided this is what he wanted to do, this is where he wanted to go. There were so many positives that he liked about St. John’s.”

The move worked out as Obekpa becomes the third impact forward Lavin has landed, along with Sanchez and Sampson, who recommitted to the Red Storm this spring after decommitting in the wake of failing to meet the NCAA Clearinghouse last fall. The previous two are more offensively gifted than Obekpa, who will anchor the Red Storm’s interior defense unlike any player Lavin has had in his first two seasons.

“He’s the second best shot-blocker [in this class] behind Nerlens [Noel],” one Division I coach said, referring to the top-ranked player in the class who has signed with Kentucky. “He’s still raw offensively, but with hard work he will be a force in the Big East. Look for him to be an immediate presence in the back of the St. John’s zone. He has such a unique craft that nobody has anymore — shot-blocking.”

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