Egwu has big shoes to fill after Leonard’s departure

See that hole? It’s more of an absence than anything, in the painted areas at both ends of the court at Assembly Hall, under the basket, on the block.

It’s a hole that was once filled by a 7-footer who was drafted as the 11th selection in the NBA Draft this year by the Portland Trail Blazers. A 7-footer who averaged 8.2 rebounds, 13.6 points, a 58.4 field goal percentage and nearly two blocks per game. His name was Meyers Leonard.

But Leonard departed for the professional ranks, and someone must fill the hole in the frontcourt on the Illinois men’s basketball team. That role will fall to sophomore Nnanna Egwu, who is not quite 7 feet and isn’t going to be drawing NBA scouts to Illinois games this season.

But Egwu’s calling card isn’t NBA potential. He’s a guy that will do 13 pushups when the workout only calls for 10. He will beg coaches for DVDs of footage to become a better student of a game. His effort was so extraordinary in the offseason that head coach John Groce singled him out in the first news conference of the year as a player who went above and beyond in search of improvement and excellence.

Egwu isn’t all hustle, though. He runs a mile in 5 minutes, 20 seconds and has long arms to help him snare rebounds. His offensive game is nuanced, with a fadeaway post move and consistent jump shot to complement his low–post frame. In one practice, Egwu made 73-of-100 3-pointers.

“If you’re an old school guy and think because he’s 6-11, that he should be on either block for 40 straight minutes, you may not appreciate or like his game as much,” Groce said. “I’m not going to say we’re going to play him (on the perimeter) all the time. But we’re going to move him around.”

Egwu said he’s spent time in skill workouts on his long-range shooting, but that’s hardly the location where he wants to do the most damage.

“That’s not my primary way of scoring,” Egwu said. “Obviously, you want to go down low and get points under the basket because that opens up everything for everyone else.”

The offseason tenacity displayed by Egwu was apparent in the Orange and Blue Scrimmage in which the sophomore center scored 14 points on 7-of-9 shooting and worked tirelessly in his 26 minutes for rebounds — grabbing six — and loose balls. But in the first two exhibition games, Egwu totaled only seven points and was hampered by foul trouble. Groce wasn’t displeased by Egwu’s performance in either contest, noting that his 11 rebounds against West Chester were worthy contributions. The head coach wanted him to commit smarter fouls, ones above the shoulders in an attempt to block a shot. The inconsistency is a question mark for Egwu after hardly playing meaningful minutes his freshman year, and Groce wants to see the hard work from the offseason manifest itself during regular-season contests.

“With a young man like (Egwu), you just hope that he gets to experience some dividends or the fruits of his labor, in terms of what he’s sacrificed and the extraordinary commitment he’s made to our basketball program,” Groce said.

Ultimately, Egwu won’t have to share the frontcourt load all on his own. Graduate student Sam McLaurin and senior Tyler Griffey will provide experience where Egwu lacks.

Leonard isn’t talked about by this Illini group often. He’s a remnant from the past, a past that Groce has tried to distance himself with, already on the road to a new future. Egwu figures to be a special part of that optimistic future.

“We understand that we cannot continue what we did last year,” Egwu adamantly said. “We cannot have what happened last year happen this year.”

Thomas can be reached at bruch2@dailyillini.com and @ThomasBruch.