7-1 center Kingsley Okoroh commits to UT Vols

UT'S 2014 BASKETBALL RECRUITING CLASSPG Larry Austin, 6-1/160, Springfield, Ill.PF Phil Cofer, 6-8/205, Fayetteville, Ga.C Kingsley Okoroh, 7-1/250, Watford, EnglandPF C.J. Turman, 6-9/235, Madison, Ga.SG Jordan Cornish, 6-6/215, New Orleans, La.

KNOXVILLE - The decision of All-SEC forward Jarnell Stokes to enter the NBA draft early left Tennessee's frontcourt in desperate need of help for next season.

So Cuonzo Martin and the Volunteers went across the country to nab an overseas player.

Kingsley Okoroh, a 7-foot-1 center originally from England who played for Westwind Prep Academy in Arizona this season and the English Under-18 team in the FIBA European Championship last summer, committed to Tennessee on Monday and will sign with the Vols on Wednesday.

"They came midway through this year," Okoroh told the Times Free Press via phone Monday. "They came up to see me, [assistant] Coach [Tracy] Webster did, and he liked the way I played -- how I block shots, how I protect the rim and how I run the floor. They came again last week, and Coach Martin came out. After that, they just offered me [a scholarship].

"I liked the place, I like the way they play basketball and I look forward to being on the team next year."

With the early exit of Stokes and the loss of Jeronne Maymon, Tennessee's returning frontcourt consists of the 6-10 Rawane "Pops" Ndiaye, who averaged 0.9 point and 0.9 rebound in 3.3 minutes in 22 games this season, and two perimeter-oriented players in the 6-8 Derek Reese and 6-9 rising sophomore A.J. Davis.

The Vols signed forwards Phil Cofer and C.J. Turman in the fall, but adding more size became more paramount when Stokes declared for the NBA draft last week.

Enter Okoroh, a raw prospect who averaged 18 points, 12 rebounds, four assists and six blocks per game and shot better than 75 percent on his free throws, according to Westwind coach Jai Steadman.

"First of all, they're getting a really, really good young man with high character," Steadman said. "Good shot-blocker. He's got a long ways to go [because] he hasn't played a lot.

"For somebody that hasn't played maybe as much as kids growing up in the U.S. playing on all those AAU circuit games," he added, "he's caught on quickly. I look at him as [a player with] huge, huge potential."

In the FIBA U-18 Euros in Latvia last summer, Okoroh averaged 8.9 points and 8.1 rebounds in nine games for England.

Steadman, who has known Martin and Webster since they were assistant coaches at Purdue and Nebraska, respectively, mentioned Arizona State, the newly hired coaching staffs at Washington State and Marquette, Nebraska and SMU as programs that recruited Okoroh and added that former NBA and current UTEP coach Tim Floyd "really liked him."

Okoroh spent the 2012-13 season with powerhouse Findlay Prep in Nevada and played one year at Westwind.

"Offensively, people say he's raw, but I think that's a bad terminology," Steadman said. "I just think he's getting better. He's got a nice right-hand and left-hand hook shot. Of course he needs to score more and finish and all that fun stuff, but for somebody who's 18, I don't care if you're 6-foot or 7-foot, you're still going to have some stuff to work on."

Okoroh said he watched every game of the Vols' NCAA tournament run this season and said ending his recruitment with a phone call to Martin was a relief.

"I spoke with him and told him the good news, and he was very happy for me," Okoroh said. "He couldn't wait. The process was grueling, but I'm now so happy to end it now.

"I bring a defensive presence in the paint, I block a lot of shots, I want to help them offensively establish a game down low, and I feel I can be good for them next year."

Steadman acknowledged that Tennessee strength coach Nicodemus Christopher would be Okoroh's "best friend" when he arrived, but he spoke highly of his player's potential.

"When he's at his best, he can compete with the best," he said. "I've coached junior college, I've coached Division I, I've coached in the NBA D-League, so I've seen a lot of players. His upside, at 18, I'd put him up there with a lot of people.

"From where he started when I got him till now, it's unbelievable how much better he's gotten."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.

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