Next up in our Pitt basketball player previews is center Joseph Uchebo.
Height/Weight: 6'10" / 245 pounds
2013-14 Stats: 0.3 points, 0.8 rebounds, 0 assists per game
Yesterday, I wrote about Chris Jones - a player that wasn't utilized all that much last season. Today's player, Joseph Uchebo, played even less for Pitt in 2013-14. Recovering from a difficult knee injury, Uchebo suited up in only nine games last year and he didn't even play at all in the Panthers' 14 games. In addition, when he did play, it wasn't all that much. Uchebo averaged only 2.6 minutes per game and the five minutes he got against Colorado in Pitt's NCAA Tournament blowout over the Buffaloes was a season high. Some figured Uchebo would never play for Pitt just because his knee injury was so bad. But not only did he see action on the court last season, he will have an expanded role this year.
First and foremost, Uchebo is a big body on a team that sorely needs them. At 245 pounds, he's not extremely bulky, but his 6'10" height will help out in the middle. Uchebo also seems to be moving much better than he did last year. He played big minutes in the Bahamas summer trip and Greentree Summer League, and is having less difficult getting up and down the court. Uchebo isn't fully healthy - and over the summer, Stephen had a chance to catch up with him and he deemed himself about 60-70% healthy. But his motion was so limited last year and it sounds as if he'll be able to move around a lot more.
Uchebo may not score a ton, but he has a chance to be a real force on the boards. In the four Bahamas games, he averaged a whopping 12.5 boards per game and if he's able to establish position in the paint, it's easy to see him posting some solid rebounding totals.
Uchebo's improving health is a strength ... but his overall health is still a weakness. Uchebo is getting better, but he may never be the same player he was before the injury. In addition, because he played so sparingly last year, there's going to be a learning curve in getting acclimated on the court. He's been in practices and should know the system, but he played so little last season that learning to play with his teammates in actual game experiences is going to be new to him. He got a little bit of that with the Bahamas trip, but the level of competition there isn't anything close to what Pitt will see.
To me, Uchebo is a big key to the season. Pitt can't afford to overwork him and will have to take their time in breaking him in. But if he can eat up a lot of minutes at center, it should relieve the burden of having to play Mike Young or Tyrone Haughton there. If Uchebo is effective, it should enable more guys to play their natural position, including Young at power forward and guys like Sheldon Jeter and Jamel Artis at small forward. If Uchebo can't contribute that much, head coach Jamie Dixon could be forced to go with a smaller lineup of Young in the middle and Jeter/Artis playing at power forward. I think this will be one of those years where several guys are interchangeable and playing different positions, but the more Uchebo can play, the more stability there may be in terms of guys playing specific positions.
Pitt is so thin at center that Uchebo is extremely valuable to the rotation. By all indications, Tyrone Haughton isn't ready and Derrick Randall hasn't improved much (if at all) in his three-year career - it's unrealistic to believe that either of those two can be much more than guys able to play a handful of minutes. He's not the key to the season but Pitt could find themselves in quite a bind if he can't contribute enough in the middle.
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