by Chris Johnson (@chrisdjohnsonn)
Earlier this summer, Northwestern announced the addition of Chier Ajou, a 7-2 Sudanese big man who decommited from New Mexico after questions arose over the legitimacy of his academic history. The addition was roundly applauded as a step in the right direction for NU's ongoing frontcourt rebuild—NU has never successfully recruited a player this tall—but the high praise was always tempered by the very distinct, if not likely possibility that Ajou’s NU career might hit a snag in the NCAA clearinghouse. With foreign recruits who have untraditional backgrounds, eligibility clearance is a tricky calculus: transcripts from other countries and those from prep schools—particularly at basketball “factories” like St. Thomas More, where Ajou enrolled in a postgraduate year—are accepted with a rightful dose of apprehension, because the NCAA so often finds blatant incongruities, grade alterations and other academic breaches of integrity. Wildcats fans experienced an academic-related recruiting turndown just weeks before, having watched Mislav Brzoja denied admission from the school despite upholding a reported 4.0 at Traders Point Christian Academy in Whitestown, IN. That concern obscured the excitement over Ajou’s addition, and so waiting—and waiting and waiting—became the only sensible course of action.
The anxiety dissipated in full yesterday, when Ajou, according to the school, was granted eligibility for the upcoming season, meaning he can suit up for coach Bill Carmody this fall. It’s huge news, and not just in the literally obvious sense; but in the symbolic sense that Wildcats fans can imagine a future where (gasp!) the likes of Michigan State and Ohio State won’t dominate the low block and where the offense will feature a functional low-block component. Only that future could be realized as early as this season. Freshman 7-footer Alex Olah and redshirt freshman Mike Turner along with transfers Jared Swopshire and Nikola Cerina give the Wildcats an interior dimension they haven’t had in quite some time. That depth raises the possibility that Ajou, despite enduring a long and taxing academic investigatory process to earn the right to play this season, may in fact take a redshirt year.
On the surface, it may seem blasphemous, but when you dig into Ajou’s details, you can’t help but feel skittish about his chances of succeeding against Big Ten competition this season. Ajou averaged 14 points, nine rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game at St. Thomas More last season, which, all things considered, is a pretty-well rounded stat line. It diverts attention from Ajou’s one glaring vulnerability: offense. He has basketball’s most advantageous physical trait, but a marginal offensive skill set has limited his effectiveness as a two-way player. Ajou has yet to develop an effective repertoire of low-post moves, let alone the interior distribution skills so crucial to Carmody’s Princeton offense. He can capitalize on put backs and easy lay-ups, but against skilled Big Ten defenders, Ajou simply can’t expect to excel on size alone. Before he can fully assert himself within the Wildcats’ unique system, Ajou needs to diversify his offensive skill set. With so much size and so much room for future development, there’s plenty of upside. If coached and brought along in a steady and productive way, Ajou could develop into a highly effective low-block presence on both ends of the floor.
It may require years before he ever reaches that point, but Ajou will improve the more time he’s allotted to learn his craft in a practice environment. A redshirt season allows him to work with coaches on fine-tuning his hoops fundamentals while adding some bulk to his slight, 7-2 frame. With the breadth of talented big men inhabiting the Big Ten this season, Inserting Ajou into the rotation this season could permanently stunt his development. His presence would elevate the Wildcats’ interior defense and their woeful rebounding deficiency (NU ranked last in the Big Ten with a -6.6 rebounding margin), but his lack of effectiveness on offense would offset the value he provides in other facets of the game. All in all, Ajou is better served taking a year to prepare for the most demanding brand of basketball in the national power conference college hoops landscape. After improving his offensive and defensive mechanics, he can enter the fold next season with a serviceable offensive repertoire to go along with his towering physique.
The Wildcats have landed an immensely-talented player who, with a proper course of development, will thrive throughout his NU career. But before he takes the floor, Ajou has significant tactical and physical training to endure in order to assure a smooth and productive transition into the college game. If all goes according to plan, Ajou will make his debut next season with a better understanding of how to channel his freakish bodily dimensions in a productive way on both ends of the floor. At that point, Swopshire will have moved on. But Ajou could fill in nicely alongside Cerina, Turner and—in what may amount to college hoops’ tallest collective big man tandem—Olah. It’s tempting to forego the redshirt year and play Ajou this season, but the long-term gains from a developmental year far outweigh his potential contributions this season. As it stands, Ajou is an intriguing player, a genetic novelty of sorts. With a year of practice, weight training and one-on-one coaching under his belt, he could flourish alongside a deep and versatile frontcourt rotation.