RICHMOND, Va. – A few thousand miles, a whole lot of water and a common language separate London, England and Richmond. What sounds like English to native Londoner Teddy Okereafor and what sounds like English to Virginian Darius Theus can be two different things.
“I mean, it’s tough with his accent,” Theus a senior, joked of his understudy. “You can’t really understand him sometimes.”
But the good news is that Okereafor is talking. The translation will come later. Accent or not, Okereafor’s teammates are starting to hear a lot more out of VCU’s backup point guard this season, and that’s good for everybody.
“Teddy still has a long way to go, but he’s much better than last year,” says VCU Coach Shaka Smart. “He was a church mouse last year.”
There’s more to being a point guard than just making fancy passes. The good ones, and VCU has had many of them over the years, direct their teammates on the floor like chess pieces, arranging them properly before initiating an attack. If there’s nobody to direct traffic, the offense falls apart.
Smart hopes a more vocal Okereafor will finally provide the Rams with a consistent backup to Theus, who averaged 31.2 minutes last season. In Smart’s Havoc system, that’s a fair amount.
Okereafor averaged just 5.6 minutes per game last season as he struggled to transition to the rigors of college basketball. But encouraging play during the Rams’ summer exhibition tour of Italy, as well as the early parts of the 2012-13 season, have supplied Smart with the confidence that the 6-foot-3 Okereafor might be turning the corner developmentally.
Theus says the change in Okereafor is noticeable.
“Overall he has stepped up his talk a lot and guys are starting to respect him more, and we’re all realizing that one day he’s going to be one of the top leaders on this team, and his time is coming,” Theus said.
It’s all part of the transition for the 20-year-old VCU guard, who says he’s working to adopt a more aggressive mindset.
“I didn’t come over to America to just chill,” he said. “I came over here to play.”
Okereafor is from London’s Stratford district, just minutes from the site of this summer’s Olympic Games. Like most of the kids in his neighborhood, he grew up on soccer. When he was about 11 years old, his mom, Natasha Hart, married a basketball junkie named Chris Facey. Facey introduced Teddy and his brother Anthony, who is a year older, to Naismith’s game. Teddy was quickly hooked.
Initially, Teddy would tag along to Anthony’s Under 14 and Under 15 team practices. When they let him, Teddy would join in. Other times, he’d just shoot around by himself on a vacant hoop. In his free time, he started devouring the game. Sometimes he’d go out on the balcony of his family’s flat and work on dribbling with Facey. Other times, he’d go play pickup games. It all came so quickly to him.
Eventually, Teddy played for an Under 13 squad. He performed so well that the next year he was skipped directly to the Under 15 team. In 2005, Hart and Facey founded the Newham All Star Sports Academy (NASSA), a non-profit youth basketball program for kids between the ages of eight and 18.
Eventually, cable networks in London began airing ESPN. A wide-eyed Teddy marveled at the hardwood artistry of Duke, North Carolina and others. He made up his mind. He wanted to play Division I basketball in America.
“My dream was to come play in America,” Okereafor, 20, said. “I told my mom I was dead serious about it.”
With the help of his parents and his coaches, Okereafor began looking for high schools in the United States. He eventually landed at Christchurch School, a private boarding academy about an hour east of Richmond. Originally classified as a junior, Okereafor won VISAA Prep League Player of the Year honors in 2011 after averaging 13.1 points and 7.2 assists. Although the VCU coaching staff already had their eye on Okereafor, it was a 20-point game against future teammate Jordan Burgess’ Benedictine team with Smart in attendance that really ratcheted up the Rams’ interest.
Okereafor was also drawing attention from Virginia, Georgetown and Clemson as a 2012 recruit, but after he decided to graduate from Christchurch a year early, he committed to VCU. He said the Rams’ coaching staff and style of play were deciding factors.
“They just let you play real free,” he said. “If you can beat your guy, beat him. [Coach Smart] is real big on education too. He doesn’t let you miss class or fail. That’s important to me.”
While VCU’s Havoc was a major draw for Okereafor, it was also a roadblock to playing time last season. The speed of the game and the Rams’ all-out intensity were hard to match initially, and Okereafor spent the year playing catch-up. He became passive and unassertive.
“I’ve always been aggressive. It’s why I got recruited,” Okereafor said. “But I’ve never played somewhere where they play so fast all the time. It’s just different, just getting adjusted. I don’t play well when I’m being passive and giving other teams too much respect… I need to be assertive and be a key member of the team, not just a guy who comes in for someone.”
We hear you Teddy, loud and clear.