Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Alex Oriakhi, El Capitan

Alex Oriakhi and Roscoe Smith walked across campus to a Subway with UConn's two new freshmen, Ryan Boatright and DeAndre Daniels, on Monday evening. It was as much a bonding experience as a chance to grab a bite to eat.

Oriakhi, a junior, and Smith, a sophomore, gave the newcomers the lay of the land a little bit, explained to them what it's like being a UConn men's basketball player and politely warning them, "I hope you guys are ready."

"We were just trying to let them know they're part of the team, too," Oriakhi explained. "We were just getting them comfortable, because we want to make them feel as if they're part of the team. At the end of the day, they're going to war with us."

While it may seem like little more than a random gesture – fellas gotta eat, after all – the experience was a small example of Oriakhi's new role at UConn. About a month ago, he and sophomore Shabazz Napier were named co-captains by head coach Jim Calhoun. It's an important role for any player on any team, but perhaps even more so considering the leadership void they're trying to fill: the one left by Kemba Walker, maybe the greatest leader in program history – not to mention Donnell Beverly, whose veteran presence also provided great stewardship for last year's national-champion Huskies.

"It's definitely a great honor, and a lot of pressure at the same time," Oriakhi admitted, shortly after an early-afternoon workout with Boatright. "Just to be captain, I'm the leader and everybody's going to look to me and Shabazz. That's definitely the pressure you kind of want, being one of the best players on the team. No complaints, really."

Oriakhi watched and learned from Walker and Beverly last year, noting how they kept "everybody together" throughout the summer, all the way to Houston. That's exactly what Oriakhi is trying to do now.

"The big men work out in the morning, I'm just pushing them and giving them a lot of confidence, just telling Mike and Enosch, you guys are going to be playing a lot this year, we need you guys," he said. "Just showing them hard work can really pay off. I think they're really buying into that. They're really working extremely hard."

It won't be as easy for Oriakhi this summer, as he may have a lot of traveling to do. He attended the Amare Stoudemire Camp for big men last week in Chicago and is hoping for an invitation off that to the LeBron James Skills Camp.

Later in July, he'll be playing in the World University Games, starting off in Colorado Springs, Colo., then jetting off to China.

Oriakhi doesn't think it's asking too much for Napier to serve as captain, even though he's just a sophomore.

"To me, Shabaazz has always been mature," he said. "He definitely plays like it. For him to learn from Kemba in one year, and now it's his turn … I know it's kind of early for him to be given such a huge role, but he's good enough and he's more than capable of doing it, so I don't think there's any pressure for him, only because we think he's that good and he has the ability to do it."

Speaking of Kemba, Oriakhi couldn't be happier that his former teammate went ninth overall in Thursday night's NBA draft – though he was surprised to see him slip a bit as a few European players got picked ahead of him.

Oriakhi may have more than just a viewing interest in next June's draft. Some mock drafts are already projecting him as a late-first or early-second round pick. Oriakhi insists he doesn't worry about that stuff.

"I try to just focus on being the best player I can be at Connecticut, and everything else takes care of itself," he said. "You think of stuff like that, it doesn't really help you at all. I'm just trying to be the best player I can be, I don't really pay attention to all that. The NBA's not going anywhere."

Quite literally, with the lockout and all.

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