Editor’s Note: Literally hours after this story published, Kaodirichi Akobundu-Ehiogu decided to take his talents to University of Memphis to spend his junior year playing for Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway in the 2022-23 season. So while he won’t be on the Lakers’ board if they do choose to buy into the second round of the 2022 NBA Draft, his specific set of athletic gifts makes him representative of the kind of lottery ticket the Lakers should be looking to acquire in that range.
After Anthony Davis, the Lakers entered the 2021-22 campaign with just two traditional big men on the roster in Dwight Howard and DeAndre Jordan. With Davis missing more than half the season and DJ’s eventual banishment from the rotation (and then the roster), the Lakers were entirely dependent upon Dwight’s ability to win battles against Father Time in order to get viable minutes at the 5 on a nightly basis.
And although the three-time Defensive Player of the Year was able to summon superlative efforts on a handful of occasions, the Lakers’ roster construction more often than not forced the team to play games without any of the rim protection or vertical spacing provided by a merely replacement-level NBA big man.
While this approach did open up the driving lanes, which helped LeBron James achieve the second-highest scoring average of his career (in his 19th season no less), it also left the team’s playmakers without a viable lob threat to hit as part of a more diverse offensive attack, or a true rim protector on the floor — leading the team’s defensive rating to tumble from first in 2020-21, to 21st this season.
Heading into the 2022-23 campaign, the Lakers need to find a way to restore their interior depth to a level consummate with what they had a top-ranked defense in either of the past two seasons. Considering their divergent success rates on low-cost free agents (paltry) and undrafted or late-second round rookie talent (tremendous), the Lakers would be wise to sift through the players on the fringes of draft boards for another potential home run.
And according to John Hollinger of The Athletic, that’s exactly what they plan to do with the $4.7 million in cash they’re allowed to use in a trade. By snagging a second-rounder or two, the Lakers could take a flier on another high-upside player like Talen Horton-Tucker, or, optimally — considering their non-existent depth on the wings and in the frontcourt — find another plug-and-play rotation-caliber youngster like Austin Reaves.
Among the half-dozen players the Lakers hosted on May 10, Kaodirichi Akobundu-Ehiogu is the only one who could possibly help address their frontcourt athleticism deficit. Akobundu-Ehiogu is a 6’9 Nigerian big man with a 7’4 wingspan whose name has yet to appear on any major publication’s draft board despite finishing his sophomore season ranked fifth amongst Division I players in block percentage.
In fact, his 13.9% is actually slightly better than the 13.7% rate Anthony Davis posted in his lone year at Kentucky — albeit against superior competition, in more minutes per game, and while providing a more wholly dominant contribution on both ends. Still, for an entirely unheralded big man prospect, the statistic merited a deeper look. Like Anthony Davis, Akobundu-Ehiogu’s basketball trajectory was altered by a sudden, radical growth spurt in his late teens. However, that’s pretty much where the similarities end.
As detailed in this tremendous (and only) profile of Akobundu-Ehiogu written by Riley Davis for Heat Check CBB, his basketball journey began as a 13-year-old in Lagos, Nigeria, when he was introduced to the game for the first time, four days before he moved to the United States. As a physically awkward, now 6’6 high schooler, Akobundu-Ehiogu barely played, and then suffered a Jones fracture in his foot during an offseason pickup game, derailing his big-league hoop dreams.
However, a chance encounter between his brother and ESPN/Draft Express’ premier prospect scout, Ugandan national team Assistant Coach, and soon-to-be Blazers Assistant GM Mike Schmitz led to an Instagram DM and eventually, an opportunity to walk onto the varsity team at UT Arlington.
The electric athleticism displayed in the iPhone video his brother showed Schmitz translated at the college level, deploying the hops that let him touch the rim with his shoulder to swat opponents’ shots and catch lobs from just about every possible angle. Akobundu-Ehiogu went from a redshirt freshman to a regular starter, playing steady minutes for his squad down the stretch in year one, and for the entirety of year two.
I dare any Laker fan to watch this video and try not to get excited about the prospect of Akobundu-Ehiogu sprinting up and down the floor as a lob threat for LeBron James and a secondary rim protector to pair with Anthony Davis. It’s hard to imagine Akobundu-Ehiogu not providing a massive upgrade in each of those areas compared to anybody on the Lakers last year after Anthony Davis and Dwight Howard on his best nights.
He looks like a slightly smaller DeAndre Jordan, but back when he was the “Lob City” version that one out of five Docs proclaimed a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, and before he turned into a pumpkin.
He even shot especially well from the line, making 23 of his 31 career attempts from the stripe for a 74.2% average. While he didn’t get to the line much as a lob finisher and almost nothing else, he’s proven competent enough that he wouldn’t be a bricklayer opposing teams could target with intentional fouls in order to disrupt his own team’s offensive flow (like DeAndre Jordan). He even made some threes in a showcase before signing up to play at UT Arlington. Blossoming into a rim-running floor-spacer would only increase his viability at the next level.
And while Akobundu-Ehiogu’s athleticism jumps off the screen, screaming, “SIGN ME,” some major questions about his big league viability remain unanswered:
- How old is he? NBA teams interested in his services may have a clearer answer to this one, but his age remains unlisted on ESPN, Sports-Reference, and UT Arlington’s player profile pages. It may not matter given the way his athletic profile may allow him to contribute immediately, but a 21-year-old who soars like Akobundu-Ehiogu is probably more appealing from a developmental perspective than if he’s 25.
- What is his basketball IQ/feel for the game? Apart from the above mixtape posted to what looks like his own YouTube account, I couldn’t find almost any footage of him or UT Arlington’s games during his time there. While running and jumping are essential basketball skills, of course, the game is so much more than that. From what I have seen, I have zero sense of his ability to read opposing offenses and react to what he’s given, or his ability to play passable perimeter defense in order to avoid being hunted on switches in the NBA.
- Is he healthy? Kevin Durant, Ben Simmons, and Zion Williamson are among a number of NBA players to have suffered Jones fractures, but healing time and recurrences vary widely in that sample. Regardless of the severity, foot injuries in basketball players are concerning, especially in big men.
Still, as a totally unheralded name, Akobundu-Ehiogu’s rare athleticism and upside would be the exact kind of lottery ticket the Lakers should take a risk on in the late second round or after the draft. And his globetrotting, injury-riddled, mid-major background away from the brightest lights shone on most highly-touted prospects leaves room for the possibility of being a true diamond in the rough. In the aforementioned profile, an assistant coach at UT Arlington even compared his raw athletic ability to famously late-blooming NBA superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo.
While the Lakers probably need to snag a couple more sure things to build out their 2022-23 rotation, signing Akobundu-Ehiogu to the South Bay squad, at least at first, presents the kind of low-risk, high-reward gamble that the Lakers should be making as many of as possible of with few remaining assets in the team’s proverbial war chest.
Cooper is a lifelong Laker fan who has also covered the Yankees at SB Nation’s Pinstripe Alley — no, he’s not also a Cowboys fan. You can hear him on the Lakers Multiverse Podcast and find him on Twitter at @cooperhalpern.