As the Nuggets walked off the floor following their first Summer League game In Las Vegas, few players were more bothered by the loss than Chukwudiebere Maduabum, the only member of Denver’s roster who didn’t enter the game.
The solemn look on his face revealed just how much of burden Chu Chu is carrying on his newly chiseled shoulders. After being selected by Denver with the 58th pick in the 2011 draft, Maduabum spent the better part of the year off the radar, sculpting his upper body while Visa issues prevented him from joining the D-League’s Bakersfield Jam for the 2011-2012 season.
It’s easy to tell how badly Chu wants to seize this opportunity to compete and prove himself. Masai Ujiri’s decision to draft him out of the D-League after he played only three games and a total of 20 minutes was questioned by many. NBA Draft analyst Fran Frischilla was especially critical of drafting someone who had accomplished so little over a wide pool of proven college athletes.
Not all experts were down on Denver’s decision to draft an enigmatic talent like Chu though, especially those who had seen him play. Just ask David Thorpe, ESPN NBA Analyst and Executive Director of the Pro Training Center in Clearwater, Florida.
“He might be the smartest player I’ve ever coached in my life. I’m 47 years old and been coaching for 25 years” said Thorpe, who spent 10 weeks helping Maduabum develop his game in preparation for the 2011 NBA Draft. “I said ‘if you don’t play basketball, you should be a physicist.’ To our experience, he just had that kind of brain. It’s a new game for him and he had only been playing a couple years but he picked things up very, very quickly.”
I asked Thorpe to describe what led him to the process of giving Chu a crash course of instruction in preparation to play in the NBA.
“We were told if he could learn enough in 10 weeks, the Nuggets and a couple of other teams had already seen enough potential as a shotblocker. The idea was floated to us that he could be an Ibaka-type.”
In addition to raving about his basketball IQ, Thorpe quickly realized that Chu Chu did indeed have the athleticism and the shotblocking instincts to be a real defensive force.
“By the end of the summer, he was scrimmaging against University of South Florida players and doing very well against them. Meanwhile, they’re a team that finished at a high level in the Big East, made it to the NCAA tournament and actually won a game there. Chu would have been their best player.”
I could tell there was a real sense of pride in hearing Thorpe talk about his experience with Chu Chu, a player who surprised him and showed the kind of potential that really excited him as a coach.
Watching Chu struggle through his first NBA game ever, I could see some of the tools and raw talent Thorpe had described. There were also a lot of nerves and inexperience, which weren’t all that surprising considering how long it’s been since Chu played in an organized, professional game setting. I asked Thorpe to describe what he saw out of Chu’s first game and where his development stands going forward.
“Well, you wanna see him play athletically which he’s doing a little bit. I’d like to see a lot better recognition of things that are happening. He’s just reacting to everything; he’s not dictating anything, but again it’s his first ever game. I wouldn’t be surprised if he watches film of this and gets better in the next couple of games.”
While it’s obvious Chu has a ways to go at this early stage in his development with the Nuggets, I got the sense Thorpe has a clear vision of the long-term process Denver is facing with regards to him helping the team.
“He’s a guy that with his age, athleticism and intelligence – if he grew up in Chicago or somewhere, he’d be a first round pick. I think that’s what Masai saw in him — that this is a guy who is so off the radar, we just need to put him through the grinder a few years. Next year he’ll live in the D-League, I would think. It’s possible he could go to Europe too but he just needs to play a lot.”
Talking with Thorpe made me realize just how much goes into the process of preparing players for the NBA, both mentally and physically. It’s something that can’t be rushed and requires a long term plan with incremental step-by-step goals. I’m not sure Chu ever cracks the rotation as the defensive four and energy guy Thorpe envisions him becoming, but I do know Thorpe sees no reason why he’s not going to get there eventually.
“He’s a guy who is going to be like an Ibaka. He scores with either hand, he’s got a nice looking shot, he lives in the gym, he’ll figure anything out because of his intelligence and he’s got big time instincts to block shots. Another year, he’ll compete to be on the team and after that he’s got a chance to be a rotation player. He’s gonna have to be an off the bench energy guy. He can be that guy, I just don’t think he’s learned how to do it yet. I think he’s got the athleticism for it, now he just needs to learn how to play that way. I think it’s inside of him and it’s just going to take a while to come out.”
I would like to send my most sincere thanks to David Thorpe for providing me with the chance to interview him. Follow David on Twitter @coachthorpe
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