Valentine’s Day, 2017.
This will be remembered as one of the worst days in former Gators center John Egbunu’s life.
Egbunu had started the game strong with 3 easy buckets and the same number of offensive rebounds. The Tigers had no matchup for Egbunu’s monster 6’11”, 250 frame and the Bauchi, Nigeria product was getting everything he wanted in the early stages of the contest. His strong start to the Auburn game was no surprise as earlier in the week Egbunu had one of the best games of his season, a double-double plus two blocks against a talented Texas A&M front line that featured Tyler Davis and Robert Williams.
Then, disaster struck. On a seemingly routine play Egbunu entered the air and came down awkwardly, twisting his leg and going down in a heap. It was clear this was no small injury.
If you’re a hardcore sports fan along with the depth of knowledge in stats, technique, and strategy, there is an unfortunate side affect. When you watch enough sports, you can have a pretty good idea of what an injury is based on what happens to a player and how much pain he seems to be in. Seeing how Egbunu landed and hearing him cry out in agony, the unfortunate truth was rather apparent.
This was a major knee injury.
It didn’t take long for the diagnoses to come and it confirmed the bad news many expected, it was a severe ACL tear.
Before the injury Egbunu was having a fantastic redshirt-junior year for the Gators and in addition to helping them win a bunch of games he was garnering some NBA attention for himself. Since he had the ACL tear in the middle of February, his chances of going to the NBA in the offseason were effectively dashed. For most the ACL recovery would be 8-10 months, meaning there was no way he’d be working out for NBA teams in the summer.
For the Gators this meant there was a slight chance he’d be ready to go for the start of next season. Sadly, that wasn’t the case. Constant swelling persisted, and it didn’t seem that healing was going at the proper rate. The initial 8-10 month projection turned into 10-12 months, and the Gators hoped they’d have their defensive anchor ready for the start of conference season.
However, that wasn’t in the cards.
February 14th came and went, a full calendar year from the injury…and it didn’t seem like Egbunu was close to returning. As more and more days bled off the calendar the Gators realized that Egbunu wasn’t going to be a part of the plans for the rest of the season and they’d have to go on without him. It was unfortunate for the team, but more unfortunate for Egbunu who wasn’t able to do what he loved most on the basketball court.
If only that was the lowest point of Egbunu’s injury recovery.
Having missed the entire 2017-18 season, Egbunu would have been able to get a medical redshirt and returned to the Gators for what would have been his sixth year in college. Instead of that option, he decided to turn pro. Five years in college had already been a long time for Egbunu and despite the injury he still had NBA teams interested in taking a look.
As part of the pre-draft process players travel around to various cities to work out for teams in controlled, isolated settings. This gives teams a chance to work out players in the particular fashion they deem most helpful, as opposed to the combine-style events that also dominate the summer.
In addition to workouts, players are also subjected to medical testing.
For Egbunu this was a bit of nerve-wracking experience to start with. Knee injuries can really scare teams off, and considering he missed a season and a half of college the results found by teams could make them scared to give him an opportunity.
Egbunu was reading for some potentially negative news, but there is no way he could be fully ready for what he was about to hear.
Medical reports suggested that the damage to the knee was never going to heal to a level where he could play high-level basketball again.
Not only was his time at Florida done—Egbunu was being advised to never play basketball again.
This was extremely shocking and terrifying news. Yes, it was known the knee injury was bad, but career ending is a whole different level.
This led to Egbunu taking a year off from basketball, hoping the news was false and that his knee would recover to the point where he could get back to high-level basketball.
After working tirelessly to rehab, the improvements to his ACL that were once thought to be impossible were happening, and it was enough for a team to want to take a chance on him. The Brooklyn Nets.
They gave Egbunu an opportunity to play on their G League Affiliate team, the Long Island Nets. Long Island needed a center to play behind former lottery pick Henry Ellenson, and the Nets organization was one of the teams that were intrigued with Egbunu’s defensive excellence in college.
This brings us to the past fall where Egbunu was finally able to take the floor again for the first time since February, 2017.
Even though he hadn’t played meaningful basketball in over 2 years and was coming off one of the worst injuries in sports, Egbunu looked no worse for wear. Averaging 17.9 minutes per game he played in a key reserve role, averaging 10.4 points, 7.4 rebounds, and 1.6 blocks. Those efficiency numbers are fantastic, especially when you extrapolate it out to per-36 minute numbers (a common thing to do with NBA statistics). Per 36 minutes, Egbunu was averaging 20.9 points, 14.8 rebounds, and 3.1 blocks.
Egbunu’s fantastic season has made for legitimate buzz regarding an NBA call up. In terms of play on the court Egbunu’s ability to finish around the rim offensively and lock down the paint defensively made him a projectable NBA prospect, though his conditioning is still going to need work. Not playing for 2 years put him in a place where his cardio needs to be improved, but the fact his lateral movement and leaping ability has returned after the injury is extremely exciting.
If Egbunu were to get an NBA call up it would be one of the greatest basketball comeback stories in recent memory. Going from missing a year and a half of college to then thinking his career could be over, all the way to a position where NBA teams are sniffing around…that is movie material.
The way Egbunu’s knee took away his years at Florida was heartbreaking but that awful situation only makes what he is doing now look more impressive. Egbunu gave his all for the Gators and it’s fantastic to see him within striking distance of his lifelong goal of playing in the NBA.