Just because someone happens to be 7-feet tall doesn't necessarily make him a player.
Paschal Chukwu at least looked the part when he stepped on the floor at a camp last summer.
"At first he was kind of tentative," recalled Dan Donnelly, Chukwu's AAU coach. "But once he got his feet wet, he wasn't afraid to push back."
Donnelly said Chukwu had his "coming-out party" last July, and the attention from college basketball coaches -- including UConn's -- has been non-stop since for the 7-1 center, who is about to enter his senior year at Fairfield Prep. Providence, Boston College, Georgetown, North Carolina State, Maryland and St. Joseph's are among the members of his fan club, with several schools already offering scholarships to Chukwu, clearly the prime recruit in the region.
"His improvement in the last year has been dramatic," said one longtime NCAA Division I assistant coach. "Providence has done a really good job with him, but I think UConn is trying to make up some ground late."
"He's one of the best instinctive shot-blockers that you will find," he said. "He's going to be a high major-level kid for sure because of the impact he will have on the defensive end. He's really, really good defensively."
Chukwu's future might be one of the state's most closely guarded secrets, with the player's host family, the Featherstones, and Prep coach Leo Redgate trying to shield the star senior from much of the recruiting attention.
"As with Terry Tarpey (a former Prep player who is at William & Mary), we think the college selection process is a very private process," Redgate said. "I applaud the family and our staff for keeping things as normal as we can for Paschal and have him continue to focus on what's most important -- school and getting better. His family is treating the college selection process a lot like every other student' process, privately. I am very confident that Paschal will visit schools in the fall and make a decision that is best for him and his family soon after."
The low exposure of Chukwu might turn some college coaches off, but one coach said that if a program wants a player enough, they will abide by it.
Most coaches were able to get a look at Chukwu the past two months at the camps and while playing for Donnelly before a minor hand injury ended his summer in mid-July.
"He works so hard," Donnelly said. "He's doing something every game where you'd go, `Wow, he's really starting to get it.'
"He's so coachable."
Even though Chukwu's shot-blocking and rebounding might draw more attention, his offensive game has started to evolve, too. On the way to leading the Jesuits to the Class LL and SCC championship games, Chukwu averaged 13.7 points, 12.1 rebounds and 6.8 blocks per game.
"When he faces up, he gets pounded," Donnelly said, "but he's learning to establish himself down low."
Stratford coach Paul Dudzinski didn't have Prep on the schedule last season but was certainly impressed when he saw Chukwu play.
"It stuns you when you first see him -- he's 7-foot!" said Dudzinski, who admitted he's happy when he gets a center that's 6-5. "You can't teach 7-foot. He's still got a lot to learn, but he's getting stronger and working on some go-to post moves."
One unheralded asset of Chukwu's game appears to be his speed, which was on display during the AAU season.
"Guys 6-7, 6-8 -- he has the ability to outrun them," Donnelly said. "He's very athletic and runs the floor like a deer."
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