Mike Strange: Makanjuola is hard work in progress

Yemi Makenjoula looks to score while defended by Keenan Peterson during the Pilot Rocky Top League at Bearden High School on Monday, June 18, 2012.

Photo by Saul Young, copyright © 2012

Yemi Makenjoula looks to score while defended by Keenan Peterson during the Pilot Rocky Top League at Bearden High School on Monday, June 18, 2012.

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Last month, for the first time in more than two years, Yemi Makanjuola got to go home. Home is Lagos, Nigeria, and it's long way off, literally and figuratively.

For two terrific weeks, it was family, mom's Nigerian cooking and hanging with old friends.

Then it was time to get on the airplane and return to America.

So there was Makanjuola on Monday night in a sweaty Bearden High School gym, opening night of the Pilot Rocky Top League.

I wondered if he wouldn't still rather be back in Lagos. His answer surprised me.

"I love playing basketball,'' Makanjuola said. "I always want to be where I can play basketball at the biggest level.''

In other words, Knoxville is home, too.

Nobody had heard of him when new coach Cuonzo Martin

signed the 6-foot-9 project last spring out of a little church school in North Carolina.

Yemi What? Maka Who?

He didn't set the world on fire last season, averaging 2.3 points and 2.8 rebounds per game. But anyone who appreciates basketball could see the potential in an athletic big man who works hard.

One December night Makanjuola thrilled the crowd by scoring 18 consecutive points against The Citadel. I can't prove it but I'll bet Allan Houston or Bernard King never scored 18 consecutive points.

He had some good moments here and there against better teams, too.

"It's exactly what Coach Martin preaches,'' said Mark Pancratz, UT's coordinator of video scouting. "The reason (Yemi) was successful at the end of the year was that he stayed in the gym.

"He was there every morning getting extra work and staying after practice. You saw that pay off for him.''

With a year of college basketball and another year in America — he arrived in January 2010 — under his belt, Makanjuola is poised to take another step. Makanjuola is all about taking steps.

When he came on his recruiting visit, Pancratz had never seen Makanjuola play. So he asked what his game was like.

"I'll never forget,'' Pancratz said, "he said, 'All I want to do is rebound and defend and I won't give up layups.' ''

This is enlightening about Makanjuola's character. His Nigerian basketball hero is not Hakeem Olajuwon or Emeka Okafor. It's a guy named Olumide Oyedeji, who played a couple of years in the NBA.

"He's a devout man,'' said Makanjuola. "The kind of man I want to be in the future.''

As for his basketball future over the next three years, it's convenient to think of another Nigerian, Vanderbilt's Festus Ezeli.

Makanjuola had never heard of Ezeli back home, but paid his countryman this tribute:

"He's not the best guy I played against this year but he's the toughest, the strongest.''

Ezeli was raw when he showed up at Vandy. He averaged 3.8 points each of his first two years, then jumped to 13.0 as a junior and 10.1 as a senior. Now he's about to be drafted into the NBA.

Is it fair for UT fans to project Makanjuola on the same track? If work ethic counts, yes.

"He's a real loving, caring, funny person,'' said UT teammate Brandon Lopez, "but on the court he's real physical and he's one of the most competitive persons I've been around.''

That's the Lagos in him, Makanjuola says. His hometown is a sprawling metro area of 15 million.

"It makes everything hard on you,'' he said. "You have to compete for everything you get. That's my mentality, to always compete.

"Where I am from made me what I am.''

Now it's Tennessee's turn to complete the job. It'll be interesting to see what the finished project looks like.

"The sky,'' Makanjuola said, "is my limit.''

Mike Strange may be reached at strangem@knoxnews.com. Follow him at http://twitter.com/strangemike44 and http://blogs.knoxnews.com/strange

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Comments » 9

Noogaorange writes:

It's going to be fun to watch him this year. He should be much improved. We've got a tough schedule this year so it will be important for everyone to play at their highest level. GBO

BruisedOrange writes:

FTA: His hometown is a sprawling metro area of 15 million. "It makes everything hard on you," he said. "You have to compete for everything you get. That's my mentality, to always compete. "Where I am from made me what I am."

It's estimated that 80% of people living in Lagos work in the informal economy, which helps provide work for a daily wave of over 1,000 immigrants to the city, and accounts for more than two-thirds of Nigeria’s GDP.

I guess that IS a competitive environment!

(But think how much better it would be for Yemi if he had grown up in America, playing organized ball as a child in a league where everyone gets a trophy and there are no losers... [/sarcasm])
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Seriously, Yemi was worth the scholarship for this team just for his example, work ethic, and practice intensity. BUT I think he will be much more by his senior season.

RoadTrip writes:

Talk about physical - picture an improved/stronger Yemi with Stokes and Maymon on the court at the same time.

SouthPaVol writes:

I liked Yemi's intensity last season and hope he continues his progress. This time next year, Yemi will be a projected starter. Believe he will be pretty good by then

licknpromise777#651578 writes:

in response to SouthPaVol:

I liked Yemi's intensity last season and hope he continues his progress. This time next year, Yemi will be a projected starter. Believe he will be pretty good by then

I agree; Yemi is a year away from being a productive starter..Hopefully Stokes will be here with him..If not we have big problems because there are no players on the current roster being developed to replace the loss of Maymon,Hall and Miller all in one year..This will be Martin's most important recruiting class and so far Martin has NOT proved to be a great recruiter..Stokes was a gift that dropped in our lap for various reasons and Pearl laid that ground work 2 years before we hired Martin..Martin has shown that he can coach and win but he's doing it mostly with Pearl's recruits..It doesn't take a genius to see that it will be impossible to keep winning if all thats being signed are players that are rated #60 something at their respective position; and thats pretty much what Martin's recruits are..For 2013 there are a lot of in state Tennessee players in the top 100 in the nation..As usual many of them are in the Memphis area and Martin has offered to all of them..Now just land one!! We already lost a good one out of Johnson City to Bama of all places.I suspect Martin will go the JC route to get a post player but thats always a roll of the dice. Don't get me wrong; I like most of what Martin has brought to the table but Martin and his recruits aren't remotely close to what KY;FLA and Vandy are hauling in!!

FanNotSheep writes:

His attitude has and will help his team even if he doesn't fill up the stat sheet. But he could grow into the kind of player who can make a difference for a team that figures to be in the mix and/or on the bubble this year.

orangecountyvols writes:

in response to RoadTrip:

Talk about physical - picture an improved/stronger Yemi with Stokes and Maymon on the court at the same time.

Road trip,

That's a scary thought isn't it? A bunch of guys will think twice about taking it in against that trio.

mocsandvolsfan writes:

in response to orangecountyvols:

Road trip,

That's a scary thought isn't it? A bunch of guys will think twice about taking it in against that trio.

I agree. But I'm not sure Makan would start over Hall at this juncture. Maybe later in the year if Hall reverts. Let's just believe we have the best bigs all round than the other teams.

AlexAndersonAAradio writes:

He was a good player at the end of the season.

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