Georgia Tech forward Sylvester Ogbonda during Georgia Tech preseason practice, October 10, 2017
Photo: GT Athletics
Photo: GT Athletics

Tech’s Sylvester Ogbonda is highly improved but first needs to heal

Georgia Tech forward Sylvester Ogbonda could be the Yellow Jackets’ most improved player from last season to now. He just needs to be healthy enough to show it this season.

Ogbonda impressed teammates and coach Josh Pastner with his dedication to improving in the offseason. However, a recent collection of injuries has kept him off the practice court and slowed his progress.

After suffering a high ankle sprain at the end of the summer, Ogbonda was poked in the eye so badly that he needed to wear sunglasses for a couple of days. Earlier this week, he sprained his MCL. The sprain will keep him out between two to four weeks, although Pastner is hopeful that his recovery time will be on the quicker side.

“’Ves’ is a really tough kid,” Pastner said. “He’ll want to get back on the court ASAP.”

It sounds as though Ogbonda, a sophomore from Nigeria, could help. A year ago, Ogbonda’s main contribution was on the practice court. He played in 23 of Tech’s 37 games, averaging 5.2 minutes per game. Pastner’s lack of confidence in him was demonstrated in his preference to play center Ben Lammers 38 minutes or more in 15 games.

“Every game was possession by possession, and we just couldn’t afford not having Ben on the floor, even for a 30-second rest,” Pastner said.

Ogbonda got most of his time in either blowouts or short spurts. He showed some scoring touch, shooting 48.1 percent from the field. But he committed 28 fouls in just 120 minutes (seven fouls per 30 minutes) and, considering his 6-foot-10 frame, his 24 rebounds were not enough. But he went to work after the season ended. When guard Josh Okogie was asked which teammate had most caught his attention in the offseason, the answer was easy.

“Most definitely Sylvester,” Okogie said. “He’s in the gym a lot. Every time I come in the gym thinking I’m about to work out, he’s already in there, beats me there. He’s been working endless nights. I think he’s going to be a great addition to our rotation.”

Pastner praised Ogbonda’s dedication and development.

“I just think his ball skills,” he said. “Scoring around the hoop, his jump hook. But he did it through old-fashioned hard work. There were no secrets. He worked his tail off.”

It is Pastner’s hope that Ogbonda can be effective enough and stay out of foul trouble long enough to buy Lammers some rest. If Lammers could be the league’s defensive player of the year and a second-team All-ACC pick last season when maxed out night after night, then it would stand to reason that he can play even better if he’s getting 32 or 33 minutes per game.

“I don’t think I’ll mind sharing an extra five minutes or so with him,” Lammers said.

Pastner’s hope for Ogbonda is similar to what he wanted last season from point guards Josh Heath, Justin Moore and Corey Heyward – don’t lose the game.

“Don’t turn that sucker over and just rebound like crazy and keep it simple and win 50/50 balls,” Pastner said.

Pastner has also been encouraged by the play of forward Abdoulaye Gueye thus far in the preseason. Gueye, a junior who was showing improvement last season before fracturing his wrist midway through the ACC schedule, is competing with freshmen Evan Cole and Moses Wright for the starting job at the “stretch 4” power forward position made available by Quinton Stephens’ graduation. Gueye can also back up Lammers.

To rest Lammers, Pastner said, “one of those two have really got to help us.”

Unfortunately for Ogbonda, he’ll miss Tech’s first preseason matchups – a private scrimmage Saturday against Auburn – and possibly the two exhibition games, Oct. 28 vs. Georgia State and Nov. 2 vs. Faulkner, both at McCamish Pavilion.

A primary reason that Pastner arranged the extra exhibition game with Georgia State, to benefit hurricane relief, was to give his inexperienced team, including Ogbonda, more time in game conditions.

Tech opens the season Nov. 10 against UCLA in Shanghai.

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