Georgia State’s Ed Nnamoko mirrors team’s improvement

Panthers open Sun Belt Conference Tournament Thursday against Marshall
Georgia State center Edward Nnamoko (4) looks for the rebound during the second half of play Monday, Nov. 7, 2022 at the GSU Convocation Center in Atlanta. (Daniel Varnado/For the AJC)

Credit: Daniel Varnado

Credit: Daniel Varnado

Georgia State center Edward Nnamoko (4) looks for the rebound during the second half of play Monday, Nov. 7, 2022 at the GSU Convocation Center in Atlanta. (Daniel Varnado/For the AJC)

The Georgia State basketball team that enters postseason play this week is remarkably improved from the one that took the court for the first time in November. And perhaps no player on the roster has come farther than Edward Nnamoko.

Nnamoko, a 6-foot-10 sophomore, had trouble with basic basketball skills when he entered the program as a true freshman a year ago. Today, despite his modest numbers, Nnamoko is giving the Panthers a much-needed presence in the paint, along with gobs of energy.

Georgia State (14-16) opens the Sun Belt Conference Tournament in Pensacola, Fla., on Thursday at 8:30 p.m. against Marshall (12-19). The game will be broadcast on ESPN-Plus and can be heard locally on WRAS-FM 88.5 or on the GSU App.

Georgia State beat Marshall 82-79 in the final game of the regular season. Marshall won 77-68 in Huntington, W. Va., on Jan. 24.

“He’s grown up right before our eyes,” Georgia State coach Jonas Hayes said. “He has matured light years in the last month or so and I couldn’t be more proud of him. He’s the emotional soul of our team. He’s the loudest one in the locker room. He’s the loudest one on the bench and he’s the ultimate supporter of his teammates.”

Nnamoko comes off the bench and averages 3.1 points and 4.4 rebounds in 15.3 minutes per game. His free throw shooting – an abysmal 39.3% last year – is 78.6%, an important factor when he gets fouled late in the game.

Nnamoko’s presence will be important in the Sun Belt opener since Marshall has big-bodied forwards in Nate Martin (6-8, 232 pounds) and Obinna Anochili-Keillen (6-8, 222) who like throw their weight around. The duo combined for 32 points and 17 rebounds against GSU on Friday.

But Nnamoko’s contributions can’t be judged solely on statistical data.

“I keep telling everybody in our locker room, coaches and players included, that you’ve got to be aware of the energy he gives off,” Hayes said. “It’s turned around for Ed because he’s not consumed with himself. He’s consumed with lifting up other people and that’s allowed his personal level of success.”

Georgia State has shown considerable improvement in its second year under Hayes, who faced a bare cupboard when he arrived.

The main goal – better perimeter shooting – has been achieved with the addition of Lucas Taylor (14.3 points, No. 10 in the conference) and Toneari Lane (13.1 points, No. 14 in conference). Taylor scored 26 against Marshall on Friday and has 60 3-pointers. Lane leads the Sun Belt with 84 3-point baskets.

But the team’s motor is Dwon Odom, who came with Hayes from Xavier last season. Odom plays larger than his 6-foot-2 frame would indicate. He’s quick enough to beat defenders and fearless about driving to the basket. His floor vision allows him to spot the open man and he is self-aware enough to realize that he’s better at the mid-range jumper than he is at 3-pointers but isn’t afraid to take the long-range shots if needed.

Hayes has emphasized that the arrival of the tournament gives his team a chance to be this year’s Cinderella. It won’t be easy. The two teams at the top of the standings – Appalachian State (26-5, No. 3 in the College Insider mid-major rankings) and James Madison (28-3, No. 6) -- are talented and loaded with experience.

The middle of the Sun Belt pack is full of teams similar to Georgia State, which plays hard and grinds on defense, but it hampered by inconsistency. The Panthers have beaten Arkansas State (Sun Belt No. 4), won at Louisiana (Sun Belt No. 5) and at South Alabama (Sun Belt No. 7), but lost to Texas State and Coastal Carolina, who finished in the bottom four.

“If we can continue to apply this (hard working) mentality and effort and attention to detail, taking care of the basketball, making free throws, when you have those kind of opportunities, you’re going to find yourself on the winning end more times than not,” Hayes said. “You’ve got to give yourself a chance and that’s what I’m trying to get these guys to understand. It’s been like a seesaw all year long. We’ve got to find a level of consistency going into next week.”

Hayes is ever optimistic and that includes this week’s appearance in the conference tournament. Last year the Panthers were beaten in the first round.

“We’re going to keep trucking. We’re going to keep getting better because it’s a brand-new season. Believe it or not, we’re 0-0. We have a chance to play our way into March Madness.”