ATHENS – It’s an annual rite of the Georgia basketball season: A critical player goes down with some malady in the preseason, misses time, and by the time he returns some critical damage is done.
This year’s case: Derek Ogbeide.
Here’s how it went for the freshman center: A preseason in which his play in practice drew raves and whispers he would start. An exhibition game in which he racked up a game-high 10 rebounds.
And then, following the Georgia basketball rule, a shoulder injury in the next practice that knocked him out for the first month of the season.
“When that happened that was a significant moment that we knew would change the course of the next couple months,” head coach Mark Fox said.
How significant has been on display lately. Ogbeide is averaing 7.0 rebounds in Georgia’s three SEC games, along with seven points per game. And that’s despite only playing 16 minutes per game.
The 6-foot-8, 250-pound native of Nigeria missed the first five games of the season, then only saw brief action in the sixth and seventh games. Georgia was 4-3 at that point.
Senior guard Kenny Gaines was asked how different things would be if Ogbeide had never suffered the shoulder injury.
“Oh man. I definitely think we’d be in a little better of a position,” Gaines said.
Georgia (8-5 overall) has lost two of three in SEC play, but both losses have been on the road. Now the question, with Georgia facing a critical stretch of three out of four games at home, is when Fox will be comfortable playing Ogbeide more extensive minutes.
The most he has played is 18, at Florida. It needs to be more, based on what Ogbeide has shown, but junior Houston Kessler has maintained the starting role at the other forward spot, along with budding star Yante Maten.
The idea of Maten and Ogbeide playing together for extensive minutes is becoming a very enticing one. Not only do they both offer a lot of upside, but they play well together, as teammates noticed early on this season.
“Maybe Yante will get the ball in the high post, and Derek will notice he’s about to drive and he’ll seal a man, make an opening, or step near the goal in case Yante needs to make an emergency pass. They kind of just read each other,” Gaines said. “Every time they’re on a team together in practice they kind of just dominate whoever’s on the other team.”
So what has to happen for Fox to play Ogbeide more? He has to show he can play defense well, and also do, as Ogbeide put it, “the little things.”
“Just being able to clean up all the edges and trims of my game and how I play within them,” Ogbeide said. “Learning some plays, rebounding the loose balls, the 50-50 balls. The things that correlate to winning that I could definitely help out for good.”
Kessler, a fourth-year junior, offers up experience, height and occasional spurts of points. He did make three field goals apiece against Georgia Tech, Robert Morris and Missouri.
But Kessler doesn’t offer the upside of Ogbeide, and in the Ole Miss game Kessler was 0-for-4 from the floor, while only grabbing two rebounds in 20 minutes.
Fox said Kessler “grades out defensively better than just about anybody on our team.” While he may not rack up the blocks and steals, good defense also includes more subtle things, like staying in front of your man and making the right switch.
“It’s a process, you just keep grinding. You have ups and downs, and I’ll probably continue to have ups and downs,” Kessler said. “You just power through it and keep trying to get better.”