KNOXVILLE — Don’t forget about Yemi Makanjuola.
That’s good advice for opponents of Tennessee’s basketball team this season. Though he’s playing behind two All-SEC players (Jeronne Maymon and Jarnell Stokes) and another who has the talent to alter the course of games if he puts his mind to it (Kenny Hall), the 6-foot-9, 255-pound Makanjuola has been working hard, preparing for when his time comes.
He’s played just one season, but already Makanjuola, a native of Lagos, Nigeria, has demonstrated that anytime he takes off his warm-ups and steps onto the floor, he’s capable of making things happen.
Take last Dec. 29. Tennessee was hosting The Citadel in a game that didn’t figure to be too much of a challenge, and it wasn’t. Part of the reason was Makanjuola, who went off against the Bulldogs the likes of which hadn’t been seen in Knoxville for a while, if ever. He scored 18 straight second-half points and grabbed 11 rebounds. All of those points and 10 of the boards came in an eight-minute span.
Makanjuola’s performance that night surprised a lot of people in Thompson-Boling Arena, not the least of which was Citadel coach Chuck Driesell. If Makanjuola was mentioned in Driesell’s scouting report, it was on the last page.
“The guy coming off the bench killed us,” Driesell said. “We did not expect that. We knew he was strong and big and could score around the rim, but we were hoping to keep him out of the paint. He did a heck of a job, and it really hurt us.”
Makanjuola wasn’t just picking on smaller opponents. The Citadel had an All-Southern Conference player, 6-8, 238-pound Mike Groselle, and another beefy post man, 6-7, 249-pound C.J. Bray, trying—in vain—to slow down Makanjuola.
“He was pretty simple on that night,” Tennessee assistant coach Kent Williams said of Makanjuola’s array of dunks, tip-ins and basic post moves. “He wasn’t trying to overdo things. And The Citadel had a good post player. That allowed him to go one-on-one down there.”
At that moment, it appeared Makanjuola, little used previously, was ready to step out of the shadows and make major contributions for a team that was still finding its way under first-year coach Cuonzo Martin. But it wasn’t to be.
Just days before, the Vols had signed Stokes, the five-star power forward who graduated from high school, enrolled at Tennessee and made such an impact in the final two months of the season he was voted to the All-SEC freshman team.
Stokes gobbled minutes that might have gone to Makanjuola, who nevertheless stayed ready. He was called upon again in the NIT, starting against Savannah State in place of an injured Maymon and providing 10 points, eight rebounds and a blocked shot in just 16 minutes.
Flash forward to now, and the situation isn’t so different for Makanjuola. He’s still playing behind Stokes, Maymon and Hall. But Makanjuola has spent countless hours in the gym, working alone and with his coaches, improving, getting stronger and more explosive, preparing for the time when his number gets called.
Martin thinks he’ll reach out to Makanjuola on a more consistent basis this season.
“Because he’s physical, he’s a tough kid, he knows how to play basketball,” Martin said. “His offensive skills have improved. He’s a better face-up shooter than he is a back-to-the-basket post player. The thing that helps him is his explosiveness and his lateral quickness have gotten better.
“Now he’s able to do other things and more things on the floor as opposed to just standing around the rim Now he can step out. He can help us. He knows who he is. The great thing about Yemi is he knows what he does well.”
Makanjuola, like all of his teammates, has received a big benefit from the arrival of strength coach Nicodemus Christopher, whose task was to help the big man become more explosive.
“One of his big things was just restrictions in his hips,” Christopher said. “His hips were so tight. So the goal was to loosen up his hips, getting his hips to be more mobile. That alone helped him out tremendously.”
Christopher, who started work just last June, has already seen enough of Makanjuola to feel comfortable making a prediction.
“He’s gonna be more of an explosive athlete,” Christopher said. “He gonna go up and get some more explosive rebounds. He’ll get good minutes. He’s gonna be a physical presence. You’ll know when Yemi’s on the court.”
That opinion is shared by Martin’s entire staff.
“His hands have gotten better,” said director of basketball operations Houston Fancher. “He rebounds the ball, and he’s a truck inside. He loves contact; you almost have to dial him back sometimes, because he has a tendency to go after everything relentlessly. He’ll foul and get himself out of position being overly aggressive. But he’s a guy who loves taking charges. He takes a lot of pride in that.
“He can get out and guard ball screens. He’s a great rim protector. I think he’s a guy who’s just scratching the surface of what he’s going to be able to do.”
Makanjuola’s story is similar to that of other African players who traded soccer, a sport they grew up playing, for basketball.
“I played soccer until I was about 13,” Makanjuola said. “Then one day my friend took me to a basketball court. He said I was going to be tall, that this was a sport I could be good at. He kind of talked me into playing basketball, really.”
Given his athleticism and intelligence—Makanjuola speaks five languages and has already earned Vol Scholar honors by achieving a 3.0 gpa—he was able to make quick strides. Work ethic instilled in him by his mother has helped the cause.
“To get better at something, you have to put the time into it,” Makanjuola said.
He’s also confident. That outburst against The Citadel lifted his confidence to another level.
“My teammates were really supportive of me after that,” Makanjuola said. “They believed in me. That told me that I could do more than play defense. If I could work on my game, I could be more productive scoring the ball, too.”
In the offseason, Makanjuola made it a goal to get up as many shots a day as he could. “The lowest was 500,” he said. “Sometimes, it was 600, 700. I’d come to the gym alone at night, but I’d work with the coaches, too. And they were always pushing, telling me I could get better.”
Martin thinks Makanjuola is a lot better perimeter shooter than anyone outside the team realizes.
“That won’t be my first priority,” Makanjuola said. “But if I’m open and I get the ball, I’ll shoot. But we have better (offensive) players on the team. That’s not my duty on the team, to shoot.”
What is Makanjuola’s duty? That stunning second-half performance against The Citadel didn’t give him delusions that he was the second coming of another player who emerged from Lagos several years before—some guy named Olajuwon.
“Me scoring 20 points a night, we might not win,” Makajuola said. “But me playing defense, that will help us win. If my goal is to take charges, rebound, block shots, and the team wins, I will do that every day. Until I can’t walk anymore.”
Given that attitude, and the fact that Maymon and Hall are seniors and Stokes could decide to enter the NBA Draft pool after this season, Makanjuola will eventually get his chance to become more than a deep reserve.
“By the time he’s a senior, (our opponents) may say, ‘man, where did this guy come from?’ ” Williams said. “And we’ll say he’s been here the whole time. He was playing behind Jeronne Maymon and Jarnell Stokes, but when he got his chance to shine, he was ready.”