Tobe Awaka is carving out a role on the Tennessee basketball team as a freshman. The reason is simple— an elite rebounding ability that head coach Rick Barnes wishes “you could just give to everybody.”
Tennessee didn’t anticipate using Tobe Awaka playing a very sizable role this season. The lightly recruited big man didn’t sign with Tennessee until the summer and wasn’t in Knoxville for the first semester of summer school. All this on top of Awaka being an incredibly raw product.
Jonas Aidoo’s unavailability against Maryland provided Awaka an opportunity he seized. Awaka scored eight points, played solid defense thanks to increased preparation but most importantly did the one thing Barnes knew he could do: rebound.
“I remember walking up and the team was warming up and I look over and Tobe was on the side very seriously stretching. Doing all that,” Barnes said of watching Awaka for the first time. “I start watching him and all I know is he went after every rebound. Every rebound.”
Awaka grabbed eight rebounds against the Terrapins and his performance led to Barnes saying he would “be concerned” about his playing time if he was one of the Vols’ other big men.
The 6-foot-8, 250 pound freshman hasn’t played a major role this season but has rebounded more efficiently and effectively than anyone else in the country in his limited opportunities. Awaka’s 27.3% rebounding percentage is the best in the country with over 50 minutes of playing time.
Granted, Awaka has played just 59 minutes which is a small sample size with an abundance of those minutes coming in games well decided against lesser foes. Still, the freshman’s rebounding ability and potential is clear.
“It’s definitely in his DNA,” Barnes said. “I mean, he led the EYBL (Nike AAU circuit) in rebounding. That’s what he did. You talk to people that have been around the game for a long, long time and they’ll tell you that there’s one statistic that translates from junior high to high school to college to the NBA and that’s rebounding. If you rebound the ball, you rebound the ball. He does it. He’s going to get so much better. It’s exciting to watch him.”
The New York native played in seven of Tennessee’s first nine games, averaging just 7.7 minutes per game. In the Maryland game and two games since, Awaka is averaging 13.7 minutes per game.
In 17 minutes Wednesday night against Austin Peay, Awaka dominated the glass with 11 total rebounds.
“I think it’s probably 80-20, to be honest,” Awaka said on what percent of rebounding is effort and what percent is skill. “I think 80 percent of it is just the will to get it. Then obviously when it comes to defensive rebounding, you learn to box out and gain position on you opponent. But yeah, it’s really just a want to go get the ball.”
Awaka’s elite rebounding gives another element to Tennessee’s frontcourt that is improving but still not perfect. If Awaka can grasp Tennessee’s defensive concepts and execute them at a high level than the freshman’s role will only role.
The power forward doesn’t have an elite offensive game but cleans up and takes care of the easy stuff, something that’s been easier said than done for the Vols’ front line in recent seasons.
Awaka is carving out a role for Tennessee basketball and flashes the potential to be a future star. The reason for both is the same— an elite rebounding ability.