Zips' big man putting growing pains in his past

Zips' big man putting growing pains in his past

Published Jan. 10, 2012 8:21 a.m. ET

AKRON, Ohio — As a 6-foot-7 eighth-grader playing AAU basketball for the first time, Zeke Marshall dreamed of one day being highly ranked and regarded amongst his competitors.

In video games.

Basketball was something he felt like he had to do. Progress, back then, was measured by not having to ice his body down after games and by scoring more than a single basket.

To really love the game — or even like it — he would need to succeed. That was years away.

Now, Marshall is a 7-foot junior at the University of Akron, one of the nation’s best shot blockers both by statistics and by the eye test. Even when he’s not using his 7-foot-6 wingspan to block shots, would-be scorers are thinking he might.

He’s an improbable, inconsistent star still very much in the making. He has come a long, long way.

“I was really tall. My father (Jonathan Marshall) was very well known (in Pittsburgh) as a former high school star who played at Penn State, and I literally got forced into playing basketball,” Marshall said.

“And that’s probably why I didn’t enjoy it. As I got older and made my own way, I started to develop a love for the game. But it used to be something i didn’t look forward to at all.

“I was not good. I was so uncoordinated. I was growing into my body. It was a really long growth spurt, two of them. My knees hurt constantly. I didn’t really like the game.”

He’s coming around, and his coach is making sure of it. The 21-year-old tallest guy on his campus and his 53-year-old coach, a man who’s probably a foot and a half shorter than his current favorite project, make for an improbable pair.

Akron coach Keith Dambrot makes sure they’re as close to an inseparable pair as NCAA rules allow.

“I kind of change my tune to keep things interesting, but I’m always on him,” Dambrot said. “At times it’s love and at times it’s (disgust). He has some weaknesses. He’s not there yet, but he has a whole lot to work with.

“For me, what matters is getting him to the big leagues. I think that’s my job. My obligation is try to give him the best chance to be a pro. From a maturity standpoint, he has no rush. He’s not even close to where he’s going to be. But he’s only going to get there if he keeps working.”

Said Marshall: “Coach calls me. He calls a lot. Usually once a day, sometimes more. He wants what’s best for me. I know that. That’s why he does that.”

As a high schooler in McKeesport, Pa., Marshall’s main recruiter at Akron was Jeff Boals, now an assistant at Ohio State. Marshall was eventually sold on the city feel of Akron’s campus, the thought that the coaching staff truly cared about his development and the school’s computer information systems program. (He carries better than a 3.0 GPA.) rated Marshall as the nation’s 31st-best prospect in the class of 2009, and he became the highest-rated prospect ever to sign with a Mid-American Conference program out of high school. But he was much more sure about his future with computers at that point than he was of his future on the basketball court. And it showed.

Before Marshall was a 7-foot problem for opponents, he was a 7-foot target — for officials, for older and stronger opponents, for opposing student sections.

That Dambrot now talks about him as a pro prospect is a testament to how far he has come. Eighteen months from now, Marshall will be seeking employment in the NBA — and not in some team’s IT department.

“The full potential probably won’t be reached until he’s 25 years old,” Dambrot said. “But right now, he’s one of the best shot-alterers in the country. I have no doubt about that. When you’re big, people expect you to be good automatically and right away. You shy away from getting in the gym because you’re not good at it, and that was exactly what Zeke did. He knew he had weaknesses.

“I make him stay in the gym now. I’m an absolute pain in his behind. When he wants to leave after practice, I don’t let him leave. I just feel obligated.”

Marshall is a double-digit scorer for the first time this season. He's also one of the nation’s best shot blockers, statistically, and a game-changing force. He’s using his wingspan to alter shots and remind opponents that he’s looming.

Mississippi State’s Arnett Moultrie, a 6-11 junior, is one of the Southeastern Conference’s leading scorers at 16.2 points per game and has eight double-doubles this season. He shot 2 of 13 in a November loss to Akron.

“Zeke didn’t cover him the whole time, but he makes guys think he’s coming,” Dambrot said. “Nobody wants to be on the highlights getting a shot blocked. Guys know he’s coming.”

Marshall enters this week ranking 10th nationally in blocked shots at a little better than 3 per game. He has eight games with at least three blocks and four games with at least five.

Maybe the best part: He knows his stats only because he sees them posted on his mom’s Facebook page.

“The only time I ever look at my own stats is if I feel I had a bad game. I look at how many times I had turnovers,” Marshall said. “I know Coach Dambrot is coming to talk to me about every one.”

After a two-point, zero-rebound, three-block game in the Zips' MAC opener at Miami-Ohio on Saturday, Marshall is probably spending extra time with his coach this week. It’s all part of the process, part of the growing pains, part of not just being the biggest man on campus but asserting himself as a Big Man on Campus.

“Zeke was still a lot like a 13-year-old kid when he got here,” Dambrot said. “He’s a man now. He’s more mature, on and off the court. He’s improved his toughness, his knowledge of the game. He’s a constant worker. He’s finally keeping his weight at 230, and he’s much stronger. Defensively, he’s smarter.

“He’s just a really good kid. He’s a sweetheart, and that’s part of his problem.”

Marshall had 10 points and five blocks against Mississippi State, and 10 points and six blocks in a narrow loss to Virginia Commonwealth in late December. For much of the second half of that game, VCU wasn’t able to get near the lane.

“After the VCU game, (VCU coach Shaka Smart) called me and told me they saw a bunch of great players last year but nobody that dominated a game defensively like Zeke did,” Dambrot said.

That, like the Mississippi State game, was the kind of big test Akron and Marshall will need to pass as the Zips chase their third NCAA tournament berth in four years. They will go as far as Marshall’s shot-blocking and sudden leadership take them.

“I’m not playing my best yet, no way,” Marshall said last week.” I have matured. I’m a little wiser, a little more ready for what’s going to be said or how teams are going to play me. It’s about trying to manifest all that energy into just playing better.

“I’m not in the spotlight as much as a lot of players are, and I like that. I don’t mind that a lot of our games aren’t on TV. I don’t need all that attention. I know I have to develop. And when I’m ready, people will know. That will be really fun.”