Ever since they began this roster overhaul two years ago, the Cavaliers have taken a chance on undrafted rookies such as Samardo Samuels, Manny Harris and Mychel Thompson with varying degrees of success.
The newest project, Michael Eric, has the potential to be better than all of them — at least according to Cavs coach Byron Scott.
Eric is a 6-foot-11, 240-pound undrafted rookie out of Temple who averaged 5.9 points and 4.5 rebounds through four years of college. He averaged nine points and 8.8 rebounds in a senior season that was limited to 19 games because of a fractured right patella that cost him any chance of being drafted.
The Cavs invited Eric to play on their summer league team, and he has demonstrated enough ability to likely receive a training camp invitation in the fall. In fact, he has shown enough this week in Las Vegas that Scott compared him to Serge Ibaka, one of the league’s best defensive players.
“He has to look at himself as Ibaka, a guy that came in who was raw, but defensively was a great help defender and a great one-on-one defender, then your offensive game kind of comes,” Scott said. “That’s how Ibaka has developed and I think he [Eric] has the same type of potential.”
Ibaka led the league in blocks this season and was named first team All-Defensive Team for the Oklahoma City Thunder.
“It’s a hell of a comparison, and it’s a good comparison because I think with his athleticism and the way he jumps and blocks shots, he can be on that level,” Scott said of Eric. “I don’t know if he can get to where Ibaka is because Ibaka is pretty damn good, but he can be somewhere near that level.”
Eric is a native to Nigeria and just moved to the United States prior to his sophomore year of high school. The son of a soccer coach, Eric never had much use for basketball as a child.
He grew up in Lagos, a port city of nearly 8 million. It is considered the second-fastest growing city in Africa and the seventh-fastest in the world. Nigerian education was more advanced than many of the American classes he took, particularly in the sciences. Math and computer skills, he said, are more advanced in the U.S.
“They really push the sciences because they think that’s the key to success,” Eric said. “That’s why you have a lot of Nigerian kids becoming doctors. They force you into learning a lot of science.”
Basketball is fairly popular in Nigeria, Eric said, but he continued to dismiss the sport until he grew five inches in a span of two years. He traveled to Delaware in 2004 to visit his brother, Stephen, who wouldn’t let him return to Nigeria. Stephen knew with his younger brother’s height — he was 6-foot-8 at the time — he could make a future for himself in basketball.
“The first time I picked up a basketball, I was clueless,” Eric said. “But I started exciting people with the little things here and there, running around, trying to mimic other basketball games we watched.”
Eric enjoyed watching how explosive Amare Stoudemire was at both ends of the floor during his early years in the NBA with the Phoenix Suns. He also admired Hakeem Olajuwon because of the obvious Nigerian connection.
He concedes his defensive game is much more advanced than his offensive skills, something Scott said is common among foreign big men. It was certainly true of Festus Ezeli, another Nigerian native who came to the U.S. a few years ago for better college opportunities.
Ezeli landed at Vanderbilt and learned enough about blocking shots and rebounding to become the final pick of the first round in last summer’s draft despite a raw offensive game.
“When you’re that big and that athletic, it’s much easier to teach the defensive part than the offensive,” Scott said. “It’s great because our American kids want to learn the offensive end way before they learn the defensive end. They have more pride on that end. He’s a guy who is very intriguing.”
Through four summer league games, Eric has averaged 3.5 points and 3.8 rebounds entering Friday’s finale against the New York Knicks. His three blocks are second on the team behind Tyler Zeller’s five.
The numbers aren’t dazzling, but the coaches have seen enough out of him to want more. With Semih Erden and Ryan Hollins both departing, the Cavs have a hole at center.
Zeller is the only true center on the roster, although Anderson Varejao plays big minutes there when healthy. A good training camp just might land Eric a spot on the Cavs’ bench to start the season.
“He’s played pretty well for us,” Scott said. “He’s come a long way in a very short period of time. He’s long, he’s strong, he’s a tough kid and I haven’t seen him back down from anybody. He has a ways to go, but he’s a kid that definitely can make it.”
Summer league ends
The Cavs beat New York Knicks on Friday 98-64 to conclude their summer league season at 3-2. Tristan Thompson had 13 points, and Samardo Samuels had 13 rebounds in the victory.
The Cavs claimed power forward Jon Leuer on waivers from the Houston Rockets, a league source confirmed.
Leuer is a 6-foot-10 power forward who averaged 4.7 points and 2.6 rebounds last season as a rookie with the Milwaukee Bucks. He was traded to the Rockets as part of the package that sent Samuel Dalembert to the Bucks, but was released Wednesday after the Rockets officially obtained Jeremy Lin.
Leuer, 23, was a second-round pick of the Bucks in 2011.
Jason Lloyd can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Cavs blog at http://www.ohio.com/cavs. Follow him on Twitter http://www.twitter.com/JasonLloydABJ. Follow ABJ sports on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.