By Bob Thomas
Associate Sports Information Director
Visibly upset over an officials’ foul call, Florida State junior star Aaron Thomas appeared on the verge of erupting, when – out of nowhere – he was engulfed by a long arm and seemingly vanished before everyone’s eyes near midcourt at the Donald L. Tucker Center.
Michael Ojo, the Seminoles’ 7-foot-1, nearly 300-pound junior center, walked Thomas away from the officials and toward a gathering of teammates. Ojo’s broad smile and quiet calm as he spoke quietly to his teammate were equal parts disarming and telling.
The subtle move by the affable big man is one of many small but important signs that the Nigerian native is in the midst of a transformation from hoops novice to key contributor for the Seminoles this season.
Ojo’s growing confidence and development come at a key time for the Seminoles, who play host to UCF at the Donald L. Tucker Center (2 p.m.) on Saturday.
“The last four games his assertiveness, his confidence, his effort-level have all been superior to any point in his career so far,” FSU associate head coach Stan Jones said. “We hope that’s a sign of good things to come.
“Everything is starting to click together in a positive sequence for him. I think that time is coming for him. He’s had enough game-planning experience. He’s been in enough practice situations. He’s getting comfortable. The game is kind of slowing down for him mentally where it’s not such an anxiety thing for him. I’m really excited about what he can possibly do this season, moving forward, if he just continues to make that progress mentally.”
Ojo is not yet a statistical force for the Seminoles, but his subtle contributions are beginning to yield more significant results as his minutes increase, forcing opponents to contend with his 7-foot-8 wingspan and significant strength in the low post.
When asked if he is playing with a higher level of confidence than at any point in his career, Ojo does not hesitate with an answer.
“I can feel that,” Ojo said. “Maybe it’s the motivation you have for yourself now as a junior. In the first two years, looking around – you’re new to basketball – and you’re figuring out where you fit it; figure out your role and what you can do the best to help your team to win ballgames.
“I’ve kind of figured those things out myself and fit myself in where I think I will be more productive and just specialize in those areas, which is what I’m trying to do right now.”
Demonstrating assertiveness both offensively and defensively on the block, running the floor with purpose and willingly speaking up to provide leadership are just a few of the signs that the youngster with barely four years of experience in the game is a different player than the one who came into the season averaging just 1.7 points and 2.1 rebounds.
“It started out during the summer when we were just doing conditioning,” Ojo said, when asked to pinpoint when his confidence began to grow. “I think my conditioning is a little better than my first two years. I just think I’m this guy that tries to bring everybody is along. If anyone is down I try to talk to them. If anyone is doing good I tell them, ‘Keep your head up. Don’t let it distract you.’”
“We have one senior on our team which is Kiel Turpin. I can actually start talking and bring everyone together for great camaraderie – being a vocal leader.”
There is value to those intangibles, and clearly, Ojo’s numbers are improving. Over the past four games he is averaging 12.5 minutes, 4.0 points and 3.5 rebounds; all of which are well above his career numbers.
And it certainly hasn’t hurt that the game and some of its nuances are beginning to make more sense.
Ojo said he’s constantly encouraged by head coach Leonard Hamilton and his staff, ‘just run down the floor and see how many layups you can get by running,’ he can see his presence drawing the defense and getting shooters open in transition.
“I try as much as I can to keep my post guy very occupied so my guys can drive in there, find the open shooters or make a layup; getting people off these guys so that they can have freedom of movement while they’re on the basketball court,” Ojo said. “Once I’ve tried a few times and see that it works (I think), ‘Why not?’”
Not surprisingly, Ojo seems to be having more fun on the floor than ever before.
“I’ve figured out where I fit in and what I can do best to help the team,” he said. “I’ve been very successful in those areas that the coaches have been telling me to do and that’s been a part of it.”
One of three seven-footers on the FSU roster, the Seminoles could benefit greatly from improved production in the post from Ojo and teammates Boris Bojanovsky and Kiel Turpin, especially with the perimeter play laboring to find its stroke in the early going.
Not surprisingly, that will be a key element when the Seminoles face the under-sized Knights.
“They certainly need to try to win their share of match-ups every night we play until we can find some rhythm and balance from our perimeter players,” Jones said. “Until we can get that rotation and that role definition completely in place we certainly need Michael to continue to assert himself and make winning plays. A lot of plays he made the other night in the Nebraska game that helped us get back in the game, people won’t see in the stat column.”
Jones said Ojo created scoring opportunities by locking up defensive players in the post and keeping rebounds alive that lead to second chance scoring opportunities, as well as making baskets and free throws.
“All of those kind of plays have to continue to be a part of his of game,” Jones said. “All of our big guys need to continue to play to their potential, because I think they all have high ceilings that they haven’t approached yet.”
And Ojo’s production will continue to track upward if he can continue to carry his improving free throw accuracy from the practice court into games.
“The funny thing is I’m shooting a very high percentage in practice,” said Ojo, who has converted four of his last eight attempts from the line in games. “It’s always, ‘When is this going to come out in the game?’ I have friends that play America and they’re like, ‘People won’t believe you work on free throws until you start making them in games.’ That’s when I tell them, ‘For me to convince these people, I have to convince myself. I have to convince myself in practice that I can make free throws.’ It’s time for me to come out and convince people that I can make free throws.’”
Each day in practice, Ojo and Jones square off in a friendly free throw shooting contest in an effort to improve his career .414 rate.
“People don’t realize how good a free throw shooter he actually is,” Jones said. “People also don’t realize if you’ve never shot a free throw in front of a huge crowd with a camera staring in your face, the anxiety level it causes for someone who has never dreamed about or never done it. Now that he’s starting to make a couple here the last couple of games, if he can get to the line consistently every game, which will slow down for him as well. People will start seeing what we see in practice every day from the free throw line.”
Jones also reminds Ojo’s critics that the game in general does not come naturally for the big man.
“People who want to be critical, they could be critical if he had been doing this since he was in fourth, fifth or sixth grade like a lot of kids in America have done,” Jones said. “He was never afforded that opportunity.”
With Ojo’s playing opportunities growing quickly, it is already clear that he is a more confident free throw shooter. The ball no longer appears to be a foreign object in his giant hands as his palms-down release produces near-perfect rotation and arc.
Making more free throws is just one way Ojo and his fellow bigs are trying to find ways to contribute to the cause. He and Bojanovsky regularly talk about doing the little things that can lead to bigger and better results for the Seminoles collectively.
“How can we get an extra box-out, an extra rebound and just give us another opportunity to get another possession would be really, really big for us,” Ojo said. “All of these games are coming down to one possession games and two possession games.”
With the ACC season right around the corner, it seems that the big fella is starting to put his arms around the subtle concepts of the game that could lead to greater heights in the long run.