Gophers fans usually say goodbye to players who are done with their eligibility on Senior Day. On Sunday, they might want to bid farewell to an underclassman with an NBA future, too.
Daniel Oturu is just a sophomore, and a Gophers player hasn’t been drafted since 2004, when Kris Humphries left as a freshman and became a lottery pick.
But Oturu, a 6-10, 240-pound center brimming with NBA potential, is almost certainly leaving after this season, according to several sources who’ve spoken to the Star Tribune in recent weeks. That would make Sunday’s game against Nebraska his last one at Williams Arena.
The website NBAdraft.net has Oturu projected to go No. 7 in this June’s draft. Other projections list him as a mid- to late first-rounder.
The only thing keeping Oturu’s upcoming departure from becoming official is the 20-year-old Woodbury native himself. He publicly insists he’s not thinking about it yet.
“I love being here,” Oturu said Friday. “I love playing for the maroon and gold … Regardless of what the future holds, as long as we continue to fight and finish the season strong is the most important thing.”
Pitino calls his young star’s pending NBA decision the “elephant in the room” and the “Daniel Factor,” and it hung over an NCAA tournament bubble team when first-round projections surfaced on draft sites in January.
As with any player, Pitino wants Oturu to do his due diligence to make sure he’s making the right decision. But if the Cretin-Derham Hall grad decides he wants to leave, his coach says he’ll support him 100%.
“I’ll be the first one to push him out the door,” Pitino said.
The deadline to declare early entry into the draft is April 26. Oturu’s chances of getting picked appear much more certain than they were for Amir Coffey at this time a year ago. Coffey, a 6-8 guard, left the U after a late flourish to finish his junior season. He went undrafted before signing a two-way contract with the Los Angeles Clippers.
With Oturu, it’s a different situation. A handful of NBA scouts have been to all his games. They saw the production early on. His scoring average has spiked from 10.8 points as a freshman to 20.3 as a sophomore, his rebounding from 7.0 to 11.6. And he has established himself as an outside shooting threat, hitting 17 three-pointers after making just one last season.
Coffey saw the work Oturu put in during the offseason to improve his game and physique.
“It doesn’t surprise me because I always saw that in him,” Coffey said. “Just looking back, I’m proud of him. There’s buzz going around with his name in the NBA right now, so if he feels this is the time to come out and he feels ready, then he should come out.”
Beyond the gaudy stats, NBA personnel have evaluated what Oturu could bring to a team as a rim-running, shot-blocking, face-up-shooting center with big upside and physical growth left. Oturu is a surefire first-round talent, an NBA Western Conference scout said.
“He’s got tremendous upside and he’s got skill,” the scout said. “He can really be a matchup problem offensively. He’s had some great games and some not-so-great games. But he’s going to be good. No doubt about it, if he wants to be. Everything is in place.”
Gophers fans are anxious about the future, not knowing what Pitino’s squad would look like without Oturu. They saw how the team struggled without Coffey back this year.
Pitino says he’s not concerned about his job status, but he feels like fans would be less frustrated with the direction of his program if Oturu returned. Pitino has attempted to minimize the distraction to his players, trying to make sure they aren’t putting too much pressure on themselves to win this season, while Oturu is still around.
“We know that Daniel is playing well, but we’re still young and we’re still so close,” Pitino said. “That’s what’s got everybody kind of [uneasy], it’s the Daniel Factor.”
Oturu said he’ll lean on his family and high school coaches for advice before he makes his official decision. Pitino wants to meet with him after the season and stay part of the process as well.
Oturu said he thanks God just for putting him in this position, with an NBA choice to make.
“If you’re good enough,” he said, “they’ll find you.”