For as long as Ekene Ibekwe can remember, he always cocked the basketball deep behind his head before releasing a shot. The awkward motion helped him become a serviceable yet inconsistent college player, reliant on unbridled athletic ability rather than refined skill.
Craving a remedy midway through his college career, Ibekwe this spring turned to a renowned shooting doctor who has helped Grant Hill and Jason Kidd. The effect on Ibekwe has been dramatic: Through five games, the junior has raised his field goal percentage to 58 percent from 41 percent last year and his free throw percentage to 81 percent from 55 percent.
Entering tonight's game against Minnesota, the angular 6-foot-9 center is the second-leading scorer on the 23rd-ranked Terrapins, averaging 13.6 points as well as a team-leading 6.4 rebounds.
"I feel real confident," Ibekwe said.
Maryland (4-1) clearly needs at least one of its front-court players -- Ibekwe, James Gist, Will Bowers or Travis Garrison -- to emerge this season after their inconsistency was partly to blame for the team missing the NCAA tournament last season.
Coach Gary Williams said he expects Ibekwe to play tonight in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge game after sitting out yesterday's practice because of a stomach virus. He received intravenous fluids throughout the day. "We need him," Williams said.
Ibekwe feels the improved accuracy was largely the result of spending multiple sessions with shooting coach Andy Enfield, who has worked with more than 100 NBA players in the past 10 years.
Enfield, a former Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks assistant and an acquaintance of Williams, was in the Washington area this spring to work with Andrew Bogut, the former Utah star who was selected first in the 2005 NBA draft. Ibekwe joined Bogut in sessions with Enfield and also received at least one individual workout.
When Enfield evaluated Ibekwe, he saw the same technical flaw he had seen in shooting motions of NBA big men Danny Fortson and Drew Gooden, who raised their free throw percentages significantly after working with Enfield.
Much like those pros, Ibekwe learned that when the ball is released behind the head, the angle is too flat, the motion too slow.
"That's probably one of the most common flaws among shooters who are big guys," Enfield said.
Enfield moved Ibekwe's release point several inches forward, just above his forehead. After that, Ibekwe spent much of the summer shooting 300 to 500 jump shots a few times a week, enabling the motion to become automatic.
"When you try the new form, it feels kind of funny," Ibekwe said. "But the more and more you do it, you don't feel that funniness anymore and that's how you know you've changed. Now it feels funny going back to the old form."
Enfield has worked with several professionals who were not comfortable with change and regressed. Ibekwe, on the other hand, was "very impressive and open-minded," Enfield said.
"He had always been successful," Williams said of Ibekwe. "It took awhile to convince him that it was not good enough. If you want to be an outstanding player, you have to be able to make that open shot. The way he shot it, it hurt him sometimes. You have to be willing to change, and he did it. "
Ibekwe's older brother Onye, who plays for Long Beach State, got an early glimpse of Ibekwe's improved shot this offseason as a teammate of his brother during a Los Angeles summer league. Onye used to kid his brother that he was playing the wrong sport because his shot looked like a "volleyball shot." Not anymore.
"I just kept feeding him the ball," Onye said. "I was shocked."
Even with the awkward follow-through as a young high school player, Ibekwe proved a somewhat reliable outside shooter. His former summer league coach, Rick Isaacs, recalls when he scored more than 20 points against a team led by Adam Morrison, now a national player of the year candidate at Gonzaga, by sinking mostly mid-range jumpers.
"Everybody tried to get him" to change the motion, said Isaacs, who runs a Los Angeles-based team. "But the damn thing continued to go in the basket."
Success for Ibekwe had been sporadic since he arrived in College Park. As a sophomore, Ibekwe's shots nearly doubled compared to his freshman season.
But his shooting percentage dropped 10 percent and his free throw percentage continued to hover around 50 percent. He said he put too much pressure on himself and began overthinking things "that really don't matter."
"His jump shot got a lot better, a lot better," Garrison said. "I've seen him working on it before practice and after practice with different people. You can see the improvement on the court."
As a result, the Terps fed Ibekwe the ball on consecutive possessions to start the Nicholls State game Sunday. And they pounded the ball inside during the second half against Arkansas last week, when Ibekwe made 3 of 4 shots in the second half and all six of his free throws in the game.
"I think he is well on his way" to having a chance to play in the NBA in two years, Enfield said. "He has to remember there are a lot of great athletes out there, but skill level will be the great divider."
Terrapins Note: Maryland landed its second highly touted player in the high school class of 2007 when guard Jeff Jones of Monsignor Bonner (Pa.) High orally committed this weekend.