Men’s basketball: Nwankwo impressive on court and in classroom

By Lauren Kirschman

Freshman Aron Nwankwo has had ambitious goals since he was a little kid. But unlike those of… Freshman Aron Nwankwo has had ambitious goals since he was a little kid. But unlike those of many college basketball players, his didn’t revolve primarily around a ball and an arena full of fans.

The 18-year-old started playing basketball when he was young and began thinking seriously about the sport in high school. Yet it was the medical field that always held his attention.

Now a walk-on with the No. 4 Pitt men’s basketball team, Nwankwo balances the duties of a Division I athlete with the life of a pre-med student on a full academic scholarship.

For Nwankwo, that means lessons in time management and plenty of late nights. The team practices almost two hours a day, sometimes up to five days a week, and must also travel to and from games.

“When I need to get work done, I get it done,” Nwankwo said simply.

It’s a basic strategy, and one that Nwankwo tries to adhere to, but he does occasionally surrender to a familiar foe of college students.

“I procrastinate sometimes, and then I have to punish myself sometimes and stay up late,” he said. “It’s tough. It’s really tough.”

Although Nwankwo has been interested in medicine since he was a kid, he did not know exactly the path he wanted to take when he entered college. Now, however, he said he’s starting to lean toward sports medicine.

“Something in the sports field,” the forward said. “I’m not sure if I’m going to be a surgeon or just a regular physician. I’m still figuring it out.”

Division I, Division II and Division III teams such as Johns Hopkins, Penn State, Elon and NJIT recruited him to play basketball, but Nwankwo said he didn’t pursue those options because he was so attracted to Pitt’s combination of academics and athletics.

“One of the main reasons was their pre-med program and stuff like that,” said Nwankwo, who grew up in Baltimore. said. “Then I got to join the basketball team, and it wasn’t too far from home.”

While the vast majority of his teammates are at Pitt on full athletic scholarhips, Nwankwo is the only member of his team going to school on a full academic scholarship.

The need to excel is cemented in Nwankwo’s personality. It’s something he said partially stems from his parents, but mostly just defines him as a person.

“Everything I do — education, sports or whatever — I want to be the best,” he said.

That much was evident in high school. The Pitt basketball player not only graduated with a 4.0 GPA, but helped guide Baltimore City College High School, ranked No. 1 in the state, to consecutive Class 2A state titles and was named the Baltimore Basketball Academy’s 2010 Scholar-Athlete. Nwankwo said he couldn’t have imagined leaving basketball behind after he graduated.

“I had a lot of success in high school,” he said. “I couldn’t really see myself stop playing once I left … so I wanted to play wherever I was at.”

Pitt head coach Jamie Dixon didn’t know much about Nwankwo, as walk-ons have to contact coaches instead of the other way around. But after Nwankwo played in the Pitt Jam Fest AAU tournament — an event held for elite high school basketball players each spring — at the Petersen Events Center in April of 2010, Dixon offered him a position on the team.

“He’s a great kid, and it’s not often that you have guys that you don’t know a lot about when they come here,” Dixon said. “So it’s just great for him to have the impact that he has had.”

As a walk-on, Nwankwo said his role with the Panthers is to work hard and help the team improve. He tries to provide emotional support and when he gets the chance to be on the court, he plays hard.

Although he doesn’t appear in many games, he provides an athletic presence with his 6-foot-7, 200-pound frame, playing hard in practice against his teammates to help make them better.

Nwankwo played a total of 13 minutes this season in eight games. He put up his first collegiate point with a free throw on Dec. 12 against Delaware.

His performance doesn’t go unnoticed by Dixon, who preaches that all 15 members of the team are important and need to improve each day.

“He just goes about it and works hard,” Dixon said. “We don’t separate a walk-on from a scholarship guy. They get all the same things, and we treat them all the same and have the same expectations for them.”

Dixon said the coaches are focused on helping Nwankwo improve in all facets of his life.

“Obviously, his goal is to go to medical school, but at the same time we’re trying to help him become as good a player as he can be and as good a student as he can be and reach those goals that he has in mind,” the coach said.

And though Nwankwo’s college career can be hard to balance, he embraces the difficulties.

“It’s challenging me, definitely. I like the challenge. It’ll help me in the future,” he said.

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