The Gophers regular season came to a close Sunday with a 107-75 win against last-place Nebraska as they set the school’s 3-point record with 18 makes in the game.
It was a positive way to end a disappointing season. Barring a miraculous five-wins-in-five-days run through the Big Ten Tournament later this week, the Gophers (14-16, 8-12) will be watching March Madness from their couches.
The three seniors graduating from this year’s team — former walk-on Brady Rudrud, bench contributor Michael Hurt and even starting power forward Alihan Demir — were all low-impact players this year, giving Minnesota reason to believe 2020-21 should bring with it another berth in the Big Dance. Four-fifths of the starting lineup are eligible to return, Eric Curry could come back from his latest knee injury, and incoming freshmen Martice Mitchell, Treyton Thompson and Jamal Mashburn Jr., should add depth on paper.
But that rosy outlook might be contingent on the future of Daniel Oturu. The 6-foot-10 sophomore big man just wrapped up one of the great regular seasons in Gophers history and may have played himself right onto a team’s NBA roster.
“We addressed it a couple weeks ago to make sure he understands the process and everything,” head coach Richard Pitino said, “but you don’t have to talk about it right now. There’s no point. He doesn’t need to make a decision right now. He wants to help this team win.”
There were few that could’ve foreseen Oturu’s rise up the NBA prospect rankings when the season began. The big man was solid but sometimes passive as a freshman, and he had yet to expand his outside game. Year 2 has shown one of the greatest year-to-year improvements of any player under Pitino.
“He’s a heck of a player, obviously,” said Nebraska coach Fred Hoiberg. “He can put the ball on the floor. He’s a very strong right-hand driver. He’s got an array of moves in the post. He can face-up and knock down a mid-range shot, so he’s just an absolutely superstar.”
Oturu entered Sunday’s finale leading the Big Ten in rebounding (11.6), blocks (2.5) and field-goal percentage (56.2) while playing the fourth-most minutes per game in the conference. His rebounding average is better than any season of Jordan Murphy‘s, and Murphy set the program rebounding record (though he did so without Oturu’s length).
Only 28 players nationally are averaging 20 points per game or better, and of those 28, only three have a better field-goal percentage than Oturu: Ben Stanley of Hampton, Quinton Dove of Tennessee-Martin and Obi Toppin of Dayton. Oturu’s season has been a testament to his work ethic as the Cretin-Derham Hall alum took massive strides in his efficiency, footwork, outside shooting and defense after averaging 10.8 points per game as a freshman.
Fellow sophomore Gabe Kalscheur said last week he’s been most impressed by Oturu’s versatility. Oturu has routinely found ways to finish in traffic, developed a mid-range fadeaway and an elbow jumper and started dabbling around the 3-point line, where he shot a respectable 34 percent on 50 attempts. And despite his excessive workload and myriad bruising defensive matchups, Oturu only fouled out once.
The Gophers’ woes this season have rarely been Oturu’s fault. Rather, he’s needed more help from his supporting cast. The center wasn’t held to single digits in any Big Ten games. He finished the season with 18 double-doubles, 12 of them in conference play.
For now, Oturu is focused on the upcoming Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis. The Gophers have an opening-round matchup scheduled against Northwestern on Wednesday.
“People ask, but I really don’t think about it that much,” Oturu said Friday of his future. “Because I love being here. I love Minnesota. I love playing for Maroon and Gold. Just continue to always come to practice, work and fight for the name across my jersey is important to me.”
As a Woodbury native, Oturu’s local ties may create a more sentimental connection to the university. But the pull of an NBA career may be too much, as it was for Hopkins grad Amir Coffey. The senior-to-be left for the 2019 draft without any assurance of getting selected. Coffey wasn’t picked, but he latched on with the Los Angeles Clippers organization, started in the G-League and has been called up to play 11 games with the NBA franchise this season.
Oturu likely has more potential to get drafted than Coffey, maybe in the first round, but mock drafts are having a hard time agreeing on Oturu’s stock. NBADraft.net has Oturu going seventh overall. NBA Draft Room has him going 27th. ESPN.com ranks Oturu as their 37th-best available player.
Pitino said earlier this season he hopes to turn Oturu into a lottery pick. If anything, his stock has gone up throughout the season as he’s proven himself in the rugged Big Ten.
“I have told him that when the time is right I want to be a part of that decision for you and help you,” Pitino said last Tuesday. “But if you have a great opportunity, I told him, I’ll push you right out the door. He’s worked really, really hard, and he does have some good options. When you recruit a kid and you help develop him and so on, you want to see what’s best for him.”
The 2020 draft class projects weaker than the 2021 class, which may influence Oturu’s decision to test the waters this summer. With a loaded 2020 high school graduating class that includes Minnehaha Academy’s Jalen Suggs, the 2021 NBA Draft should be more saturated with talent. That could be the difference between first- and second-round status for Oturu.
Even though Oturu battled through some shoulder pain this season, he’s been dutifully durable for two seasons. Another season in college could turn Oturu into a surefire lottery pick if he continues ascending, but it also puts him at risk for injury and ages him another year.
The Gophers have played the what-if game each of the last two years with some key personnel. What if Marcus Carr had been made eligible by the NCAA for the 2018-19 season? What if Coffey had returned in 2019-20?
If Oturu heads down the NBA path, it will take the most valuable asset away from a promising Gophers roster and produce another what-could’ve-been situation. But it might be Oturu’s smartest path to capitalize on a professional future.
“Whatever the future holds is what the future holds,” Oturu said Friday. “But I’m a person that’s focused on now.”