Wednesday, May 4, 2011 Updated: May 5, 10:30 AM ET
St. John's blessed with gift from above
By Kieran Darcy ESPNNewYork.com
NEW YORK -- Just four days after Easter Sunday, St. John's and coach Steve Lavin received a gift from God -- literally.
God's Gift Achiuwa -- a 6-foot-9 power forward and junior college All-American -- became the latest player to join St. John's stellar 2010-11 recruiting class, which was already ranked the No. 3 class in the country by ESPN.com, behind only Kentucky and Duke.
Achiuwa is far from the biggest name in the group of nine incoming players, which includes six members of the ESPNU 100. But he definitely has the most unique name of the bunch, which garnered him more attention than any of the other recruits when he officially signed with St. John's on April 28.
The 20-year-old native of Nigeria was not that surprised by the buzz that followed his announcement. "Yeah, people talk about my name all the time," Achiuwa said in a phone interview on Wednesday. "Every day in school, people ask me about it."
God's Gift Achiuwa averaged 22.3 points, 11.7 rebounds and 2.2 blocks this past season for Erie Community College.
Achiuwa hails from the city of Port Harcourt, the capital of River States, Nigeria. It is located in the southern portion of the country, and it is a city of over 1 million people -- so New York won't be quite as intimidating as one might have guessed. Port Harcourt was founded almost a century ago, when the territory was still a British colony, and English is still widely spoken in the area. So "God's Gift" is not a translation -- that's the name he was given by his parents, Eunice and Donatus, when he was born.
"My parents told me I was a gift from God to them," Achiuwa said.
Achiuwa is the third of six children in the family -- and all six have interesting names. He has three brothers, named God's Will, Promise and Precious. And he has two sisters, Grace and Peace.
His father is a Christian minister, which explains the theme. "All the names are found in the Bible," Achiuwa said.
God's Gift -- or "Gift," for short (many people call him that, and he doesn't mind ) -- only began playing basketball six years ago. He grew up playing soccer, as many Nigerian children do. "I was growing taller than all my teammates," Achiuwa said. "I saw some other kids playing basketball, and they advised me to go play basketball."
In the summer of 2008, he was discovered by Alex Nwora, the head coach at Erie Community College in upstate New York. Nwora, also originally from Nigeria, goes back to his native country each summer to run a basketball camp for young Nigerian players. And all it took was one play for Nwora to realize that Achiuwa was something special.
"He was going in for a layup," Nwora said. "He looked like he was just going to lay it in, and then all of a sudden out came this crazy windmill [dunk]."
Nwora kept his eye on him the rest of that camp, and then at the same camp the following summer, he invited Achiuwa to come with him to America and play for him at Erie. Achiuwa accepted without having ever visited the United States, let alone the wintry climate of Buffalo, where the college is located.
"Yeah, I had to adjust to the weather of Buffalo," said Achiuwa, who had never even seen snow before. "[But] Buffalo is a great place -- very diverse, very accepting."
In his first season at Erie, Achiuwa averaged 13.1 points and 13.5 rebounds per game, receiving third-team All-America honors. This past season, he made the leap to the first team, averaging 22.3 points (ninth in the country), 11.7 rebounds (10th) and 2.2 blocked shots (17th), while leading his team to a 28-4 record. Making that scoring average even more impressive, Nwora said Achiuwa faced constant double-teams during his sophomore season.
Achiuwa's major-college decision came down to three schools: St. John's, Washington and Cincinnati. He visited St. John's over Easter weekend, and that clinched it for him.
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"St. John's is a very religious school -- my dad is a pastor, my religion is very important to who I am, so that was a very important factor to me," Achiuwa said. "[They have an] experienced coaching staff, [three] who worked in the NBA. Steve Lavin is a great person. Very athletic kids they are bringing in -- I think we'll make a great team.
"And Madison Square Garden as home court. New York City, which is a city many people dream of going to. That will be my home for the next two years."
At 6-foot-9 and 240 pounds, Achiuwa will bring some much-needed size and strength to next year's St. John's front line. Lavin had already signed several talented wing players, but just one other post player for next year's squad -- 6-foot-9, 200-pound forward Norvel Pelle out of Long Beach, Calif.
Achiuwa should make a big impact from the start. "Gift is a talented frontline player who possesses tremendous size, strength, speed and skill," said Lavin in a statement. "He is an ideal fit for our baseline-to-baseline attacking style of play."
And Achiuwa's junior college coach thinks he still has a lot of room for improvement, considering he's been playing hoops for only a half-dozen years.
"He's a gym rat. He likes to work out, work on his game. That's his life," Nwora said. "And I can't remember a kid that size that can defend [positions] one through five. That kind of speed, at 6-foot-9 -- that's no joke."
Neither is his name -- even though he is teased about it from time to time.
"Most people don't believe it's a name. They think it's a nickname," Achiuwa said. "But I love my name!"
St. John's fans are going to love the name, and the player, too.