By Andy Greder | St. Paul Pioneer Press
Word is starting to spread across the Big Ten basketball scene this winter about Daniel Oturu. He’s making people notice, on and off the court. The Gophers basketball team’s 6-foot-10 freshman center from Woodbury, Minn., and Cretin-Derham Hall made the short trip to the U as one of the nation’s top recruits in the 2018 class. And through 25 games, he has established himself as one of the most promising young players in the conference.
Oturu’s size, including a 7-foot-3 wingspan, comes from his 6-foot-1 mother Deborah, and his athleticism comes from his 5-foot-6 father Francis, who was a member of Nigeria’s top table tennis team in the 1980s.
He was born Akinfayose Daniel Oturu in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1999 to Nigerian immigrants who arrived in the U.S. in 1990. Daniel has shown a precocious poise around the basket in his first collegiate season, leading Big Ten freshmen in field goal percentage (56.5), as well as rebounds (7.3) and blocks (1.6) per game. But with a ping pong paddle in hand, he can’t hang with his 61-year-old dad.
“I’ve played him, but he always crushes me,” Daniel said.
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Origin and opportunity
Like Daniel now has with a orange basketball, Francis could build a life through opportunities presented with a white pingpong ball.
Francis grew up in the Fadeyi neighborhood of Lagos, a sprawling Nigerian city on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean. He said he was a good soccer player but became a local pingpong champion who advanced to the Skypower club team that represented the country worldwide.
“In every corner of Nigeria, you see people playing pingpong,” Francis said. “It’s like the Chinese.”
Francis flipped through his old passport to show examples of where table tennis has taken him: to Detroit in 1984 to help defend Nigeria’s title in the U.S. Open; to Italy in 1985 and ’86; off to Germany in 1987; and back to the U.S. into the late 1980s.
Francis and Deborah, who is from Osun, a rural inland state in Nigeria, and their first-born daughter Eunice then moved to New York City. Once baby Daniel joined them, they looked for a place to settle.
“I’m a Christian, and I like to live in a very good environment to raise children, so I came over here to see how Minnesota looks like,” Francis said. “I happened to fall in love.”
Francis tried to instill a love for pingpong in Daniel, often taking him to evening rec games in the St. Paul City School cafeteria in the Frogtown neighborhood. But his son was drawn to basketball.
“He loves to play basketball any time, any day, and because we’ve seen that in him, we’ve decided to support him in any way — financially, physically,” said Francis, who has traveled to most Gophers road games this season.
Along Daniel’s way to becoming a four-star recruit, Francis worked to keep his son grounded: “I always tell Daniel that the opportunity here is different than the opportunity back home” in Nigeria.
Daniel has heard stories about how his parents grew up in large families, and with that, had few chances to get ahead.
“I have that same type of opportunity with basketball where I can continue to grow and hopefully make money at the next level playing this game and being able to raise my own family,” Daniel said.
Daniel was a 6-foot-6 freshman on the Cretin-Derham Hall basketball team in 2014 when Francis and a playing partner visited the school for a pingpong demonstration in front of a few hundred students. They dazzled kids with long rallies played far away from the table.
“He is ridiculous,” Raiders basketball coach Jerry Kline Jr., said. “… He hasn’t lost his touch, his hand-eye coordination and skill. The student body loved it.”
Kline could see a correlation between the two sports. “Daniel’s hand-eye coordination is really at a high level,” he said. “As I watched his dad, I thought, ‘This makes some sense. There is something going on here.’ ”
After sprouting to 6-foot-9 before his junior year, Daniel started to become a force on the court, Kline said.
“His ability to just navigate his size,” Kline said. “He understood places and spots to be on the court to be successful.”
As a senior, Oturu made highlight reels with a final-second alley-oop dunk to win the Class 4A state championshp game over Apple Valley at Target Center.
As a college freshman, Oturu is the Gophers’ third-leading scorer with an average of 10.8 points per game. He has played in 25 of 26 games and has six double-doubles with points and rebounds.
Oturu received a wake-up call to the Big Ten’s crafty physicality in the conference opener against Ohio State’s 6-foot-9, 270-pound Kaleb Wesson on Dec. 2.
“This is no joke,” Oturu recalled of his first impression.
Oturu is listed at 225 pounds and didn’t have the benefit of adding weight because of offseason shoulder surgery, but that doesn’t mean he has shied away. While he’s struggled to adjust in some games, Oturu had a double-double of 11 points and 11 rebounds against ranked Maryland’s bigs in Bruno Fernando and Jalen Smith, and he matched a career-high of 19 points, along with nine rebounds, on the road against Purdue, another ranked team.