This summer, for the first time in nearly two years, Ernest Aflakpui went home.
When he was 15 years old, the sophomore center left his home in the Sakumono section of Accra, Ghana to live with a host family in the United States and pursue basketball and academic goals.
Aflakpui earned first-team all-Philadelphia Catholic League honors after his junior season at Archbishop John Carroll High School, but he tore his right meniscus early in the 2014-15 season. The injury continued to affect his mobility and limit how much he could play in his first year at Temple.
He no longer uses the bulky brace he had to wear on his right knee. As he’s prepared for this season, he’s been feeling more comfortable on the court.
“You can go in traffic and try to jump, like rebound and stuff like that, that you don’t really have to think about what’s going to happen,” Aflakpui said. “Most of the time, it just makes you play your game. You don’t think about anything, you just think about what you want to do. You don’t have to worry about your knee or whatever’s hurting.”
Aflakpui is one of the players coach Fran Dunphy will look to fill the void left by Jaylen Bond’s graduation last spring. Bond led the team with 8.5 rebounds per game and was the team’s third-leading scorer in the 2015-16 season. Bond was also “a great guy who everybody looked up to,” said senior forward Mark Williams.
Aflakpui considered redshirting last season, but ended up playing in 18 of the team’s 33 games. He started six games in a row from Jan. 13-31, including a road game against East Carolina where he had season-highs in points and rebounds.
“Very physical, he’s got great size, good screener,” East Carolina coach Jeff Lebo said of his memories of Aflakpui. “He got a start against us and I was impressed with his physicality and ability to rebound the ball.”
Aflakpui said that he has been working on scoring and rebounding in traffic and defensive positioning. He has also been practicing jump shots from within 15 feet of the basket.
“If we can get him to have a move or two down there, he doesn’t have to be [Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame center Hakeem] Olajuwon,” Dunphy said. “I just want him to be Aflakpui. But I want him to be able to pass the ball out, repost again and really be a threat down there for us. But he has to finish plays and that’s what he’s working on right now. He’s been shooting the foul shot pretty good, which is what I’m encouraged by.”
Joining Aflakpui in the front court are Williams, junior forward Obi Enechionyia and freshman Damion Moore.
Enechionyia was the team’s second-leading scorer last year. He said he is working on scoring off the dribble, after being more of a catch-and-shoot player last year.
Williams made 32.4 percent of his three-point attempts last season and averaged 3.6 points per game. Moore said he came into Temple around 210 pounds and has bulked up to 225. He added that he’s benefitted from practicing against Aflakpui every day.
The Owls have a “bad taste” in their mouths after losing to the University of Iowa on a last-second shot in overtime in the first round of the NCAA tournament, Enechionyia said. Adam Woodbury’s second-chance shot after an offensive rebound gave the Hawkeyes the win.
Temple was ninth of 11 teams in the American Athletic Conference in rebounding margin last season, but should be helped by its size. The Owls have five players listed at 6-feet-8 inches or taller, including Moore, who is listed at 6-feet-11 inches and thinks he could still grow one or two more inches.
“I think we can go down low a little more,” said redshirt-senior guard and forward Daniel Dingle, who will also play some in the front court. “I think it’s been a trend where we tend to shoot a lot of jump shots and play around the key, but guys like Ernest, he does a great job ducking in guys, so I think we’re going to go down there a little more this year.”
Dunphy said he is not set on a lineup yet, but will “play eight guys a lot of minutes.” If there’s one thing fans can expect from the Owls this year, it is toughness, a trait associated with the program since John Chaney roamed the sidelines from 1982-2006.
“I just think about the grit and determination,” said Lebo, a Carlisle, Pennsylvania native who grew up watching Big 5 basketball. “You talk about a program that really takes on the city and what the city of Philadelphia means. … You think about toughness. You think about grit. You think about doing the little things to make yourself successful.”
Evan Easterling can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @Evan_Easterling.