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There's a possibility that Ugonna Onyekwe could be dunking in an NBA uniform next season if he puts together games like he did last year. [Lina Cherfas/DP File Photo]

It's opening night of the 2003-2004 NBA season. The Philadelphia 76ers are hosting the Dallas Mavericks at the First Union Center. Due to preseason injuries, a much-heralded rookie is going to start tonight.

As the music for the pre-game introduction blasts over the public address system, P.A. announcer Matt Cord reads off tonight's starters, and then gets to the rookie:

"At forward, from London, England, number one -- Ugonna Onyekwe!"

Stop. Think about that for a minute. It's not really too far-fetched, is it? Ugonna Onyekwe has a realistic shot at being drafted and making an NBA team.

Yes, the chances of Onyekwe starting for the Sixers in the first game of the 2003-2004 season are pretty slim. But the chances of him being drafted are high.

The Penn senior forward came into the Ivy League three years ago as the player who everyone expected to be the first person from the conference to ever jump ship early to the pros.

After a stellar freshman year -- where he concluded the regular season with a 360-degree dunk against Princeton and then scored 17 points in the first round NCAA Tournament loss to Illinois -- Onyekwe struggled in his sophomore campaign, dropping his stock a bit and making him an afterthought for a possible NBA player.

After averaging 17.5 points and 6.0 rebounds last year and leading the Quakers to a surprise 25-7 season, however, he's not only back on the board, he's right in the thick of things.

"I think there's a good likelyhood he'll be drafted," an Eastern Conference scout said. "He's a definite second round pick right now if he continues to improve off of last year."

No Penn player has been drafted since Jerome Allen, a guard who was picked by the Minnesota Timberwolves in the second round of the 1995.

The last former Penn player to make an NBA roster is Ira Bowman, who last season was on the 76ers' roster at the season's start.

Onyekwe isn't concentrating on the NBA right now, but the dream is there.

"It's definitely always been a goal of mine," he said. "To be in a position now where it's something that could be a reality down the road is amazing."

The advantages that Onyekwe has are the fact that he plays at Penn and not a less-exposed mid-major school. The Quakers get more national exposure because they play the teams in the Big 5, along with the tough out-of-conference games Penn has every year.

"If he was at a school other than Penn or Princeton... it would hurt him," a Western Conference scout said. "Not only do they have the Big 5 competition, but last season people saw him against Iowa State, Georgia Tech, Illinois and Cal."

Another factor is Penn coach Fran Dunphy. NBA coaches respect Dunphy and the level of players he has turned out. This summer, San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich offered him an assistant's job, which he turned down.

"People will know he's been coached well," the East scout said. "People will be comfortable about that."

As far as athletic ability, Onyekwe is among the best in the country. He's also talented with the ball and can score when he needs to.

"He has very good ball skills, very good hands," the East scout said. "He can finish around the basket, and he's fairly athletic."

"His skills have certainly gotten better," the West scout said. "He's an adequate shooter, and he can rebound."

A major drawback is his size. At Penn, Onyekwe plays the power forward position, but at 6-foot-8, 230 pounds, he'd have to play more of a small forward in the pros.

The problem is that Onyekwe plays more of a power forward game.

"He's not big enough to be a four [power forward], but that's probably where he's most comfortable," the West scout said.

His biggest problem is a supposed lack of hustle. A lot of the criticism of Onyekwe centers around the fact that he only plays when he wants to.

"He has to show that he plays every possession [if he wants to be drafted]," the East scout said. "He's going to have to show this year that he plays hard all the time. That's the knock against him and that's a good knock."

While the debate over whether Onyekwe plays well in the clutch is one that will probably never be decided, one scout felt that his performance in big games solidified his spot among the top seniors in the country.

"All players revert to their comfort level when the game gets critical," the West scout said. "When he shoots that left-handed jump hook, he's almost unstoppable."

Onyekwe scored 30 points -- his career high -- against Georgia Tech on national television last year and also has performed well both times he has been to the NCAA Tournament.

What could hurt Onyekwe is if the Quakers have a sub-par year. Fellow Big 5-er St. Joseph's Marvin O'Connor was touted as a possible first-round pick at this time last year, but a poor year for him and for the Hawks dropped him out of the draft entirely.

Another Philly product, Rasual Butler (La Salle) was drafted in the second round by the Miami Heat, and is getting his minutes so far this season. One scout feels that Onyekwe has better qualities than Butler.

"Rasual Butler is more of an offensive player," the East scout said. "Ugonna plays much better defense. He has better ball skills and he should rebound better."

The last time Penn had serious NBA-caliber players was a pair of guards, Matt Maloney and Allen, in the early 90's. Onyekwe is viewed as a better prospect than those two were.

"He's probably more intriguing because of his size," the East scout said. "With a bigger man with his ball skills he becomes more intriguing. I think coming out of college he'll get more interest."

Onyekwe's teammates think that he has an excellent chance to continue his basketball career into the next level.

"He really works hard on his game," Adam Chubb said. "He's got a chance. I'd be cheering for him -- I'll buy his jersey if he makes it to the NBA."

Chubb, however, doesn't make NBA personnel decisions. For this season, all NBA eyes on are Onyekwe.

"He's on everybody's scouting lists," the West scout said. "Everyone will see him play, that's for sure."

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