Like the 7-foot-3 Thabeet, John Riek hails from Africa. And like Thabeet, Riek stands over 7 feet tall.
But Dan Barto, Riek’s coach at the IMG Academies in Bradenton, Fla., says Riek is ahead of where Thabeet was at this same point in his career.
“We played against Thabeet when he was down in Texas [at school],” Barto said by phone. “And Riek’s ahead of where Thabeet was, in my opinion.”
The 7-foot-1, 250-pound Riek, who came here from the Sudan to be at Our Savior New American on Long Island and later spent time at the Winchendon (Mass.) School, just signed with Mississippi State this week. That gives the Bulldogs an imposing front line of Riek and Renardo Sidney, the McDonald’s All-American who ended up at MSU after both UCLA and USC reportedly withdrew because of concerns that Sidney had violated his amateur status.
“We weren’t aware that they were recruiting Renardo Sidney,” Barto said. “Most likely they would block a lot of shots [together].”
Riek initially committed to Cincinnati with hopes of joining the team mid-way through last season, but he never signed with the Bearcats.
“They didn’t want to put him on grant-in-aid to put him into school,” Barto said. “They wanted him to be cleared through the NCAA Clearinghouse and be enrolled on a basketball scholarship.”
Riek considered Providence and Mississippi State, but ultimately chose the Bulldogs.
Riek is still recovering from ACL surgery last summer, and Barto said it will take some time. NBA guard Steve Francis is also at IMG recovering from a knee injury.
“[Riek] is between 60 and 70 percent,” Barto said. “We’ve been taking it real, real slow. He doesn’t really need to be ready until next November in theory.
“He’ll be able to step in and block a ton of shots and keep the ball alive with his length and activity. He will give them four to five fouls as he learns to keep up with the pace of the game.”
Barto said the current IMG players, including 6-10 Arizona-bound center Kyryl Natyazhko, “don’t want to play too much five-on five. Kyryl doesn’t want to play against him.”
Another concern with Riek is whether he violated his amateur status when he initially came over from the Sudan and later, when he entered last year’s NBA Draft, only to withdraw.
“The school’s compliance has to finish the case,” Barto said. “Mississippi State will call the NCAA. They will shift this case over into determining whether he needs to pay money back or whether everything was legit.
“I think it was a combination of the two, how he got here from the Sudan and why he entered the draft. Teeng [Akol] went through the same thing at Oklahoma State and he was cleared. He didn’t get cleared until the middle of November.”
Gary Lorden is Riek’s guardian.
“He’s a good kid,” Lorden said of Riek. “The kid doesn’t smoke, doesn’t drink, doesn’t chase women. He’s a good kid. All he wants to do is go to school, get his English down and play basketball.”
Barto said Riek has dedicated himself to basketball during his 18 months at IMG. He has a 7-foot-9 wingspan and a 9-9 standing reach.
“His intensity level and his motor are as impressive as anybody we’ve had,” Barto said. “He stays after the ball. He really goes after second and third opportunities and looks to really run the floor even though he’s not to where he was before. He’s a tremendous communicator and teammate.”
Whether he’s the next Hasheem Thabeet remains to be seen.
“I got to see him at the LeBron James camp, the Nike Camp [in 2007],” Thabeet said last season. “He looked good. He’s not as coordinated as some of the big guys, like myself. But he’s a good player and he can make it.
“I was told that UConn was recruiting him until I said I’m coming back [for my junior year]. So if he’s good enough to get recruited to a good program like that, he can definitely make it anyway.”
WATCH OUT FOR POWELL
“He’s gonna be like Shane Battier,” Barto said. “He’s gonna be really good.”
Powell is the No. 33 power forward and No. 123 overall recruit in the Class of 2010.
“I play inside and out. I can shoot and drive to the basket. I’m a good rebounder and I try to block as many shots as I can,” Powell told CavsCorner.com.
He recently visited Virginia but has a long list of suitors.
“I’m getting the most interest from Florida, Stanford, Cal, Virginia, Auburn, Kansas, Memphis, Kansas State, Arizona and Vanderbilt,” Powell said. “There are probably some others also. But right now I’m still very open and I’m just looking at all of my options.”
(Photos courtesy Rivals, Boston Globe, IMG Academies)