AKRON, Ohio As a 6-foot-7 eighth grader playing AAU basketball for the first time, Zeke Marshall dreamed of one day being highly ranked and regarded amongst his competitors.
In video games.
Basketball was something he felt like he had to. Progress, back then, was measured by not having to ice his body down after games and scoring more than a single basket.
To really love the game or even like it he would need to succeed. That was years away.
Now, Marshall is a 7-foot-junior at the University of Akron, one of the nations best shot blockers both by statistics and by the eye test. Even when hes not using his 7-foot-6 wingspan to block shots, would-be scorers are thinking he might.
Hes an improbable yet inconsistent star still very much in the making. Hes come a long, long way.
I was really tall, my father (Jonathan Marshall) was very well known (in Pittsburgh) as a former high school star who played at Penn State and I literally got forced into playing basketball, Marshall said.
And thats probably why I didnt enjoy it. As I got older and made my own way, I started to develop a love for the game. But it used to be something i didnt look forward to at all.
I was not good. I was so uncoordinated. I was growing into my body it was a really long growth spurt, two of them. My knees hurt constantly. I didnt really like the game.
Hes coming around, and his coach is making sure of it. The 21-year old tallest guy on his campus and his 53-year old coach, a man whos probably a foot and a half shorter than his current favorite project, make for an improbable pair.
Akron coach Keith Dambrot makes sure theyre as close to an inseparable pair as NCAA rules allow.
I kind of change my tune to keep things interesting, but Im always on him, Dambrot said. At times its love and at times its (disgust). He has some weaknesses. Hes not there yet, but he has a whole lot to work with.
For me, what matters is getting him to the big leagues. I think thats my job. My obligation is try to give him the best chance to be a pro. From a maturity standpoint he has no rush; hes not even close to where hes going to be. But hes only going to get there if he keeps working.
Said Marshall: Coach calls me. He calls a lot. Usually once a day, sometimes more. He wants whats best for me I know that. Thats why he does that.
As a high schooler in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, Marshalls main recruiter at Akron was Jeff Boals, now an assistant at Ohio State. Marshall was eventually sold on the city feel of Akrons campus, the thought that the coaching staff truly cared about his development and the schools computer information systems program, in which he carries better than a 3.0 GPA.
Scout.com rated Marshall as the nations 31st best prospect in the class of 2009, and he became the highest-rated prospect ever to sign with a MAC program out of high school. But he was much more sure about his future with computers at that point than he was of his future on the basketball court, and it showed.
Before Marshall was a 7-foot problem for opponents, he was a 7-foot target for officials, for older and stronger opponents, for opposing student sections.
That Dambrot now talks about him and to him as a pro prospect is a testament to how far hes come. Eighteen months from now, Marshall will be seeking employment in the NBA, and not in some teams IT department.
The full potential probably wont be reached until hes 25 years old, Dambrot said. But right now hes one of the best shot-alterers in the country, I have no doubt about that. When youre big, people expect you to be good automatically and right away. You shy away from getting in the gym because youre not good at it, and that was exactly what Zeke did. He knew he had weaknesses.
I make him stay in the gym now. Im an absolute pain in his behind. When he wants to leave after practice I dont let him leave. I just feel obligated.
Marshall is a double-digit scorer for the first time this season and not just one of the nations best shot blockers, statistically, but a game-changing force. Hes using his wingspan to alter shots and remind opponents that hes looming.
Mississippi States Arnett Moultrie, a 611 junior, is one of the SECs leading scorers at 16.2 points per game and has eight double-doubles on the season. He shot 2-of-13 in a November loss to Akron.
Zeke didnt cover him the whole time, but he makes guys think hes coming, Dambrot said. Nobody wants to be on the highlights getting a shot blocked. Guys know hes coming.
Marshall enters this week ranking 10th nationally in blocked shots at a little better than 3 per game. Hes had at least 3 blocks in eight games this season and four with at least 5 blocks.
Maybe the best part he only knows his stats because he sees them posted on his moms Facebook page.
The only time I ever look at my own stats is if I feel I had a bad game, I look at how many times I had turnovers, Marshall said. I know Coach Dambrot is coming to talk to me about every one.
After a 2-point, 0-rebound, 3-block game in last weekends MAC opener at Miami-Ohio, Marshall is probably spending extra time with his coach this week. Its all part of the process, part of the growing pains, part of not just being the biggest man on campus but asserting himself as the Biggest Man on Campus.
Zeke was still a lot like a 13-year old kid when he got here, Dambrot said. Hes a man now. Hes more mature, on and off the court. Hes improved his toughness, his knowledge of the game. Hes a constant worker. Hes finally keeping his weight at 230 and hes much stronger. Defensively, hes smarter.
Hes just a really good kid. Hes a sweetheart, and thats part of his problem.
Marshall had 10 points and 5 blocks against Mississippi State and 10 points and 6 blocks in a narrow loss to VCU in late December. For much of the second half of that game, VCU wasnt able to get near the lane.
After the VCU game, (VCU coach Shaka Smart) called me and told me they saw a bunch of great players last year but nobody that dominated a game defensively like Zeke did, Dambrot said.
That, like the Mississippi State game, was the kind of big test Akron and Marshall will need to pass as the Zips chase their third NCAA Tournament berth in four years. Theyll go as far as Marshalls shot-blocking and sudden leadership take them.
Im not playing my best yet, no way, Marshall said last week. I have matured. Im a little wiser, a little more ready for whats going to be said or how teams are going to play me. Its about trying to manifest all that energy into just playing better.
Im not in the spotlight as much as a lot of players are and I like that. I dont mind that a lot of our games arent on TV. I dont need all that attention. I know I have to develop and when Im ready, people will know. That will be really fun.