Ekey looks to do more than fill Griffey’s shoes

Every time Jon Ekey walks into the men’s basketball practice facility at the Ubben Basketball Complex, he sees a photo of Tyler Griffey dropping the game-winning layup into the basket against No. 1-ranked Indiana last February. The photo, spanning the length of the basketball court, serves as a constant reminder of what his role is on the Illinois squad.

Since he announced his transfer down Interstate 74 from Illinois State in April, there have been constant comparisons between Ekey and Griffey. Like Griffey, Ekey — a 6-foot-7, 225-pound forward — can knock down jumpers from the outside and battle for boards in the paint. But not everyone agrees that the comparisons are fair.

Senior forward Joseph Bertrand, who came in the same year as Griffey before redshirting, said other than their 3-point ability, there’s not a lot in common.

“They both can knock down open shots and will play hard for you, but they don’t really have a similar playing style,” Bertrand said.

Ekey, a Missouri native (like Griffey), is a graduate transfer who played three seasons at ISU and is eligible to play for the Illini this season. He is one of nine fresh faces on the Illinois roster.

The constant comparisons to Griffey don’t faze him.

“Every day I come in here and see him hitting one of the biggest shots that I’ve seen in a long time,” Ekey said of the photo on the Ubben wall. “It’s not one of the toughest ones, I’d say, but it’s definitely one of the biggest ones.”

Ekey is expected to fill the same role on this year’s Illinois squad as Griffey did last year — that of a “stretch four,” a power forward who can space the floor with jump shots.

At Illinois State, Ekey averaged 6.7 points during his three seasons and 4.4 rebounds. He shot .365 from 3-point range, including a career-high .407 his sophomore year.

“Just watching film on him,” Ekey said of Griffey, “seeing the way he played the game and what he did, I’m trying to use it with a twist here and there.”

The twist is that Ekey has a better nose for the ball in the paint. It showed in Illinois’ exhibition games this season. Even when he wasn’t pulling down rebounds, he was getting a hand on the ball and tipping it out to teammates.

Head coach John Groce called Ekey a “deceptively good athlete.”

“He’s different,” center Nnanna Egwu said. “With Ekey, just like Tyler, he shoots the ball a lot. But he attacks the basket, too. He will shot-fake you, and he’ll take it to the basket. If you’re not ready, he’ll dunk on you.”

Bertrand agreed that Ekey can get up. Egwu also praised Ekey’s ability to come into the program and pick up Groce’s system without a hitch. Groce said early in the preseason that Ekey was grading out better and more consistently than any other player on the Illinois roster.

And Groce, like Egwu and Bertrand, shies away from the Griffey comparison.

“There are some similarities, but it’s not necessarily tit-for-tat like some people would think,” Groce said. “Jon is probably a little bit more perimeter-oriented than Griff was. Griff’s a little bit bigger. Both of them shoot the ball well, but Jon is a little bit more skilled, probably, with dribbling and passing.”

When he puts on the orange and blue for the first time against Alabama State on Friday, it will be a new page in Ekey’s book. And it will be a new page for Illinois basketball.

Griffey left his mark on the Illini basketball program — captured in the iconic layup to beat Indiana. Now it’s Ekey’s chance to leave a mark. He knows what that means. He still sees Griffey’s on the wall every day.

Sean can be reached at [email protected] and @sean_hammond.