Chimezie Metu was “in love” — his words three years ago after making his first college recruiting visit, to UCLA.
Ben Howland, who was then UCLA’s coach, offered a scholarship, and the Bruins became the Lawndale High sophomore’s preferred choice.
Now a college freshman, Metu made his debut at Pauley Pavilion on Wednesday and had a breakout game.
He scored 21 points and grabbed eight rebounds, both season highs, as the Trojans snapped a six-game losing streak against the Bruins, 89-75.
“Outstanding,” USC Coach Andy Enfield said of the performance.
“It was really because of him why we got out to a big lead,” USC point guard Jordan McLaughlin said.
UCLA had a size advantage on USC, and two of the conference’s best rebounders in Tony Parker and Thomas Welsh, but Metu and the Trojans overwhelmed the Bruins with athleticism. They won the rebounding battle, 42-39.
After the game, several NBA draft reporters mused that Metu showed the most potential of any USC player.
Metu’s coach at Lawndale, Chris Brownlee, said Metu had “just scratched the surface” of what he could become as a player.
It took two coaching changes, a string of bad luck and some poor timing for him to flip sides in Los Angeles’ college rivalry.
After Metu’s sophomore season in high school, both Howland and USC coach Kevin O’Neill were fired.
Initially, both new coaching staffs pursued Metu and shortly after the coaching changes, Metu met with each.
UCLA assistant Duane Broussard trekked to Lawndale at 6 a.m. to meet Metu and watch him work out. The meeting seemed to go well, Brownlee said.
Shortly after, Metu drove to USC to meet Enfield.
At that point, UCLA remained the favorite. Broussard came away from the workout impressed, Brownlee recalled. However, Metu did not make a strong impression on the rest the Bruins’ staff.
“Every time another assistant would go see, it was one of our worst games, or he wasn’t playing,” Brownlee said.
In one instance, Lawndale lost its first league game in two seasons. Another visit coincided with a disappointing loss in the playoffs. And when head Coach Steve Alford came to watch Aaron Holiday play against Lawndale, Metu sat out.
Metu never received another UCLA offer. By the time he finally performed well in front of the UCLA staff, it was too late.
Brownlee recalled Broussard asked, “Is there any way we can get back in?”
But Metu already had moved on.
Early for USC, he has been a valuable rim protector: he averages 1.8 blocks in 17.5 minutes per game.
Offense has come more slowly. Despite bulking up before the season, Metu is a wiry 6 feet 11, 215 pounds.
“He’s different from a guy like Tony Parker, who just posts up,” Enfield said, referring to UCLA’s powerful forward. “And Tony’s a great player, so they’re just different. So when he plays a guy like Tony Parker and [UCLA center] Tom Welsh who’s bigger, he needs to use his speed as an advantage. He’s learning how to do that.”
Between practices, Metu has worked on refining his jump shot with assistant Jason Hart. Metu says they take 1,000 shots each session. The work has begun to pay off.
“The confidence was there,” Metu said, “it was just the jump shot wasn’t.”
Metu remains raw, but his athleticism makes him appealing to NBA scouts. McLaughlin claimed Metu could touch the top of the backboard.
“He doesn’t have a ceiling,” McLaughlin said.
Metu’s emergence adds another dimension to an already deep USC roster. The Trojans have surged to a 4-1 start in Pac-12 Conference play thanks mainly to six players who score in double figures.
Metu averages a modest 7.1 points and 3.4 rebounds per game, but he is becoming a greater concern for opposing defenses.
UCLA expected scoring from USC’s guards and starting frontcourt, but Metu caught them by surprise.
“Metu got away from us,” Alford said. “He was terrific.”