Pitt center Joseph Uchebo continues long road back from knee injury

Matched one-on-one against 6-foot-11, 255-pound Duquesne big man Darius Lewis for the majority of his Pittsburgh Basketball Club Pro-Am game Wednesday at Montour High School, Pitt junior center Joseph Uchebo showed flashes of skill that belong to a former top recruit.

With 12 minutes left in the first half, Uchebo snagged an offensive rebound over the long reach of Lewis before backing him down and putting up a shot. The ball rolled off the rim, but Uchebo grabbed it again in traffic, this time finishing the basket with a foul.

In moments like these, it's easy to forget Uchebo is still recovering from a devastating knee injury that put his basketball career on hold for almost two years.

But then he runs up the court with a noticeable hitch in his step, a clear reminder that his battle to get back to full health is not over.

"It still hurts," said Uchebo, a native of Nigeria. "Sometimes when I'm running I feel the pain, but not like it used to be."

The pain was so bad in the weeks after Uchebo collided knees with an opponent while playing for Chipola Community College in Marianna, Fla., that he could barely sleep at night.

But Uchebo said he continued to play for about two more weeks on the recommendation of team doctors.

"They told me it wasn't that bad and I was happy to hear it wasn't that bad," he said. "But it was that bad; they just wanted me to play.

"As time goes, the truth starts coming out. You know, I was so [angry]. Like, is my basketball career going to end just like that? I was thinking about that every day, every night."

Two microfracture knee surgeries, two basketball seasons and one transfer later, Uchebo hopes that 2014 will be the year he can contribute to a team again.

It was supposed to be last season.

Many around the Pitt program thought he would go into 2013 healed and ready to find his place on the court. Instead, Uchebo could barely get up and down the floor, averaging just 2.6 minutes, 0.4 points and 0.8 rebounds in nine games.

"I'm expecting myself to be able to run the court, do what they ask me to do," Uchebo said.

"If I'm healthy, I know that I am going to be out there playing."

Through the first five games of the Pro-Am, Uchebo has been a dominant force on the boards. He is averaging more than 19 rebounds a game -- best in the league by more than five -- and scored 15 points in his most recent outing.

More important for Pitt coach Jamie Dixon, Uchebo has spent most of the 44-minute games on the court, not the bench.

"He still has to do more and that's where he has to get more and more confident with it," Dixon said. "He's got to be able to outrun people, beat people down the floor."

With Uchebo taping in as the tallest big man on the team at 6-10, Dixon is eager to see what he could do at full speed.

But Dixon and the Pitt medical staff are not going to push Uchebo too hard.

"We knew the injury was going to be something he's going to have to overcome and we knew it was something that wasn't going to happen overnight," Dixon said. "We were willing to work with him and if we felt that he wasn't able to play, we had told him we would take care of him otherwise."

For Uchebo, the commitment from Pitt to see him through his injury has been the most gratifying experience with the program. He is ready to pay the Panthers back.

"They believe in me, better than I believed in them," Uchebo said. "You know, if I am not getting better, I'm not giving them what they want. But if I get better, they know I'm going to give them what they want, 100 percent."

Alex Nieves: anieves@post-gazette.com and Twitter @alexdnieves5.

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