Bamberg – It’s hard not to enjoy watching Vitalis Chikoko play basketball. First off, there is the enticing talent of a 2.06 meter, long, athletic forward less than two years removed from being in Zimbabwe. Then there is the beaming smile the 21-year-old Trier youngster flashes on and off the court.
And talking to those around “Vitah”, it seems clear that the still raw prospect, who arrived in Germany as a favor, features the attributes, work ethic and skills to replace the tagline talent with something much more special.
“The sky’s the limit,” said Chikoko’s former coach Michael Meeks, who molded the professional rookie last season at BG Göttingen and is now an assistant coach at s.Oliver Baskets Würzburg.
Chikoko’s current coach Henrik Rödl said once the Harare native becomes consistent, then “there’s no stopping him.”
There’s definitely no stopping Chikoko’s smile, which makes him a likely person around the Trier team.
“I think I speak for everyone when I say that he’s an unbelievably nice young man,” said Trier press spokesman Tom Rüdell.
“On the one hand, he’s quiet and reserved. On the other hand, he’s also very nice and open with a wide smile on his face. So it all fits together.”
“He’s definitely a nice guy and has a good work ethic. He enjoys learning. He’s extremely talented. You can’t hide that. It’s fun practicing with him,” said Trier center Andreas Seiferth.
“As a person, he’s such a well-mannered guy. He really wants to make his teammates and coaches happy. He’s not a troublemaker. He’s extremely intelligent,” added Meeks.
Glimpses of talent
Thus far this season, there have been glimpses of what the long, lanky left-hander Chikoko can be.
Against Beko BBL leaders Brose Baskets Bamberg on December 19, Chikoko collected 11 points, a team-high eight rebounds, one assist and one block. And there were plenty of highlight reel moments in the game.
Chikoko used his quick feet on offense, driving down the baseline for a reverse layup. Later, he drove into the lane and dunked over Bamberg’s talented center Philipp Neumann and also converted a long alley-oop pass for a dunk.
Offense wasn’t the only area in which Chikoko shined in Bamberg as he came up with a fantastic block at the end of the third quarter as Bamberg guard Anton Gavel faked him into the air but Chikoko was quick enough to spring back up for the block.
But, right now it’s been more flashes than long stretches of action – or even full games in Trier.
Trier’s No. 23 set season highs with the 11 points and eight rebounds against Bamberg. Through 15 games this season, Chikoko is averaging 5.2 points, 3.2 rebounds, 0.7 blocks and 0.5 assists while shooting 60 percent from the floor and 67 percent from the free throw line.
But Chikoko showed last season at Göttingen what kind of promise and potential he possesses.
After demolishing the fourth division Regionalliga with Göttingen’s second team – and earning three short Beko BBL appearances totaling 10 minutes in November – Chikoko was given a chance with Göttingen’s first team from February on, finishing the season with 6.9 points and 4.5 rebounds in less than 15 minutes per game over 17 contests.
Actually, Chikoko was a dominant force at the end of the 2011-12 season for Göttingen, who would end up being relegated. Over the final six games, he averaged 14.3 points, 7.8 rebounds –3.8 of them of the offensive variety, 1 block and 1.3 turnovers in about 24 minutes per game while shooting 65 percent from the floor including 3 of 7 from long range.
“The last six games, I don’t know if there was a better power forward in the BBL other than PJ Tucker (of Bamberg, who won the MVP of the league). He just did anything he wanted. We lost games, but he was a force,” said Meeks.
Rödl saw first hand what Chikoko could do in Trier’s final game of the 2011-12 season as the youngster burnt TBB for 20 points with 9 rebounds and two of three from outside.
Chikoko admits that Rödl was the main reason he chose to come to Trier after Göttingen were relegated.
“I knew that he would make me a better player. I have been working every day hard after practice since I came here to Trier. Also before practice. He’s teaching me everything – shooting, post plays, everything,” says Chikoko, who signed on a three-year deal with Trier after having a four-year contract with Göttingen.
To Trier via Göttingen from Zimbabwe
Chikoko’s arrival in Germany came about as a favor as his representative Peter Mubanda is married to a woman from Göttingen who knew Ulrich Frank, one of the club’s management members.
Meeks recalls Frank asking him if he could check out Chikoko.
“Uli was like, just take a look at this guy. If you like him, fine; if you don’t, fine. We took a look, that’s how he ended up being in Göttingen. It was just luck,” remembered Meeks.
“Otherwise we would have never had seen him. He would have been in a different city. And I don’t know if somebody would have seen Vitah and saw what he brought to the table and give him a chance. It was fortunately that we had the Regionalliga team and a place to put him up and a spot open for him to get a workout.”
Meeks didn’t have any big expectations of Chikoko, who played the 2010-11 season for the Zimbabwean team Dzivaraseka Raiders.
“I didn’t think he was going to be more than a practice player for last season. But everyday he was better, and by December he was destroying people in practice,” said Meeks looking back to the 2011-12 campaign.
“I remember when he was brought to us, his representative said you’re gonna take this guy and by mid-season he’ll be in your first five. And I said, there’s no way. He could barely walk and chew gum.”
Chikoko started playing basketball when he was 11 years old because he was too tall to play football. His first real exposure to international hoops came six years later when he captained Zimbabwe’s team at the 2008 U18 FIBA Africa Championship. In January 2011, Chikoko debuted with his country’s senior team and helped Zimbabwe to a 2-2 record at the 2011 FIBA Africa Championship Qualifying Round with wins over Zambia and Malawi and losses to South Africa.
A big moment for Chikoko came in October 2009 when he lined up in a game against Angolan veteran Joaquim Gomes, a winner of multiple African championships who has also played at two Olympics and three FIBA World Championships.
“At first, I was afraid of the name Gomes and of him,” Chikoko recalled. “But I blocked his first shot and then scored on a drive on him at the other end. I was like ‘I can play against this guy’. He was giving me some respect. So that was cool. I thought I just have to play my game.”
Tell him once and that’s enough
One of the hardest parts for young players in their development is to take in new input and make it their own. That’s not a problem for Chikoko.
“Everything that you throw at him he’s like a sponge. You could see day to day that everything you teach him he retains it. The next day he puts it in play and practice and uses it. And then by the third day he’s making it his own,” said Meeks.
“Vitah doesn’t make the same mistake twice. And that’s a great thing.”
Meeks considers Chikoko like a “little brother” and adds: “Vitah is always going to be special to me in my heart.”
“He’s the kind of guy that every coach would love to be involved with because he gives everything he can. He comes into a gym and his only focus is how am I going to get better today and how far can I go,” said Meeks.
“I wish I had 15 Vitalises to be able to coach because you just know they’re going to get better each day.”
Rödl described separately Chikoko’s ability to turn training tutelage into stored skill sets.
“He’s very intelligent. He picks things up very fast. I talked with the coaching staff in Göttingen from last year and they were so up on his development and his ambitions and his way of picking up things. It’s really something I haven’t seen around very much that you really don’t have to tell him twice. It’s really amazing how he picks up things,” said Rödl.
Working on consistency and all-around skills
So, Chikoko can pick up things quickly. Where is his game right now? Where is he excelling and what areas still need work?
Rödl says Chikoko is “very talented” defensively.
“He’s got incredibly long arms. But he also has very good feet for someone his size. And he can stay in front of guards and wings, so he can be in multiple situations defensively,” said Rödl.
“Because of his game savvy he can also be good in trapping situations because he reads situations well.”
Rödl and his staff are predominantly working on Chikiko becoming more consistent in certain situations.
“He’s got a good shot, but he has to take it the same way every time. In defensive situations, you have box-out every time. And I think some of those things are the hardest things for young people to pick up. Like Vitah who is very talented and can do this and do that. But he’s not doing it with consistency yet. And that’s what we’re trying to get him to do. That he can be relied on,” said Rödl.
“When he gets to that level, there’s no stopping him.”
Chikoko himself knows he still has to work on the offensive side of the game.
“I can say that I am playing good defense but offensively I am still struggling a little bit,” said Chikoko – who weighs 97 kilos and is looking to add three more for an even 100..
When asked what areas he’s working on, his eyes light up and he says: “Shooting.”
“I’m shooting a lot – both inside and outside. It’s still coming. My focus is quite good.”
Chikoko knows that his ability to shoot from the outside will be key to the development of his game.
“I think I’ll be making a lot of outside shots by the end of the season. It will be quite good if I can shoot good. Because then they will be too tight on me, and that’s when I have the opportunity to go to the hoop.”
Chikoko spent the end of the 2011-12 season roaming between the small forward and center positions with Göttingen – a result of Meeks’ intensive work with his prized pupil.
Meeks said it was clear to see that Chikoko had size, but he also showed the ability to put the ball on the floor.
“For me, I always knew he was a little too thin to really be a banger inside. So I concentrated on doing a lot of footwork because I was also a very skinny center. It’s not that it’s impossible and it’s not that big strong guys are better in the post. But as long as you have good footwork, it really doesn’t matter. And I preached that to him. And he bought into it,” said Meeks.
But the former Göttingen coach did not want Chikoko to label himself by one specific position.
“I tried not to let him think of himself as a three man (small forward). I tried not to let him think about himself as a center. I told him he would have a mismatch wherever he was and he was going to have to exploit them,” said Meeks.
“I don’t think you can look at a guy with the talent like that and a big skill package which he has and the ability to learn very quickly and say you’re going to become a three or a five. Because it takes away from what he can do.”
Meeks added: “I told him if we play him at the center and he has a big stiff center like John Bryant (of Ulm) on him that he should not back him down because he is going to lose that battle. Turn and face pump fake, use your pivots and go around him, or we’ll run a play for you where you can pop to the wing and now you make John Bryant come out. And Vitah can beat a John Bryant off the dribble form the three-point line. Is he going to beat a two guard that has lateral quickness? No, he’s going to take that guy into the post. That’s the way I taught him to play basketbll. And what I was trying to bring to his game.”
Chikoko has been predominantly used in the low-post positions at Trier, also because Rödl doesn’t have enough big men to put Chikoko at the small forward position.
Rödl noted Chikoko’s versatility and said he can play at small forward “at times”, adding: “His skill level is raw and he’s going to have to put a lot of effort into it.”
When asked after the Bamberg game if he thinks he can play the small forward position, the fan of Kevin Durant, Chikoko says: “It’s gonna work if I start shooting.”
Meeks sounded almost disappointed that Chikoko was not able to play both positions in Trier.
“I see Henrik needs a backup center on that team. And there’s nobody else able to do it at the level that Vitah can do. So that’s why he’s been restricted to what he can bring to his game,” said Meeks.
“He’s becoming more of a real inside player. It’s probably easier for him to develop from that one track as opposed to last year. He’s not taking threes this year, which is sad to see that he’s not developing that versatility.”
Meeks added: “But I still think what he brings to that Trier team is tremendous. Coming off the bench and making plays at the defensive end and still finding a way to be a valuable asset for a team. Which is what any good player at this level is going to do, no matter what the coach asks. You just have to be able to get it done.”
Even though Meeks is no longer coaching Chikoko, the Würzburg assistant expects to work with his “little brother” over the summer – especially to make sure he doesn’t lose his versatility of skills, including those of a small forward.
“He will lose it if he doesn’t work on it. He can become a dominant BBL forward. This summer, I will work with him if he calls, and he probably will,” said Meeks.
There’s just too much joy working with Chikoko – and watching him.