For years, Zeke Marshall wanted to leave basketball.
As a 6-foot-7 eighth-grader in McKeesport, Pa., Marshall didn’t pick the sport. It grabbed him by the arm and yanked him onto the court.
Marshall didn’t fall in love because his introduction to the game, he said, felt forced.
He was tall. And that’s just what tall kids do. So the sport represented a source of frustration.
“I resisted, honestly. I resisted it so much,” said Marshall, a junior at Akron who’s averaging 10.3 ppg, 5.3 rpg and 2.8 blocks. “I didn’t like being forced to do something. I didn’t enjoy it. I literally just did it because people told me to do it, almost.”
Even as he developed into a 7-foot college prospect at McKeesport High School, Marshall didn’t feel a natural connection to basketball and he wasn’t interested in the daily tasks necessary to improve.
“I almost hated the idea of it. ‘I don’t want to do it. Why do I have to do it?’” he told ESPN.com. “I should enjoy doing it. You have to want to do something before you strive to perfect it and achieve it.”
But toward the end of high school, Marshall began to embrace some of the game’s nuances that appealed to him like protecting the rim and blocking shots. Plus, a free college education would offer Marshall an opportunity to pursue a career as a computer programmer.
Last year, Marshall said he began to “really enjoy” the game for the first time in his basketball career. His on-court progression has reflected his new-found passion.
“It’s changed now. I’ve found my own love for it, my own niche for it,” he said. “I appreciate it more, rather than me being forced into to it. The shot-blocking and the defense. Now, that right there, I enjoy doing it. I’m a defensive-minded person.”
He’s grown from a freshman who averaged 5.1 points per game to a junior who’s shooting 55 percent from the field and earning nods on mock boards as a potential NBA prospect.
Marshall recorded five blocks in his team’s 70-58 victory at Ball State Tuesday night. He’s 16th in the country with 2.8 swats per game.
His defensive impact has affected the entire squad.
The Zips are ranked 47th in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive efficiency ratings. They held Mississippi State to a 34.5 percent clip from the field during their 68-58 road victory over the Bulldogs in the season-opener for both teams. Marshall had 10 points, six rebounds and five blocks in that game.
“Everybody including me was excited in that game,” Marshall said. “I like when people try to underestimate us.”
But the Zips lost five of their next seven games. Marshall said the team didn’t fully regain its footing until a 76-75 loss against VCU Dec. 29.
“It was one of the first games, we actually played well. We really played hard,” he said. “I think that was the defining part of our season.”
Now, the Zips are on top of the MAC’s East division and Tuesday, they beat the West division’s best team in Ball State.
Marshall’s defensive prowess has been vital for Akron. And it’s also made the third-year standout think about the NBA and what he has to do to get there.
The notion that Marshall is working toward a pro career juxtaposes the disdain he had for the game a few years ago.
“Ultimately, I have to take care of business here and use that, I think, as motivation to take my game further,” he said. “Despite what anyone thinks, the only way you’re going to get higher in the draft is to win.”
It wasn’t so long ago that Marshall didn’t even want to play.