MORGANTOWN, W.Va.–For West Virginia University’s Elijah Macon the last couple of years have been anything but easy.
First, there were the academic issues and injuries that sideline the former four-star recruit. Then he took the biggest hit of all, Macon’s mother, Renai Payne, passed away.
It was an event that turned his life upside down.
For two seasons, the 6-foot-9, 240-pound forward mourned and was never quite able to live up to his potential. Last year he averaged 4.5 points and 3.0 rebounds per game. As a freshman, he averaged 4.3 points and 2.7 rebounds.
“It did (affect my play), just her not being here, just the presence,” Macon said. “Nobody wants to lose their mom at a young age. So I was out of it mentally. Just this summer I stayed with my family. I’ve been going back into church and everything, trying to stay in it mentally and play how I’m supposed to be playing.”
He had glimpses of brilliance but other times he was less than stellar which is not how Macon envisioned things.
“I thought I would come in honestly and be a big part of it which I was,” he said. “I just played my role. But now I get to actually put it on, everything I can do this year. I feel like the last couple of years that I’ve been kind of on hold, losing my mom and everything. I feel like I am done over the grieving period of all that and I can just move on with my life. I’ve just been focused on basketball all summer, trying to get better. ”
The redshirt junior has dedicated the offseason to becoming a better player and a leader, filling the void the absence of Devin Williams leaves.
“He’s worked hard at everything he’s needed to,” Adrian said. “I think he’s improved a lot. I think he will fill those shoes well.”
Macon has taken to mentoring the newcomers like Maciej Bender and Sagaba Konate.
“Elijah, he’s been helping the young guys a lot,” junior guard Daxter Miles Jr. said. “He’s talking more and that’s a good thing. He’s been in the gym. Like I said, it’s a mindset, a lot of mindsets have been changed. I’ve seen a lot of good thing in Elijah.”
Williams and Jonathan Holton were huge presences underneath. The duo dominated on the boards.
The Mountaineers need someone to step into that role this season and Macon just might be that guy.
“I think he’s tried to rebound a little bit more,” WVU head coach Bob Huggins said. “I think he understands that we lost a lot from a rebounding standpoint. So I think he’s focused a little bit more on that.”
The biggest difference in Macon is he is 12 pounds lighter and in better shape than last season.
The Columbus, Ohio native worked hard to get there.
“I went home for a little bit, probably a week or something,” Macon said. “Then I came back and I’ve just been in the gym. Honestly, I’ve been working on my shot, a lot of scoring down low if anything, getting stronger with (strength and conditioning coach) Andy (Kettler), still losing weight.”
He worked on conditioning and changed his diet. No more fatty foods.
Macon is excited for the advantages being in shape can play in the success he hopes to have this season.
“It gives me a big advantage,” he said. “Some big guys in the Big 12 won’t be able to run as much as I can run the floor. Me and Brandon actually, Sags, they are starting to get there. I know bigs like Texas and guys who have actual real bigs, we can run the floor so that will be our advantage.”
Huggins has always believed in Macon and supported him but he thinks the changes the junior made came because the competition behind him is tougher.
“For everybody it happens at a different time,” Huggins said. “Some of them it never happens. I think he’s getting pushed. I think Sagaba has played really well. I think Maciej shoots the ball really well. Brandon’s (Watkins) played better than Brandon’s ever played. And Nate’s (Adrian) played terrific so I think he’s getting pushed. That’s part of it. There’s not as big of gap as what we had before.”
All of the forwards are trying to step up in the absence of last season’s stars.
“All of our bigs have taken that upon themselves (to step up), senior guard Tarik Phillip said. “There are two of our big men, not only Devin Williams, have left. Elijah has been in the gym a lot. Brandon Watkins has been in the gym as well. We got a couple great big men that have came in as freshmen like Sags and Maciej and things like that. So they all got to pick it up I feel like.”
And Macon is ready for the task at hand.
“I’m just ready,” he said. “I am up for the challenge honestly.”
Cover Photo Credit: Kelsie LeRose, BGS