USC standout Onyeka Okongwu declares for the NBA draft

Tribune Content Agency

LOS ANGELES — After a single, shortened season that saw him solidify his place as one of college basketball’s most talented freshmen, USC forward Onyeka Okongwu is on his way to the NBA.

The Chino Hills (Calif.) High product declared his intentions Wednesday, following a season in which he led USC in points (16.2), rebounds (8.6) and blocks (2.7). The 6-foot-9, 245-pound Okongwu is expected to be a lottery pick in the upcoming draft, which would make him the first Trojan drafted that high since DeMar DeRozan was selected ninth in 2009.

“All good things must come to an end,” Okongwu wrote in a statement on Twitter. “I want to take the next step when the opportunity presents itself.”

That next step had long been anticipated by his coaches and USC teammates, even before the NCAA tournament was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. USC coach Andy Enfield had been anything but coy in recent weeks about Okongwu’s impending declaration.

On Wednesday, shortly after Okongwu announced his decision, Enfield recalled a game during USC’s trip through Europe last summer when the Trojans’ young big man completely took over.

“He was making jump hooks, dunking on them, rebounding, running the floor, blocking shots,” Enfield said. “I told my staff, we might have to take him out, before he declares for the NBA right now. Everybody kind of chuckled. But our coaches were thinking the same thing, ‘Let’s enjoy Onyeka this year, and hopefully he helps us win a lot of games, because we’re not going to have him very long.’ ”

Senior forward Nick Rakocevic was thinking the same.

“I just knew then, this kid is going to be a lottery pick without question,” Rakocevic said. “It was obvious.”

Okongwu enters an uncertain draft process at an especially uncertain time for the NBA, which has suspended operations. Some mock drafts list him as a potential top-10 pick, and with the scouting process likely truncated, Okongwu’s consistent production at USC could send him further up draft boards.

It didn’t take long for Okongwu to prove himself at the college level. Okongwu scored 20 points and recorded double figures in points and rebounds in each of his first two games. He added nine more double-doubles.

His scoring fluctuated during the conference slate as familiar opponents took to fronting and double-teaming him in the post. Still, Okongwu paced the Trojans in scoring all season while leading the Pac-12 in field-goal percentage (61.6%) and offensive rebounds (3.3) per game.

It was Okongwu’s work on defense that separated him as a prospect. Few college big men were as adept at patrolling the paint as Okongwu; he had 76 blocks, second-most in the Pac-12.

“It’s very difficult as a freshman to average 16 and eight on a team that wins 22 games. He did that,” Enfield said. “He just has the natural ability to affect the game without scoring, which is quite a thing as a freshman. His energy and his rebounding and his shot blocking, the way he ran the floor, was really fun to watch.”

Okongwu was passed over for freshman of the year in the conference, in favor of Arizona’s Zeke Nnaji. His teammates were not shy in expressing their disappointment with the decision.

“I don’t know how they decide, but everyone knows he’s the best freshman in the conference, hands down,” guard Jonah Mathews said. “Zeke Nnaji, you commend him, but the most purely dominant, in and out, every game, has been Onyeka.”

The former five-star emerged out of the shadow of the Ball brothers at Chino Hills, where his dominance led to three state basketball titles.

Towering expectations accompanied his arrival at USC. He didn’t get the chance to test those expectations in the NCAA tournament. But Okongwu felt he’d done enough to show he belonged at the next level.

“What a ride it’s been, my first year at USC,” Okongwu wrote on Twitter. “My freshman campaign at the school has been nothing short of spectacular. To Coach Enfield, Hart, Capko and Mobley, I want to thank you for letting a kid from Chino into your program. To my brothers on the team, the love and bond I have for you guys is real and it’s something I will always keep close to me.”


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