There is a blessing and a curse for the college basketball program that can attract and develop great players.
The blessing is obvious: Great players do great things, and the program wins a lot of games.
The curse, also kind of obvious: Those same players often channel the old comedic tune sung by Groucho Marx, “Hello, I must be going.” And they head for the NBA exit ramp, leaving the chump change of NCAA meal money behind.
So while you still have the chance, say hello to Josh Okogie. After an already impressive freshman season with Georgia Tech, he has taken his game to the next level in this postseason, enabling the Yellow Jackets to reach the NIT title game against TCU on Thursday night.
Okogie totaled 22 points, nine rebounds, two assists, two blocks, two steals and only one turnover in Tuesday’s semifinal win over Cal State Bakersfield. He is averaging 22 points and eight rebounds in four tournament games. He also had two of his biggest games this season in two of Tech’s biggest wins: 26 points and five rebounds against North Carolina, 35 points and 14 rebounds against Florida State.
So the kid doesn’t melt on stage.
So … say goodbye to Josh Okogie?
Not quite yet. He will return for a sophomore season. I asked him Wednesday just to be sure because sometimes the seemingly obvious decisions to everybody else are not seemingly obvious to the athlete.
However, there are no guarantees after next season. Coach Josh Pastner knows as much. His 18-year-old has progressed at a rate even he didn’t expect. Okogie also is drawing enough attention that he received an invitation from Kentucky coach John Calipari to attend the USA Basketball 19-under trials with a chance to play for the national team that will compete in the World Championships in Cairo, Egypt, in July.
Okogie said he is “definitely honored” by the invitation. He likely will accept, but it’s not a certainty. He was born in Lagos, Nigeria, and has a dual citizenship. Attending the U.S. camp would mean revoking his eligibility to play for the Nigerian national team in international competitions, including the Olympics. Making the U.S. Olympic roster obviously would be more difficult.
These are issues seldom associated with local college basketball talent. The best players tend to leave the state. The one-and-dones usually head for Kentucky or Kansas or UCLA, not Athens or Midtown.
Okogie isn’t quite at the one-and-done level, but he was an ACC all-freshman pick, is strong driving to the hoop, has improved on defense, is a pretty good shooter (but needs to get better from outside the 3-point arc), draws fouls and plays all three perimeter positions. If he continues to develop this good and at this pace, he will be in the NBA soon.
“It’s a dream for me,” he said. “Watching the NBA as a kid, I was always ooh-ing and aw-ing. But I’m not worried about the pros right now. My mindset is just want to be the best college player I can be, and if (the NBA) is what God has prepared for me, so be it.”
Asked about the potential of losing Okogie quickly, Pastner said, “That would be a good problem. For us to get to the next level as a program, he has to play like a pro next year. It doesn’t mean he has to be in the draft next year. He just has to play with that mentality. The better he gets, the better for us.”
Pastner went into rescue mode when he got the Tech job. He had to rescue Brian Gregory’s 2016 recruiting class, which included Okogie.
“I honestly didn’t know that he was going to be this good,” Pastner said. “I just knew we had to keep some guys.”
Okogie is from Nigeria, one of five children born to his parents, Pius (a pastor) and Anthonia (a home nurse). He was only 3 years old when he came to the U.S. His introduction to hoops came four years later, when his brother came home with a basketball goal.
“I grew up in a soccer home,” Okogie said. “But I liked basketball because I didn’t have to use my feet as much, and it was something I could play by myself. You can’t really play soccer or football by yourself. When my brothers were off in school or doing something else, I was left to myself. That basketball goal was like my best friend.”
He went on to start for three years at Shiloh High School, drew the interest of some colleges and picked Tech over Kansas State and Tennessee. (Georgia showed only mild interest.) But when Gregory was fired, Okogie considered opening up his recruiting, before Pastner was hired and convinced him to stay.
“He told me his style is to play fast, and that’s what I like,” Okogie said.
He’s moving fast. Watch him while you can.