Josh Okogie bringing improved game to national-team tryout

Jayson Tatum of Duke defends Josh Okogie of Georgia Tech during the game at Cameron Indoor Stadium on January 4, 2017 in Durham, North Carolina. Duke won 110-57. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

Jayson Tatum of Duke defends Josh Okogie of Georgia Tech during the game at Cameron Indoor Stadium on January 4, 2017 in Durham, North Carolina. Duke won 110-57. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

Josh Okogie doesn’t need an invitation to try out for the U.S. national U19 team to appreciate how far he has come in the past year. All the Georgia Tech guard needs to do is go to the Walmart near his home in Snellville.

A year ago, before he set a single-game scoring record for Tech freshmen, averaged 16.1 points per game, made the ACC all-freshman team and was a driver in the Yellow Jackets’ expectation-shattering season, he could walk through the store unnoticed. Not anymore.

“I don’t think I’m there yet with autographs,” he said. “But it’s kind of more, like, ‘Hey, you’re Josh Okogie, Georgia Tech.’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Nice season.’ ‘Thank you.’ ‘Looking forward to next season.’ This and that. Most (frequent) is, ‘Can I take a picture?’”

But, fortunately for Okogie, he actually does have an invitation to go with his Walmart cred. Okogie is one of 28 players expected to try out for 12 spots on the U.S. team that will play in the U19 World Cup, held July 1-9 in Cairo, Egypt. Tryouts begin Sunday and will run through June 25. Chuma Okeke, a Westlake High grad who signed with Auburn, also will be among those trying out at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo.

“I’m biased, (but) I think he has a very good chance of making it, just because I think he has a good motor,” Tech assistant coach Darryl LaBarrie said.

LaBarrie has seen that drive this summer. After becoming only the third Tech freshman to score 30 points in multiple games (you’ve heard of the others — Mark Price and Kenny Anderson), Okogie has been attacking the flaws in his game in hopes of improving and rounding out his game this coming season.

He has been working on ballhandling, midrange jump shots, using ball screens, finishing at the rim and his post-up game.

“I think he’s had a huge jump in a short period of time,” LaBarrie said. “He’s just a hard worker, and he listens and he absorbs information.”

In addition to summer classes (calculus and music recording and mixing) Okogie has worked with LaBarrie in the two hours that coaches are permitted weekly for on-court instruction in the offseason, typically in four 30-minute sessions. Okogie has augmented that with his own private work and pickup games with teammates.

Becoming a more efficient scorer at the basket has been a particular emphasis. Okogie’s speed and slashing ability afforded him attempts in the paint and at the rim, but he was, like many teammates, often maddeningly unable to convert layups in traffic. To that end, he has endeavored to diversify his shots, working on floaters and short pull-up jumpers, shots that will also limit the banging and potentially reduce risk of injury.

“We play pickup, I’m definitely utilizing the moves I’m learning and executing in pickup and I’m seeing progress,” Okogie said. “It’s starting to become second nature to me, so it’s a good thing.”

LaBarrie also has been training him to develop a go-to move in the post as well as a counter move, which he can use to exploit the size advantage he sometimes enjoys as a 6-foot-4 guard.

“We posted him last year, but I think he just tried to overpower guys instead of having a game plan of what’s best for him and what he needs to do in those situations,” he said.

LaBarrie also has been helping him learn to make reads coming off ball screens, which is a skill that Okogie will probably need if he makes it to the NBA.

All those skills also won’t hurt in the tryout, obviously.

“It would mean everything (to make the team), to be honest,” Okogie said.

Okogie grew up watching some of his favorite players, such as Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, represent the U.S. and dreamed of doing the same. It has meant so much to him that he has apparently decided to give up a likely easier path to playing in international competition. Okogie also holds Nigerian citizenship, and he gave consideration to playing for that nation’s basketball federation. However, Okogie will commit to playing for the U.S. if he makes the team and plays in a game, although certain exceptions could allow him the option to switch.

Okogie said that Nigerian basketball officials have contacted his parents in a recruiting effort to play for the country of his birth.

Okogie acknowledged that playing for Nigeria likely would improve his chances at an experience such as playing in the Olympics, “but the easier way isn’t always the better way,” he said. “If it’s easy, it’s not worth having.”

That said, Okogie wouldn’t have been invited if he wasn’t deemed to have a chance. At least two coaches on the team, head coach John Calipari of Kentucky and assistant Danny Manning of Wake Forest, will be familiar with him, Calipari being a close friend of Tech coach Josh Pastner and Manning having seen him in the ACC. Okogie plays with intensity, defends well and has a mature understanding of the game, all traits that would suit him well in a tryout situation.

“It definitely does (feel good to be recognized), but I don’t want to stop here,” Okogie said. “Just can’t look at it that way.”