Tech’s Josh Okogie has ‘a chance to be a really good player’

Pius and Anthonia Okogie had one request for their son prior to his game last Saturday for Georgia Tech. After scoring 18, 18, 5 and 16 points in the first four games of his career with the Yellow Jackets, could he break the barrier and score 20?

Okogie was quite the picture of obedience, doing as told in the Yellow Jackets’ 82-68 win over Tulane at McCamish Pavilion.

“And then after the game, they told me, ‘All we asked for was 20,’” Okogie said. “’We didn’t ask for 38.’”

Two days later, Okogie, a 6-foot-4 guard, himself was having difficulty figuring out what had just happened.

“When I went to bed, I was just in awe,” he said Monday. “I just didn’t know what to think. Still up to this moment, I don’t know what to think, but I guess I’m going to just leave that emotion there and just try to play my best next time.”

It was a rather mature response, particularly for an 18-year-old freshman. Okogie’s Tech career is only dawning, but there has already been plenty to suggest that he’s ticketed to be a most impactful player for the Jackets. Tech fans can see more Tuesday night, when Tech plays Penn State in University Park, Pa., in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.

Coach Josh Pastner said that he expects highs and lows from Okogie this season, “but I’ve said from the beginning, he’s got a chance to be a really good player down the road.”

The 38 points was a record for a Tech freshman, no small thing at a school that once held the patent on ACC rookie of the year, having produced 11 during the coaching tenures of Bobby Cremins and Paul Hewitt. Only three ACC freshmen have scored more in a single game, Boston College’s Olivier Hanlan (2013 ACC rookie of the year, two-time All-ACC) and North Carolina’s Harrison Barnes (2011 ACC rookie of the year, two-time All-ACC) and Tyler Hansbrough (2006 ACC rookie of the year, four-time first-team All-ACC).

“That’s a heck of a number, to be able to do that as a freshman,” Pastner said. “I don’t care if you’re a senior doing that, let alone a freshman. He should have had 40-something if he’d made some free throws.”

Indeed, one doesn’t score 38 points by accident. Since Tech joined the ACC for the 1979-80 season, seven Tech players have scored 35 or more. Six – Kenny Anderson, Dennis Scott, Tom Hammonds, James Forrest, B.J. Elder and Brook Steppe – earned All-ACC honors during their careers, some gaining accolades far greater. The seventh, Will Bynum, has played 360 NBA games.

Against Tulane, often driving to the basket, Okogie was 12-for-20 from the field (including 1-for-3 from 3-point range) and 13-for-18 from the free-throw line. He dropped 28 after halftime, scoring Tech’s final six points of the first half and its first eight of the second half. Monday, he was the unsurprising choice for ACC rookie of the week.

It eclipsed his career high at Shiloh High in Snellville by two points. His high-school coach, Kim Rivers, insisted he wasn’t surprised by the outburst.

“When you have a kid for four years, you know what their potential is,” Rivers said, “and his potential is to be a pro.”

Okogie looks like something of a parting gift from former coach Brian Gregory, who recruited him to Tech over Clemson, Tennessee and Kansas State before his dismissal at the end of last season. Pastner met with him soon after his hire and was able to convince him to stay, along with fellow freshman Christian Matthews.

Pastner observed that Okogie’s production was generated by his focus on the defensive end. Okogie has a tendency to be a bit casual when the ball goes away from him.

“He likes to call it, I’m waiting for the bus,’” Okogie said of Pastner.

This isn’t to suggest that Okogie is consumed solely by scoring. He has shown himself to be active on both ends, as evidenced by the fact that he leads the team in winning 50-50 balls in practice, a stat that the team tracks in every practice and that Pastner holds dear.

Regardless, Okogie played with a stopper’s mindset against Tulane, which kept him locked into the game. Okogie said he didn’t even look up at the scoreboard until he had reached about 25 points. Once he realized he was piling up points, he was determined not to try his hot hand with jump shots, but instead continue to go to the basket.

Since the game ended, he said, he hadn’t gone back to admire his work.

“What happens is you feel too good and you crash the next,” he said. “I’m just going to leave it in the books and focus on what I did bad to increase my efficiency.”