9 things to know about Josh Okogie’s national-team experience

Josh Okogie's time in Egypt included a visit to the Pyramids of Giza and a moment in the saddle of a camel.

Josh Okogie's time in Egypt included a visit to the Pyramids of Giza and a moment in the saddle of a camel.

Georgia Tech guard Josh Okogie’s summer will conclude with a highlight. August 6-9, Okogie will be in Winston-Salem, N.C., for an invitation-only camp led by NBA all-star Chris Paul. Okogie will be there with other elite college guards to learn from one of the best. Okogie received a similar invitation from Adidas.

“I’m just going to go there with an open mind, learn as much as I can, soak in as much as I can,” said Okogie, who played for Paul’s AAU team in the summer of 2015. “The best players learn from everybody.”

It’s hardly all Okogie, Tech’s first ACC all-freshman team member since Robert Carter in 2013, accomplished this summer. The principal achievement was making the U.S. U19 national team that finished third in the FIBA U19 World Cup in Cairo. Okogie spoke about that experience recently, from making the team to playing for U.S. coach John Calipari to coming back and catching up for school.

Taking in sights

While in Cairo, Okogie visited the Pyramids of Giza, about 10 miles outside of the center of Cairo. Okogie was struck by the immensity of the structures, completed around 2560 B.C. The tallest stands at about 450 feet. By comparison, the Coca-Cola main office tower in Atlanta, 29 stories tall, is 403 feet.

“That’s all we were thinking about, was like, how did people make this?” Okogie said. “Real humans, no technology, just made that. It was crazy.”

Okogie was also able to sit on a camel, but was not able to take a ride for precautionary reasons.

Playing for Calipari

Josh Pastner was an assistant to Kentucky coach John Calipari for one season at Memphis (2008-09) before Calipari left for Kentucky and Pastner replaced him. Calipari evidently had some influence, as he said things in practices that struck Okogie as sounding a lot like Pastner.

“Coach Pastner always loves to express ‘We have to do everything with two hands,’” Okogie said. “’We have to catch the ball with two hands, rebound with two hands.’ And same thing Coach Cal would do. Say we catch the ball with one hand, we have to do the whole drill over from the beginning, kind of emphasize that. And a few defensive principles here and there were the same.”

Josh Okogie scored a double-double in a pool-play game vs. Angola in the FIBA U19 World Cup in Cairo.

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Limited minutes

Okogie averaged 4.6 points and 4.6 rebounds despite playing 13.4 minutes per game, second lowest on the team. His rebounding average was fourth highest on the team. He professed to be O.K. with the playing time allotment.

“To be honest, I wasn’t really angry how they played me, because, at the end of the day, if we’re winning, what is there to complain about?” Okogie said. “Whether I play one minute or all 40 minutes, if we get the win, we get the win. It was like an all-star team, so just being there, you didn’t really have to score 30 before people knew you were a good player. That wasn’t really my problem. I was just ready whenever my number was called.”

Rules adjustment

Playing according to international standards was a tough adjustment, he said. Traveling is called more tightly. Particularly, he said, players can’t take a first step without dribbling. Any time a defender puts two hands on an offensive player, that’s a foul, he said. And there is no basket interference; players can tap the ball out of the cylinder, or, for that matter, tap it in.

“You’ve got to kind of reshape your game, forget everything you know about the standard rules,” he said.

Catching up with school 

When he left for the tryout in Colorado Springs, Colo., Okogie was taking two summer-school classes, calculus at Atlanta Metropolitan College and Music Recording and Mixing at Tech. The tryout began June 18. He stayed there after making the team and returned from Egypt on July 10. He didn’t do any homework while he was away, but intended to finish the rest of the semester. He wasn’t so concerned with his music class.

“But as far as the calculus class, I’m kind of way behind on that, but I’m doing tutoring every day and I’m trying to catch back up,” he said.

The day after he returned, Okogie was back to practice with his teammates.

“I love my teammates too much,” he said. “I can’t sit on the sideline. I hate watching basketball, especially when I can just play.”

Okogie (navy shirt, blue and white headdress) tried his hand at bartering during his team's visit to the Pyramids of Giza outside Cairo.

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Making the U.S. team

There were two cuts, he said. The first was in a room where all of the tryout participants were assembled before a practice. A USA Basketball director came into the room to read off the names of the 18 players who had survived the cut.

The nine who didn’t, Okogie recalled, were sent home with an encouragement to prove the coaches wrong. The director named players who had previously not made the U19 team, a list that included players who had gone on to NBA careers. (Whether named or not, the list includes former Tech star Marcus Georges-Hunt.)

Okogie said his heart was pounding as names were read off.

“I was like, Whoa, I could be getting my stuff right now,” he said.

The next two days heightened his focus, as he tried to communicate better and “try do the things that nobody else was really doing,” he said. The final cut was made on the morning of June 22, the fifth day of the camp. Okogie was in his room with Quinton Rose, a sophomore at Temple, when Rose was summoned.

“I was like, Whoa, am I getting the one cut, or is he getting the one cut?” Okogie said, scratching his head.

Okogie went to practice an hour later, and Calipari congratulated him on making the team.

How rising star Josh Okogie ended up at Georgia Tech

Losing to Canada

After going 3-0 in pool play and winning the first two elimination games, the U.S. team lost to Canada in the semifinals, rallying to beat Spain in the third-place game. In the semifinal, Canada’s R.J. Barrett scored 38 points to lead the upset.

“Losing is just something I hate,” Okogie said. “I can’t stand the feeling of losing. My stomach just started to hurt, especially when the celebrations are going on. It just didn’t feel good.”

The U.S. U19 team had won the past two world championships for its age group. Canada went on to win the final over Italy, the country’s first world basketball title in any age group. Barrett lives in Florida and has been considered the top prospect in the 2019 class, although he announced Monday that he will re-classify and join the class of 2018.

Highlight of the trip

While he called Cairo “a wonderful experience,” Okogie said his personal highlight will be the time he spent in the tryouts and in training in Colorado Springs. Okogie relished the players and coaches he met during that time.

That included Calipari and assistant coaches Tad Boyle (Colorado) and Danny Manning (Wake Forest), but also King Rice (Monmouth) and other coaches who also served in Colorado Springs. NBA scouts were in attendance, also.

Okogie liked getting feedback and talking with coaches he had played against or had recruited him.

“One of my coaches came up to me and was like, Just be aggressive; there’s no reason to hold back,” he said. “So that kind of released my foot on the breaks a little bit. I didn’t even realize I was doing it until he said something.”

Putting on the red, white and blue

Wearing the U.S. jersey was not taken lightly. Okogie said that just being invited to try out was impactful to him.

“When I was putting on that jersey, I kind of just embraced the moment,” he said. “God blessed me with that moment, so I had to feel like I deserved it, so I actually took that moment with pride. I loved the fact that I got to represent my country. So I embraced it.”

He said he plans to frame the jersey at his family’s home in Snellville.