Powerful journey for Normal West's Okoro

Powerful journey for Normal West's Okoro

NORMAL — Francis Okoro’s journey to Normal began when he left Nigeria in 2014 before the start of what would have been his eighth-grade year. But prep school stops in Mississippi, Las Vegas and Tennessee just weren’t the right fit.

A final move to Normal — to a more normal, typical high school experience if you will — settled Okoro’s life. With his parents still living in Nigeria, Okoro moved in with his aunt and uncle, Nweze and Emeka Nnakwe, in January 2016. Being with family provided some stability.

“With my family is the best place to be,” Okoro said. “I just love my family, and I’m blessed to be here. I’m glad to be here — still with my (family), still learning basketball, learning how to live a good life and trying to be a better man every day.”

Okoro is getting the basketball part down.

The 6-foot-9, 225-pound center is considered a four-star prospect by 247Sports, Rivals and ESPN and is ranked as high as No. 34 in the Class of 2019 by the latter two. He holds a dozen offers from the likes of Illinois and Purdue in the Big Ten, perennial Big 12 champion Kansas and four SEC programs in Alabama, Missouri, Tennessee and Vanderbilt.

Okoro took an unofficial visit to Illinois in October before the season started. He returned for another and saw the Illini’s Dec. 30 win against Grand Canyon.

“I was seeing the kind of players the coaches play and try to understand why he plays those kind of players and see how I could fit into the team,” Okoro said about his most recent visit. “I talked with (Illinois assistant coach Jamall Walker on Thursday). He was checking in on me and said he was going to try to come to a game in the next week or two. We have a good relationship.”

Okoro doesn’t have a recruiting favorite yet. In fact, Okoro said he could see himself at any program.

“I believe if you play hard and play with good effort you could play for any school,” he said. “I believe every coach wants a player that plays hard and plays with all passion and gives 100 percent every day. I feel like I’m that kind of player and any school I go to I’ll always play my game because I always play hard.”

That was on display Friday night when Okoro’s Normal West played at crosstown rivals Normal in Big 12 action. The Wildcats posted a 42-37 victory behind a near triple-double — 19 points, 18 rebounds and eight blocks — from their junior big man.

“In big games, you need your best player to step up and fill the stat sheet,” Normal West coach Brian Cupples said. “He did that for us. He wanted (the ball).”

Okoro’s dominant performance against the Ironmen was a cross section of the package he brings to the court with his low post scoring, owning the boards and anchoring the Wildcats’ 1-3-1 zone defense. Even then, Cupples said there’s plenty of room for improvement.

“He’s been playing organized basketball in a high school setting like this for just a couple years,” the former Rantoul coach said. “He hasn’t come close to scraping his potential. He had 19 points and 18 rebounds, and he has a long way to go in my opinion. His ceiling is so high.”

A few of the low post moves Okoro flashed Friday night were plays he wasn’t making a year or two ago.

Twice he found himself too far underneath the basket after backing down his opponent, but he had the wherewithal to pull an up-and-under for a reverse layup both times. Another 1-on-1 opportunity saw Okoro use a quick move to the baseline off the right block for a two-handed slam.

“I’m trying to read my man,” Okoro said. “I’m trying to see what’s available for me. They’re trying to take away my (right) side and make me go left. I’m working on my stuff and trying to be more comfortable.”

A flying, one-handed tip dunk — with a powerful finish — at the end of the third quarter was another play that’s come with the work Okoro has put in on his game.

“I watched the film, and I realized I need to go get those,” Okoro said. “I need to start being more aggressive and try to be more dominant in the game — do something to always help my teammates win.”

As he’s added more to his game, Okoro’s confidence has grown. That combination makes him tough to stop with the ball in his hands near the basket. 

“The more you work hard on your game, the more you get perfect on it and the more you get confidence on it,” he said. “Right now if I miss my hook shot I don’t think it’s me. I always think it’s the rim because I work on it a lot, and I believe I’m supposed to make it every time I shoot.”

Okoro’s athleticism and length makes him an elite defender. He has good lateral quickness in short bursts and can move his feet to keep up with smaller opponents. A 7-3 wingspan makes him a natural rim protector.

The next step for Okoro offensively, Cupples said, is to continue refining his game.

“Finding a go-to and a counter — not a go-to dunk — a go-to post move and a counter to that,” Cupples said. “I really don’t know what his go-to is. Finding that and then getting a 15-foot jump shot.”

Friday’s near triple-double was at the high end of Okoro’s production this season, but his physicality and skill set give him an advantage nearly every night out for Normal West. Playing with Bradley Beal Elite on the Nike EYBL circuit last spring and summer showed him how he could compete with the country’s best.

Okoro averaged 8.9 points and 9.6 rebounds for Bradley Beal Elite and took on a bigger role on the team alongside fellow 2019 recruit and Illinois target E.J. Liddell when five-star forward James Wiseman left to join Team Penny. 

“It was a great experience, and it was an opportunity for me to get better,” Okoro said. “It’s a different level than high school basketball. You’ve got athletic guys like me. Everybody’s big and strong. 

“I just learned I have to be aggressive. I have to play the game with passion. Every time I play the game, I have to have a purpose. 

“I don’t want to give my opponent a chance.”