ND Okafor won’t be Cal’s first basketball player from Ireland. Current freshman Sam Alajiki grew up in Dundalk, a city nearly 1,000 years old that sits near the border of Northern Ireland.
But perhaps no Cal player ever is as well-traveled as Okafor, whose arrival in Berkeley next fall climaxes a life-long trek that includes him living on three different continents.
Born in Nigeria, Okafor was named Ndonwawanne, but uses ND because it’s easier for everyone else. He and his family moved to Ireland when he was just a year old. For most of the past two years, he has resided at the NBA Academy in San Luis Potosí, Mexico, four hours north of Mexico City.
Cal is getting an 18-year-old who already has lived a little.
After relocating more than 5,000 miles from home in Europe, Okafor believes he is better prepared for his move to college. “I went through this when I was a young kid, I was like 16,” he said. “I feel like now I’ve matured enough I can adjust to the culture at Cal. I can’t wait to get (there) and experience everything, the football games, everything.”
More than anything, his time at the NBA Academy Latin America has helped Okafor’s game mature. Living, training and competing alongside teammates from Mexico, Canada, Brazil, Ivory Coast, Puerto Rico and the Bahamas, Okafor has grown to 6-foot-9, 230 pounds and should be ready to provide the Golden Bears a boost next season.
How about this glowing evaluation from Walter Roese, head coach of the Latin America team:
“He’s a great kid. He came with high hopes, high expectations because he’s a great athlete. His athletic ability is off the charts — he’s a college player for sure now. He has a high motor, rebounds really well, runs the floor extremely well, capable to shoot the short-corner shot, the 12- to 16-foot shot.
“Very coachable, wants to get better. He likes to win. He’s a very competitive player and I think Cal got a really good big man. He’s a kid who knows what he has to do to get better and I think the sky’s the limit. He can play at a really high level.”
Okafor was offered the NBA Academy scholarship two years ago after being spotted playing with Ireland’s U16 national team. His experience in his home country was only going to take his game so far, Okafor understood.
He grew up playing soccer, then was encouraged to try basketball after sprouting to 6-4 by the start of high school. “The game came to me naturally,” Okafor said. “As soon as I fell in love with the sport, I just forgot about soccer.”
His time at the NBA Academy has offered a different level of coaching and competition that he needed.
“When I was playing in my country, I was just powering over everyone, just going up to the basket. When I came here they really showed me the game in different ways,” said Okafor, who believes his basketball IQ has grown and talks in the video below about the growth of his game.
The biggest challenge Okafor has faced in Mexico is the language. He spoke no Spanish when he arrived and is still learning it. He missed his family — mom, dad, three sisters and a brother — but has adjusted to that as well.
Life in Mexico has been good, Okafor said. “I think everyone in town knows us. If we go out in public, they’ll be able to spot us from a mile away. But everyone is nice, everyone treats us with care over here,” he said. “It’s nice to experience (their) culture. I’m enjoying myself.”
Greg Collucci works with the NBA International Basketball Operations team, which oversees their academies in Latin America, Australia, Africa, India and two in China. The facility in San Luis Potosi’ includes multiple basketball courts, a weight room, educational and dining facilities and housing, along with a staff that includes two player development assistants, a strength and conditioning coach, an athletic trainer and a performance lifestyle practitioner, whose responsibilities involve focusing on "the mental health of the players she works with to achieve their best performance."
It's all part of what Collucci calls “a holistic approach” to developing young players. “We try to give all of the athletes the resources they need from all perspectives, what we think will translate as they move on as a player.”
Okafor appreciates what the experience has meant to him. “It’s a great program. It gets you right, academically, physically and everything. It helps you in all aspects of life,” he said. “I cherish what the academy has done for me.”
COVID-19 has made team travel more difficult, but Okafor and his teammates played at two events in the U.S. in December, including the Tarkanian Classic, which featured top high school and prep school teams from across the country, and also matched the Latin America squad against the NBA Academy from Africa.
Collucci, who talks about Okafor in the video above, was impressed by the improvement he saw in Okafor's game at Las Vegas. “He was forceful, finished around the rim, made a couple jump shots. Really competed,” Collucci said. “I think for ND that was a great confidence builder to be able to compete against some players that are projected to be some of the better players coming into college soon.”
Among his teammates is Fredrick King, a 6-10 native of the Bahamas, who has committed to Louisville. Alums of the NBA Academy include current Arizona star Bennedict Mathurin and Josh Giddey, a 19-year-old Australian who is averaging 11.5 points, 7.3 rebounds and 6.4 assists as a rookie with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
“It’s really been great to see the players translate these things we thought were happening, and now they’re happening out on the larger stage,” Collucci said.
Asked if he believes Okafor can walk that same path, Collucci added, “We hope that for all of these players who move on and hopefully they have the background to lean on when things go this way or that. That’s part of the athletic experience in college and I think he can do that.”
Okafor projects as either a power forward or center for the Bears and believes he has expanded his game enough to play either position.
“I feel like I’m a skilled big. I can go to the basket, I can face up. I like to play in the low post but I also can go out and make a few jumpers,” he said. “I like to catch lobs. I like two play defense, chase down blocks. And get some highlight dunks. I feel like I bring a lot of energy to the court as a big.”
Roese believes Okafor will be ready for the challenge of the Pac-12 next season. “Our job at the NBA Academy and as a former college coach is to make sure our players are not typical freshmen,” he said. “He still may struggle a little bit with physicality or maybe the the pace of the game. But he will be a surprise and I think by the middle of the season he will be a very good contributor for Cal.
“He wants to be good, he wants to be a pro."
Okafor says he’s watched many of Cal’s games on TV and is encouraged by the progress the Bears are making.
Okafor has yet to actually step on the Berkeley campus, having signed with the Bears after taking a virtual tour. He talks almost daily with Alajiki, who gives him a thorough scouting report on the program and the school.
“We have a great friendship,” Okafor said. “He’s really enjoyed everything — the campus, the coaching staff, going on the road with the team. He told me I’ll love it there.”
Cover photo of ND Okafor courtesy of the NBA Academy
Follow Jeff Faraudo of Cal Sports Report on Twitter: @jefffaraudo