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High School Sports

On high schools: Late bloomer KZ Okpala of Esperanza has a rosy future

KZ Okpala
Esperanza senior KZ Okpala takes a shot during practice on Jan. 18.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Play dance music and 6-foot-8 KZ Okpala will dance. Hand him a basketball and he’ll dribble between his legs like a Harlem Globetrotter. Tell to him improvise and he’ll respond with a shot straight out of a game of H-O-R-S-E. There’s something unusual about Okpala’s skills.

It might be because he has grown 10 inches since he arrived at Anaheim Esperanza as a 5-10 freshman. Or that his parents are from Nigeria and taught him to never stop working hard. Or that he grew up learning the game from playing against 30-somethings at fitness clubs and on blacktops.

“I was always outside playing basketball, going to parks, playing in pickup games,” he said.

That explains everything: he’s not a creature of the club basketball circuits.

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Okpala is a late bloomer who his coach, Mark Hill, says has become the best player in school history.

“When you have guard skills and can grow 10 inches, that’s like Anthony Davis,” Hill said, referring to the NBA All-Star.

Okpala signed with Stanford in November, and based on the way he’s playing he could be the biggest steal in the 2017 recruiting class. He’s averaging 29.4 points and 9.9 rebounds for the 18-1 Aztecs.

6-8 senior at Esperanza is averaging 29.4 points

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In the the opening week of the season during a tournament in Chicago, he set a scoring record with games of 32, 41, 36 and 24 points. Thirty-four future NBA players have played in the tournament, including the aforementioned Davis and Andrew Wiggins.

Last week against Villa Park, he scored 36 points with a repertoire of shots that left the Esperanza student section in a frenzy. He had a four-point play, a three-point play, scored from the inside and outside, blocked shots, rebounded and contributed assists.

“We are very excited about him,” Stanford assistant Adam Cohen said in an email. “Great kid, hard worker, massive upside.”

Okpala has guard skills even though he is the size of a forward.

“I don’t even know what a small forward does,” he said. “I feel comfortable when I’m bringing up the ball.” 

It was in November of 2015, when he was 6-6 and going into his junior season, that he picked up his first scholarship offer, from UC Irvine, and Josh Gershon of Scout.com wrote a review detailing his growth spurt. 

Okpala was not on the “shoe circuit” when it came to travel ball. He played for low-profile teams until last summer when he joined a Pat Barrett-coached travel team in April. That’s when new Stanford Coach Jerod Haase first saw him.

He has three older siblings, all of whom have either graduated from or are attending college. He has a 4.4 grade-point average.

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As a player, he loves contact and competition, the result of many days sneaking into a fitness center and playing pickup games against much older opponents. To stay on the court, your team had to win. He learned about staying up after getting hit, being aggressive and fearing no one.

“I always had a chip on my shoulder and always thought I was best and always played hard,” he said. “I knew how to use my body and push people in certain ways and they didn’t like that.”

He no longer sneaks in for free to the fitness center. He has his own pass. Those former pickup game opponents might be wanting his autograph one day.

“I’m 10 times better than last year,” he said. “I’m way more athletic. I’m way faster, smarter.”

He reminds some people of Landry Fields, a former Los Alamitos, Stanford and NBA player who also had a growth spurt and reached 6-7.

There’s no telling where this story is going to end, because Okpala keeps getting better and better.

“To think how good he’s going to be in two years with more weight and strength,” Hill said. “It’s scary.”

eric.sondheimer@latimes.com

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Twitter: latsondheimer


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