Onyeka Okongwu is a hard player to miss on the basketball court. His muscular build, explosive moves, offensive prowess in the paint, shot-blocking abilities and rim protection make him stand out in just about any game.
In the fall, he will be a freshman playing for USC. But before he joins the Trojans, he’s been gaining valuable experience in the Drew League this summer.
The league, held at King/Drew Magnet High in Los Angeles, features high school, college, professional and street players competing on 24 teams. In the past, NBA stars Kobe Bryant, James Harden, Kevin Durant and Paul George have played in the league.
“This is a competition,” Okongwu said. “It has the best runs and I get the best competition here before I go off to college.”
Okongwu was selected The Times player of the year and to the All-Southern Section Division I first team after leading Chino Hills to its third state championship in four seasons. As a senior, he averaged 27 points, 11 rebounds and 4.3 blocks per game while shooting 62%. Despite having three coaches during his time with the Huskies, Okongwu never transferred.
Okongwu and Isaiah Mobley are five-star recruits who anchor USC’s 2019 class, which is ranked No. 6 in the nation by 247Sports. It’s the highest class ranking for USC since 2007.
Okongwu, who is 6 feet 8, and Mobley, who is 6-9, could have an immediate effect on a Trojans squad that finished below .500 last season and lost top scorers Bennie Boatwright and Kevin Porter Jr. to the NBA.
“He’s unlike any other superstar I’ve played with or coached because he’s real humble. He doesn’t have an ego,” said Dennis Latimore, who coached Okongwu at Chino Hills for two years. “He already has an NBA body, a soft touch, quick off his feet, great footwork. He’s a great defender and a great two-way player. I think he was one of the best high school players in the country the last two years.”
Okongwu is playing in the Drew League for No Shnacks (6-1), who are second in their division. He is joined by former Chino Hills teammates LaMelo Ball and Eli Scott, who plays for Loyola Marymount.
It has been more than two years since they played together in high school, but Okongwu and Ball have maintained their on-court chemistry.
“That’s one of my ‘dawgs.’ I’ve known him since I was a little kid. It feels good to play with him again,” Okongwu said.
Over the course of several games, Ball’s assists to Okongwu have included inbound passes for short jumpers, well-timed pick and rolls to the basket, and alley-oop lobs.
“It feels great. [Onyeka] is my best friend,” Ball said. "[Chemistry] will always be there.”
In his Drew League debut, Okongwu scored 24 points against Prodigy. In his second game, he had 13 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks in No Shnacks’ 92-88 win over the Nationwide Blue Devils, earning him game MVP honors. In four games, he’s averaging 17.6 points and 6.3 rebounds.
“It’s pretty fun playing against good competition,” he said. “I’m excited to be playing here.”
Playing in the league has allowed Okongwu to improve his game.
“[I’ve improved on] shooting the most. I work on my body a lot. I’m just ready to get to [USC] and work on everything overall,” he said. “All I’m going to do is go into [USC] with a winning attitude and make sure I work hard every single day.”
Okongwu, twice selected as Mr. Basketball in California, is known for wearing a No. 21 jersey as a tribute to his older brother Nnamdi, who died in 2014 after a skateboarding accident. He’s been wearing No. 7 in the Drew League but will resume wearing No. 21 at USC.
“Twenty-one is a special number to me,” he said. “It will always follow me wherever I go.”
Okongwu has missed No Shnacks’ last three games with a foot injury but is expected to return to action Sunday at 11:45 a.m. against Team Watson.