Onyeka Okongwu takes the black silicone band off his wrist and kisses the lime green words: “Nnamdi Okongwu #21. We will never forget you.”
Whenever the USC freshman slips on his No. 21 jersey, he upholds the promise inscribed on the bracelet.
As Okongwu’s college basketball career takes off, he stays grounded by the memory of his older brother Nnamdi, who died at 17 years old after a skateboarding accident in 2014.
Okongwu takes his bracelet off for games, placing it delicately in his locker, then performs at levels his brother never got to witness in person, although Okongwu is sure Nnamdi is watching.
“Hopefully he’s proud of me,” Okongwu said.
With 17.7 points and nine rebounds per game, Okongwu dominated during USC’s nonconference schedule until an ankle injury kept him out of a win over Florida Gulf Coast on Sunday. With their leading scorer and rebounder day-to-day, the Trojans (11-2) begin Pac-12 play Friday at Washington State.
Okongwu has overpowered opponents with an array of post moves, tidy footwork and scoop layups with either hand. He cuts down the lane in a flash and teammates find him for open shots. Okongwu has made 62.4% of his shots (83 of 133). Other times, opponents can do nothing but foul. Okongwu makes them pay then, too. He leads USC in free throw attempts with 65 and his 70.8% shooting (46 for 65) is tied for the team lead for players with more than 18 attempts. Against Pepperdine, he made 17 of 21 free throws and scored a season-high 33 points.
The 6-foot-9, 245-pound forward made his presence known immediately as he tied the USC record for blocks in a game with eight in his collegiate debut against Florida A&M. Okongwu’s 3.2-block-per-game pace is ahead of Taj Gibson’s 2.9 average that helped him set the school record for blocks in a season with 100 in 2009.
The eye-popping numbers have Okongwu rising on NBA draft boards. A number of mock drafts have him listed as a lottery pick. But Okongwu becomes bashful when speaking about his aspirations beyond college. During a nearly 30-minute interview in the team’s film room in Galen Center, Okongwu doesn’t mention the NBA once.
He learned as a 13-year-old that even the best-laid plans can go awry.
“I thought me and my brother would grow up with each other, see each other’s nieces and nephews, you know?” Okongwu said. “So once that hit, I just told myself nothing’s guaranteed.”
Nnamdi was a promising basketball prospect before dying from head injuries sustained in the accident. He was entering his senior year at Chino Hills High and earning scholarship interest from Division I colleges. He always went on the court with a smile, Okongwu remembers.
Two years later, Okongwu took the same court at Chino Hills wearing the same No. 21 jersey as he teamed with the three Ball brothers in 2016. As a freshman, Okongwu started on the undefeated team that finished first in national polls for high school teams.
As the Ball brothers — and their father — exploded in fame, Okongwu was the team’s defensive stalwart. He ran the floor, rebounded and blocked shots. He didn’t need to star on offense with the Balls dominating, but he brought energy when he swatted shots away or slammed dunks in transition.
Colleges paid attention.
“We could tell right then he was just a winner,” USC coach Andy Enfield said.
Okongwu, who won three CIF State titles in four years at Chino Hills and was named California’s “Mr. Basketball” and The Times’ player of the year twice, brought his winning ways to USC, where the Trojans are trying to make their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2017.
USC was always Okongwu’s dream school, his mother Kate said. In fourth grade, he did a class project about USC. The former four-star recruit is now the standout of USC’s vaunted freshman class that was ranked in the top 10 nationally and included McDonald’s All-American Isaiah Mobley, a former teammate of Okongwu’s with the Compton Magic, an AAU team.
The Inland Empire products were AAU teammates since ninth grade, but Mobley, a 6-foot-10 forward from Rancho Christian, relished the competitive battles they had for their high school teams.
“He always brings it,” Mobley said. “Having to box him out, deny him the ball in the post, make him work for it and stuff, [it’s] definitely not easy, but I’m grateful because it makes me better and stronger and I think it makes our team better and stronger.”
Despite consistent highlights, Okongwu is sometimes guilty of playing what Enfield calls “high school defense.” He lets his man blow by him then chases from behind in an attempt to get a block.
“I’ll just need to focus on the pick and roll coverages,” Okongwu said. “[Assistant coach Chris Capko] and Enfield have been on me hard about it.”
Even as he emerges as an enticing draft prospect, Okongwu remains a 19-year-old figuring out how to navigate college life.
Sitting in a cushioned black chair in Galen Center, Okongwu rests a to-go food container on his knees after a recent practice. The box is full of pasta and bread, but he is so willing to answer questions that he doesn’t pause to eat any of his food. He talks about the classes he’s taking — English, dance and American histories — and how much more school work he has than in high school.
He’s learning to become his own man, he says.
To Kate, that process started years before when he received the news of Nnamdi’s passing.
“After what happened to him, it made him a very strong person, it’s shifted his way of thinking, it’s shifted his way of behaving,” Kate said. “Seeing him being the young man he’s growing up to be — very humble, very respectful — it gives me so much joy.”
Okongwu said he cried every day for a month after Nnamdi’s death. He asked his mom why his brother, a good person, had to die. Kate explained that God wanted some people to come home a little earlier than others.
“She would always tell me he’s gone, be strong, and live life through him and for him,” Okongwu said.
Without Nnamdi, Okongwu took the mantle of big brother. He became closer with his younger siblings, Chukwuemeka, now 16, and Chinemya, 12. He misses his family when he’s at school, even if they’re just a drive on the 60 freeway away. He worries about the way his family of six was split in half so suddenly: his parents divorced, Nnamdi died and he went to USC.
Okongwu loves to go home and watch his younger brother play basketball on the weekends. Chukwuemeka used to be “a little knucklehead,” Okongwu said with a smirk, but he’s growing up to be a nice young man. Chinemya plays volleyball. Okongwu was at the hospital when she was born.
Kate, who works as a registered nurse, enjoys taking the family to Galen Center to watch USC’s games and gets a thrill from simply hearing the announcer introduce her son before the game by emphasizing every syllable in his name: “Own! Yea! Cuh! O! Kong! Wuuuuuu!”
Kate, who moved to the United States in 1999 from Nigeria, never thought this would happen when she enrolled Okongwu in basketball when he was 5 years old. He was interested after watching his brother, and Kate just wanted to keep her boys busy. Now her second son is blossoming into a tempting NBA prospect, although at 6-9 without a strong outside shot, he’ll likely fit at the next level as an undersized center.
“He looks like he’s stronger than 19,” a scout from a Western Conference team said, adding that Okongwu’s draft stock is likely as high as it’ll ever be. “Not a great athlete, but a good athlete. He can shoot a little bit, can finish around the paint. He’s solid.”
Okongwu dreams of supporting his family through basketball one day, whether in the NBA or overseas, but when he came to USC, he just envisioned winning games and having fun. He didn’t think ahead enough to imagine himself as a one-and-done prospect. His mom tells him to live in the moment.
During the moments before a game, Okongwu slips on his cherished No. 21 jersey and doesn’t think about what could happen in his future with another good performance, but focuses more on what has happened to put him in this position.
“I’m wearing this number for somebody,” Okongwu said. “Whenever I wear it, gotta put respect on it.”
Times staff writer Broderick Turner contributed to this story.