Cal Basketball: From Nigeria to Ireland to Mexico, ND Okafor prepares for Berkeley


ND Okafor will not be Cal’s first Irish basketball player. Current freshman Sam Alajiki grew up in Dundalk, a nearly 1,000-year-old town near the border with Northern Ireland.

But perhaps no Cal player has ever traveled as much as Okafor, whose arrival at Berkeley next fall culminates a long journey that has taken him to three different continents.

Born in Nigeria, Okafor was called Ndonwawanne, but uses ND because it’s easier for everyone. He and his family moved to Ireland when he was just one 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 receives an 18-year-old who has already lived a little.

ND Okafor (22) fights for a rebound.

After moving more than 5,000 miles from his home in Europe, Okafor believes he is better prepared for his move to college. “I went through this when I was young, I was around 16,” he said. “I feel like now I’ve matured enough to be able to adapt 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 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 6ft 9in and 230lbs and should be ready to give the Golden Bears a boost next season.

How about this glowing review from Walter Roese, head coach of the Latin American team:

“He’s a great boy. He came in with high hopes, high expectations because he’s a great athlete. His athletic ability is off the charts – he’s definitely a college player now. He has a high motor, rebounds very well, runs the ground extremely well, able to take the short corner shot, the shot from 12 to 16 feet.

“Very coachable, wants to improve. He likes to win. He’s a very competitive player and I think Cal has a really good big man. He’s a kid who knows what he needs to do to improve and I think the sky is the limit. He can play at a very high level.

Okafor was offered the NBA Academy scholarship two years ago after he was spotted playing with the Irish U16 national team. His experience in his home country was only going to push his game that far, Okafor realized.

He grew up playing football, then was encouraged to try basketball after going 6-4 early in high school. “The game came naturally to me,” Okafor said. “As soon as I fell in love with sport, I just forgot about football.”

His time at the NBA Academy gave him a different level of training and competition that he needed.

“When I was playing in my country, I was dominating everyone, I was just going to the basket. When I came here, they really showed me the game in different ways,” said Okafor, who thinks his basketball IQ -ball has grown and talks in the video below about growing his game.

The biggest challenge Okafor has faced in Mexico is the language. He didn’t speak Spanish when he arrived and is still learning it. He missed his family – mum, dad, three sisters and a brother – but he also adjusted to that.

Life in Mexico has been good, Okafor said. “I think everyone in town knows us. If we go out in public, they can spot us from a mile away. But everyone is nice, everyone treats us with care here,” he said. “It’s nice to discover (their) culture. I have fun.

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 San Luis Potosi facility includes multiple basketball courts, a weight room, educational and dining facilities, and living quarters, as well as a staff that includes two player development assistants, a strength and conditioning coach, a athletic trainer and performance lifestyle practitioner, whose responsibilities include focusing on “the mental health of the players she works with to perform at their best”.

It’s all part of what Collucci calls “a holistic approach” to youth player development. “We try to give all athletes the resources they need from every perspective, which we believe will translate as they grow as a player.”

Okafor appreciates what the experience has meant to him. “It’s a great program. It proves you right, academically, physically and all. 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 two events in the United States in December, including the Tarkanian Classic, which featured the best high school and prep school teams from around the world. the whole country, and also equaled Latin America. team against the NBA Academy of Africa.

Collucci, who talks about Okafor in the video above, was impressed with the improvement he saw in Okafor’s play in Las Vegas. “He was energetic, finished around the rim, did some jumps. Really competed,” Collucci said. “I think for ND it’s been a big confidence builder to be able to compete against some players who are expected to be some of the best players in college soon.”

Among his teammates is Fredrick King, a 6-10 Bahamas native, who signed up to Louisville. NBA Academy alumni 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 was really great to see the players translate these things that we thought were happening, and now they’re happening on a bigger stage,” Collucci said.

Asked if he thinks Okafor can follow the same path, Collucci added: “We hope all these players move on and hope they have the background to build on. when things go this way or that way. It’s part of the athletic experience in college and I think he can do it.

Okafor projects himself as a power forward or center for the Bears and thinks he’s expanded his game enough to play either position.

“I feel like I’m really good at it. I can go to the basket, I can cope. I like to play low post, but I can also get out there and do a few jumps,” he said. “I like to catch lobs. I like two-game defense, chasing blocks. And get flagship dunks. I feel like I bring a lot of energy to the pitch as a big guy.

Roese thinks Okafor will be up for the Pac-12 challenge next season. “Our job at the NBA Academy and as a former college coach is to make sure our players aren’t typical freshmen,” he said. “He may still struggle a bit with the physique or maybe the pace of the game. But he’ll be a surprise and I think halfway through the season he’ll be a really good contributor for Cal.

“He wants to be good, he wants to be a pro.”

Okafor says he’s watched many Cal games on TV and is encouraged by the progress the Bears are making.

Okafor has yet to set foot on the Berkeley campus, having signed with the Bears after taking a virtual tour. He speaks almost daily with Alajiki, who gives him a detailed scouting report on the program and the school.

“We have a great friendship,” Okafor said. “He really loved everything – the campus, the coaching staff, going on the road with the team. He told me I would love it there.

Cover photo by ND Okafor courtesy of NBA Academy

FFollow Cal Sports Report’s Jeff Faraudo on Twitter: @jefffaraudo


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