By Jon Cooper | The Good Word
- Great players stay great by always having something to prove.
Last year, Josh Okogie proved that he’s a great player.
He led Georgia Tech in scoring (16.1 points per game, 17.1 in ACC play), the seventh freshman ever to do so, scored the third-most points (596) ever for a first-year player -- only Kenny Anderson and Stephon Marbury scored more, and came up huge in crunch time on several occasions. He’d be rewarded by earning ACC All-Freshman status, then, over the summer, was selected to try out for, and earned a spot on USA Basketball’s U19 team to play in the FIBA U19 World Cup, held in Cairo, Egypt.
Prior to the start of the 2017-18 season, the media voted him second-team preseason All-ACC.
Since then, however, it’s been something of a rocky road, one that cast doubt on his previously impeccable character and challenged Okogie to be great as a player and as a man.
A challenge? Now you’re speaking his language.
Of course, the 6-4, 213-pound guard from Snellville, Ga., answered the challenge.
It hasn’t been easy rebuilding his reputation following a suspension that cost him six games.
Nor has it been easy rebuilding his game after a badly dislocated finger cost him this six and two more, while threat of infection on the finger cost him even more -- his required inactivity to allow for healing lowered his level of endurance and ability contribute once he retook the floor.
“It’s harder to get back into conditioning doing treadmill stuff and running on the court, suicides and stuff, but actual in-game and full, live practices kind of get me better in shape,” he said. “So the more I do that, the quicker I’ll be in shape.”
Okogie came out firing upon his return, averaging more than 20 points over his first seven games back on the floor, now at 18.8 per game, both overall and in ACC games. But he was not even pleased with his performance, never mind satisfied.
“I’ve got to be able to keep my conditioning level up and have to improve my ability to impact all levels of the game,” he said. “I don’t think I did a good job. I mean look at the box score and you’ll see 19 points, 21 points but I don’t see a lot of rebounds and assists and steals. So I’ve got to do a lot better. I’ve got a lot of ground to cover.”
No worries. He’ll get there.
“His work ethic is off the charts,” said freshman forward Curtis Haywood II, who started seven games at Okogie’s small forward spot. “He works hard every single day, every single practice. We all try to follow him. I want to be just like him and see where it takes me because he’s a great role model.”
Okogie’s reputation took something of a hit because of the suspension but those around him know how high-character he is.
“When I committed, Coach Pastner said we have a great leader. He was talking about Josh,” said freshman and starting point guard Jose Alvarado. “When I was watching him before I came here I was seeing it on the court. Then when I came here, during practice I saw it. It’s contagious. I look at him as a great leader.”
Okogie’s leadership never wavered, even while he was unable to take the floor.
“Believe it or not, when he was injured and he was out, he had the same energy,” Alvarado said. “When he came back he knew he had to make up for (being out). He’s been the best player and the best person on and off the court to us.”
“When I got ready to commit, which was on my visit, me, him and my dad played one-on-one and I could just tell he was a great guy,” said Haywood. “He’s somebody to follow and learn from and get better and compete with so I can get better as a player as well.”
Being a role model is paramount and is as important away from McCamish Pavilion and Zelnak Center as it is inside. His is the kind of character that can be seen in meetings of the Student-Athlete Advisory Board, of which he’s in his second year. It can be seen anywhere in the community where Georgia Tech volunteers -- he cites visits to Scottish Rite Children’s Hospital as among his favorite activities.
As he continues to grow as a player, Okogie already has shown he’s grown as a man, by how he’s the adversity he’s faced this season.
“The times when I wasn’t playing, as far as the suspension and the injury, were probably the toughest months of my life to get through, just as far as not being able to play and all the negative energy around me and me being down on myself,” he said. “I’m proud to say that I was able to channel that energy and fuel myself and bring that fuel to fuel my teammates as far as being there to help and support on the sidelines, kind of get guys going, still being in the gym first. Even if it was just rebounding for guys and talking to them, I think being around the guys kind of kept my mind away from all the other distractions.
“People like to say, ‘Character is what you do when nobody’s around,’” he added. “As long as I know that I’m doing the right things and living the right way there’s really nothing anybody can say to deter me.”
He’s personally taken on helping Alvarado channel his emotions, especially after mistakes.
“I always tell him, ‘Trust me, everybody makes mistakes. When you make a mistake you’ve got to own it and then push it off to the side,’” he said. “I always tell him, ‘If Coach is not mad at you, your teammates aren’t mad at you, you shouldn’t be mad at yourself.’ Just move past the mistake and we’re all going to be getting better together.’”
“He’s always telling me to keep my head up,” said Alvarado. “When things are not going right, I put my head down, but he’s always there for me and always putting his hand on my shoulder and saying, ‘Come on, just keep your head in the game. We’re going to be alright.’ Definitely, he’s a great help for me.”
With his work ethic, his heart in helping others and his desire to learn, it’s little wonder Okogie was able to earn a spot on USA Basketball’s U19 team this past summer. In seven games, he scored 4.6 points, and grabbed 4.6 rebounds in 13.4 minutes. He especially shone in the USA’s 109-68 pool play victory over Angola, going for a team-high 17 points and 10 rebounds.
But the experience wasn’t solely bout stats.
“The biggest thing that I learned from playing in Egypt and playing with the guys was just speed and reading a lot of things,” he said. “You learn from a lot of great coaches, a lot of great players. The biggest difference between college and NBA is how you think the game and how fast you can react to certain situations. If I can do that for myself and be able to think the game faster I’ll be a better player.”
Okogie’s being back should make Georgia Tech a better team.
“He’s getting back in it,” said Haywood. “He’s getting better each and every game and he’s helping us. We’re getting better as a team. So that’s a good thing.”
Okogie believes there are good things to come the remainder of 2017-18. He hopes his adversity, and how he handled it can serve as a cautionary tale and a learning device down the road.
“It kind of set an example for them that no matter what you’re going through, whether it’s on the court or off the court, you can’t let it affect your progression on life because sometimes it’s bigger than basketball,” he said. “Adversity kind of hits us all in the face, but how we react to it makes us who we are. Carry that over to the court. We may make a mistake but it’s not the mistake we made it’s how we react to it. So being able to show that positive reaction towards all that I was dealing with was to kind of show the guys -- the freshmen, anybody -- no matter what we’re going through, there’s still always light at the end of the tunnel.”