July 25, 2017
By Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word
– Josh Okogie was shocked a few weeks ago while climbing upon the Great Pyramids of Giza, marveling over their size and trying to guess how ancient Egyptians moved those massive stones without “technology.” Now, he’s left wondering if he’ll need a crane to help catch up in calculus.
Missing nearly a month of school at Georgia Tech and falling behind was worth it.
You represent the United States in an international basketball competition like the FIBA U19 World Cup from July 1-9 in Cairo, Egypt, and there’s not going to be much complaining.
That is not to say the 6-foot-4 sophomore guard is at peace with a bronze medal.
“It was just a wonderful learning experience,” Okogie said this week after returning from was about a one-month trip chocked full of tryouts, practices, scrimmages and an epic tournament staged in one of Earth’s cradles of civilization.
“We were climbing, and that’s all we were thinking about. How did humans do this? It would be hard to do even in today’s world … now, I’m so far behind.”
Really, Okogie’s probably ahead in life.
He’s back from a journey afforded to an infinitesimally small percentage of the planet’s population.
This Yellow Jacket earned his way, chosen a couple months ago by USA Basketball as one of 27 players aged 19 and under from around the nation to try out for the 12-member U.S. team that would travel to Egypt for the World Cup.
After putting together one of the best freshman seasons in Tech history while averaging 16.1 points (17.1 in ACC games) and 5.4 rebounds for the Jackets to land on the ACC All-Freshman team, he landed easily on the radar of U19 head coach John Calipari of Kentucky, not to mention other high hoops officials.
That moment still stands out above anything that happened in Cairo, where Okogie was fourth in rebounding for the U.S. as the team went 6-1 and smoked Spain, 96-72, in the bronze medal game.
“I had the wow factor when I got invited,” Okogie said after returning from Egypt, where he averaged 4.6 points and 4.6 rebounds while averaging a modest 13.4 minutes per game. He scored 17 points and had 10 rebounds in a win over Angola.
“My medal is in my room, just hanging on my bed. I haven’t been home since I got back. My jersey, I’m going to try to get it framed and I’ll probably hang it at home [in Snellville].”
Okogie traveled to Colorado Springs, Colo., in mid-June for tryouts, and after surviving two cuts, he and his 11 teammates worked with Calipari and several coaches, including Danny Manning of Wake Forest, to prepare for the tournament. He enjoyed that part more than the trip to Egypt.
“Meeting as many people as I met … being able to talk to those coaches some you’ve played against, some who recruited you … it was crazy,” he said. “You had NBA scouts watching practice. That whole deal, I liked it a lot.”
Soon after making the cut, Okogie learned his role from Calipari, and while he would have loved to have played more — he logged just 53 seconds in a 99-87 semifinal loss to eventual goal medalists Canada — being tasked to defend did not bother him.
“When I made the team … he wants me to play defense,” he recalled. “If they have a player going nuts, stop that player. I said, `Whatever you need me to do to win, I’m down for it.'”
Okogie rarely had a chance against Canada, which got 38 points from 6-7 shooting guard R.J. Barrett to clear the way to the nation’s first-ever gold medal. Barrett, whose father Rowan Barrett, Sr., played for Canada in the 2000 Olympics, just turned 17 last month, and will not graduate high school until 2019.
Josh would’ve liked to have more of a chance to get in front of him, but, again, he’s not complaining, at least not directly.
“In my mind, the way I thought about it this is a win-win situation. Just being there, you’ve won,” he explained. “Losing … I hate it. My stomach started to hurt, especially when the celebrations were going on.”
This wasn’t basketball as Okogie knows it; international rules allow for quite a bit of what we consider goaltending, and officials are quicker to blow whistles.
“A difficult task was to keep your composure, because you start to see stuff you’ve never seen,” he said. “You can shoot a shot, and it’s about to go in and somebody jumps up and hits it off the rim. You’ve got to realize that’s legal.
“You have to dribble before you take a step or it’s considered a travel. They take it real seriously. If you have two hands [deployed on defense], it’s a foul. It’s a rule here, but they don’t really call it as often. There, it’s a foul if you dislodge a player in any way.”
Okogie has a lot of work to do to catch up in calculus, but after returning to Atlanta last Monday he was back in the gym the very next day. He may have been more surprised there than on his big trip.
One look at senior center Ben Lammers mimicking Dallas Mavericks center Dirk Nowitzki shocked him like the pyramids.
Lammers, who was second team All-ACC last season, has been working on a 3-point shot to help Okogie pace Tech in head coach Josh Pastner’s second season.
“Actually, I practiced the next day [after returning to Atlanta]. I love my teammates too much to just sit on the sidelines and watch,” Okogie said. “I saw him take one and I was like, Whoa! I’m not even going to lie to you.
“I don’t remember if it was practice or we were playing pickup, and Ben caught the ball and shot it, and it wasn’t because time was running out. He looked like he’d been shooting it, and … I didn’t say nothing. Let’s just keep it rolling. In my head, I was thinking if he does that, the sky’s the limit.”