State’s top honor goes to Onyeka Okongwu, a multi-dimensional center from Chino Hills whose skill level, defensive ability, team-first attitude and approach made him second-to-none in California this season. A D1 state crown helps the junior big man edge senior James Akinjo of Richmond Salesian.
For this season’s State Players of the Year in boys basketball among juniors, sophs, frosh and for each CIF division, CLICK HERE.
For a final look at where California teams landed in the final FAB 50 National Team Rankings powered by Ballislife.com, CLICK HERE.
Note: To read Gold Club content such as final expanded State Top 40 team rankings plus final divisional state rankings, class-by-class player rankings, state coaching records, plus additional features done throughout the year, take a moment to check out our Gold Club.
It looked like a magical run was coming to an end, as the hot boys basketball team at Chino Hills trailed St. John Bosco of Bellflower, 49-40, entering the final period of the CIF Southern California Division I regional final at The Pyramid in Long Beach. But all of a sudden Chino Hills once again caught fire, as the Huskies outscored the Braves 27-2 in the final quarter to win going away and advance to the CIF D1 state title game. As the clock ran out and Chino Hills players celebrated, there was one player already lining up and waiting to shake hands with Bosco players and coaches before the beleaguered Braves could even gather their thoughts.
The player didn’t show much emotion and his stoic expression was similar to his approach to every game — never too high or gloating over another player or team and never too low, even when things are not going his way or lesser players are draped all over him in an attempt to slow him down. The following week, Chino Hills defeated Las Lomas of Walnut Creek to complete the championship run after beginning the season with a 4-6 record.
That player is Onyeka Okongwu, and the 6-foot-9 center’s talent and approach, combined with his dominant performances in a CIF state championship season made him California’s best player and today Okongwu has been named Cal-Hi Sports Mr. Basketball State Player of the Year.
“I’m blessed because me and my teammates worked our butt off,” Okongwu said. “As a junior to be honored…there are a lot of great players in the state. To be considered the top player in the state by you guys (Cal-Hi Spots) is an honor and I appreciate it.”
Okongwu is the eighth junior in the modern era (post-1950) to earn the state’s highest individual honor. Since the advent of the CIF state tournament in 1981, the juniors to earn the honor, John Williams from Crenshaw of Los Angeles (1982-83), Jason Kidd from St. Joseph of Alameda (1990-91), Tyson Chandler from Dominguez of Compton (1999-00) and Aaron Gordon from Mitty of San Jose (2011-12) were repeat winners as seniors and National Player of the Year types with Williams and Kidd actually named Mr. Basketball USA. The Big O has that type of impact on games and it wouldn’t surprise us if he developed into a double winner as a senior.
“Onyeka dominated to nearly the same degree that Lonzo Ball did two years ago in Chino Hills’ 35-0 run,” said U.S. Basketball Writers Association Hall of Famer Frank Burlison of burlisononbasketball.com “His impact on games was equally impressive be it as a low-post scorer who always commanded double-and (often) triple-teams; as a rebounder, shot-blocker and a much-improved passer.”
The selection of the Big O quickly reminds us it was only two seasons ago when he was a 14-year-old freshman teammate of Ball, who was not only Mr. Basketball, but California’s sixth Mr. Basketball USA selection. Chino Hills went 35-0 and the mythical national champions had another 14-year-old freshman in the starting lineup besides Okongwu. That player, of course, was La’Melo Ball and a third Ball brother was also in the lineup, junior wing Li’Angelo Ball. When you consider Chino Hills was nationally-ranked in 2016-17 without a rookie NBA starter (Lonzo) and how good of a high school player the fifth starter (Eli Scott) was and how good of a freshman season he had at LMU (broke program’s rebounding record and was third leading scorer), it doesn’t take long to realize just how special the 2015-16 Chino Hills team was. Prior to that team, the last teammates to eventually earn Mr. Basketball were Trevor Ariza and Hassam Adams off a terrific L.A. Westchester team in 2001-02 that won the D1 state crown. A few years earlier (1997-98), Chandler and Tayshaun Prince were teammates at Dominguez of Compton, arguably the state’s most successful program of the 1990s.
During that 2015-16 season, Okongwu showed glimpses of today’s honor despite averaging just eight points for the 35-0 team. Okongwu often stepped up in pressure-packed games and had a knack for off-setting the production of post players sometimes two or three years older than himself. He also did a good job of playing through foul trouble against highly-regarded teams and never being disqualified. Okongwu was at his best in a titanic state No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup with Bishop Montgomery that was California’s biggest regular season game in recent lore. With Lonzo Ball struggling offensively, The Big O put in some key offensive rebound putbacks, had a big bucket late as the Knights were threatening and controlled the paint defensively to finish with 10 points, seven rebounds and seven blocked shots. In was in that game where fans around the country realized what a special player Okongwu was likely to become.
Okongwu was named State Freshman of the Year, but in the following season his good friend La’Melo Ball took on a much larger scoring role and his prolific numbers earned him top honors among sophomores for a 30-3 team. Quite frankly, the offensive shot selection on that team was bad at times, but The Big O never stopped working defensively and cleaned up a ton of possessions with offensive rebound putbacks. He also never publicly complained about his offensive role or ever put himself before the team.
Okongwu is a special talent and person, but he wasn’t a runaway Mr. Basketball winner by any means. The Big O wasn’t Baseline League Player of the Year (that honor went to Etiwanda’s Kessler Edwards), but league/conference honors are usually reserved for the best player on the championship team. Okongwu was able to offset that by earning Player of the Year honors by the Los Angeles Times and the John Wooden Award for CIF Southern Section players who competed in both the open and D1. Of our four senior finalists, point guard James Akinjo from Salesian of Richmond got the most serious consideration. Heading into the post-season, he looked like the favorite as Salesian was the No. 1 ranked team in the state and the favorite to represent NorCal in the CIF Open state title game. Chino Hills didn’t quality for its section or regional open playoffs, but after Salesian was upset in the first round of the NorCal Open Division playoffs by Folsom, it denied Akinjo golden opportunities to add to his resume and perhaps have a big regional final or state final game. As it stands, Akinjo will be our Cal-Hi Sports Senior Player of the Year (which we honor if the overall player of the year is an underclassman) and would be our NorCal Player of the Year.
Okongwu’s playoff run was just too strong, highlighted by a monster 38-point, 16-rebound, 5-block performance in a win over Pasadena in the CIF Southern Section D1 final. The CIFSS D1 Player of the Year also had 23 points and 14 rebounds in a section semifinal win over Long Beach Poly and 37 points, 17 rebounds, 4 blocks and 9 dunks in a 87-74 quarterfinal win over Corona Centennial. The Big O helped offset a 43-point performance by finalist Brandon Williams of Encino Crespi with 28 points, as Chino Hills advanced to the SoCal D1 regional semifinals with the 77-74 win. In that rematch with Pasadena, Okongwu had 22 points and 15 rebounds and he went for 12 points, 15 rebounds, and 5 blocks in the comeback win over St. John Bosco. He then closed out the season with 27 points, 14 rebounds and 5 blocks as the Huskies won their second state title in three seasons with a 73-68 victory over Las Lomas.
For the season, Okongwu averaged 28 points, 12 rebounds and four blocked shots, but he would be the first to mention a championship season wouldn’t have materialized if senior Andre Ball and junior Ofure Ujadughele hadn’t stepped up in the playoffs. Ujadughele had some terrific offensive outings and took care of ball-handling duties in the playoffs after Quan Davis was lost for the season to injury and Ball scored a combined 69 points versus Long Beach Poly and the second win over Pasadena. Okongwu refers to his Chino Hills teammates and the players on his travel ball club (Compton Magic) as family and he seems to get more excited talking about their performances than his own.
“I told ‘Dre and Ofure, ‘don’t let this be our last game,” Okongwu said. “We had a new team, a new coach and a whole bunch of new players. I told them it’s a long season, anything can happen. Sooner than later, we learned to play together.”
We’d be remiss not to mention the role the late Nnamdi Okongwu plays in The Big O’s life. His older brother passed away following a tragic skateboarding accident in July of 2014. Nnamdi would have been a starter on Chino Hills’ 2015 SoCal D1 title team when Onyeka was in eighth-grade. Obviously that incident has had a profound impact on his family and life. Okongwu often baby-sits his younger sister Chinenye, 10, while his mother Kate works long hours as a nurse. He’s pretty fired up to likely play the 2018-19 season with his younger brother Chukwuemeka (an eighth-grader) on the Chino Hills varsity. The tragedy has drawn The Big O closer to his high school and travel ball teammates (whom he always refers to as brothers) and it’s hard not to think Nnamdi’s passing doesn’t affect his calm approach and unflappable demeanor on the court. In fact, O still calls on and relies on his older brother to guide him.
“My older brother, I asked him against Bosco, ‘help me and my teammates with this thing,”‘ Okongwu said. “He’s always with me in spirit and he has never let me down.”
“I think he’s been through so much at an early age, that it caused him to grow up really fast,” said Steve Baik, Okongwu’s coach at Chino Hills as a freshman who first heard about him through Nnamdi as a sixth grader going into seventh. “I asked Nnamdi, ‘How’s your brother?’ and I asked him a few times. He said, ‘Coach, he’s going to be better than me.’
“While he was going through that tragedy, as the end of the funeral, I told him, ‘You lost a brother, but you gained 12 others. You’re now the big brother of your family and you’re going to be a great big brother.’ When his family needed him the most, he embraced it.”
MR. BASKETBALL STATE PLAYERS OF THE YEAR
Note: All selections by Cal-Hi Sports; All-time list before 1978 compiled by our founder, the late Nelson Tennis, based on research.
2018 – Onyeka Okongwu, Chino Hills, 6-9 Jr.
2017 – Ethan Thompson, Torrance Bishop Montgomery, 6-4
2016 – Lonzo Ball, Chino Hills, 6-6
2015 – Ivan Rabb, Oakland Bishop O’Dowd, 6-10
2014 – Stanley Johnson, Santa Ana Mater Dei, 6-6
2013 – Aaron Gordon, San Jose Archbishop Mitty, 6-8
2012 – Aaron Gordon, San Jose Archbishop Mitty, 6-8 Jr.
2011 – Ryan Anderson, Long Beach Poly, 6-8
2010 – Allen Crabbe, Los Angeles Price, 6-6
2009 – Kawhi Leonard, Riverside Martin Luther King, 6-7
2008 – Jrue Holiday, North Hollywood Campbell Hall, 6-3
2007 – Taylor King, Santa Ana Mater Dei, 6-8
2006 – Chase Budinger, Carlsbad La Costa Canyon, 6-8
2005 – Amir Johnson, L.A. Westchester, 6-10
2004 – DeMarcus Nelson, Sacramento Sheldon, 6-3
2003 – Trevor Ariza, L.A. Westchester, 6-8
2002 – Hassan Adams, L.A. Westchester, 6-4
2001 – Tyson Chandler, Compton Dominguez, 7-1
2000 – Tyson Chandler, Compton Dominguez, 7-0 Jr.
1999 – Casey Jacobsen, Glendora, 6-6
1998 – Tayshaun Prince, Compton Dominguez, 6-8
1997 – Baron Davis, Santa Monica Crossroads, 6-2
1996 – Corey Benjamin, Fontana, 6-6
1995 – Paul Pierce, Inglewood, 6-7
1994 – Jelani Gardner, Bellflower St. John Bosco, 6-6
1993 – Charles O’Bannon, Lakewood Artesia, 6-7
1992 – Jason Kidd, Alameda St. Joseph, 6-4
1991 – Jason Kidd, Alameda St. Joseph, 6-4 Jr.
1990 – Ed O’Bannon, Lakewood Artesia, 6-9
1989 – Tracy Murray, Glendora, 6-8
1988 – Chris Mills, L.A. Fairfax, 6-7
1987 – LeRon Ellis, Santa Ana Mater Dei, 6-11
1986 – Scott Williams, Hacienda Heights Wilson, 6-10
1985 – Tom Lewis, Santa Ana Mater Dei, 6-7
1984 – John Williams, L.A. Crenshaw, 6-8
1983 – John Williams, L.A. Crenshaw, 6-7 Jr.
1982 – Tony Jackson, Oakland Bishop O’Dowd, 6-4
1981 – Dwayne Polee, L.A. Manual Arts, 6-5
1980 – Ralph Jackson, Inglewood, 6-3
1979 – Darren Daye, Granada Hills Kennedy, 6-7
1978 – Greg Goorjian, Crescenta Valley, 6-2
1977 – Cliff Robinson, Oakland Castlemont, 6-7
1976 – Rich Branning, Huntington Beach Marina, 6-2
1975 – Bill Cartwright, Elk Grove, 7-1
1974 – Bill Cartwright, Elk Grove, 7-0 Jr.
1973 – Marques Johnson, L.A. Crenshaw, 6-5
1972 – Cliff Pondexter, Fresno San Joaquin Memorial, 6-7 Jr.
1971 – Roscoe Pondexter, Fresno San Joaquin Memorial, 6-6
1970 – Bill Walton, La Mesa Helix, 6-10
1969 – Keith Wilkes, Ventura, 6-5 Jr.
1968 – Paul Westphal, Redondo Beach Aviation, 6-2
1967 – Curtis Rowe, L.A. Fremont, 6-6
1966 – Dennis Awtrey, San Jose Blackford, 6-9
1965 – Bob Portman, S.F. St. Ignatius, 6-5
1964 – Russ Critchfield, Salinas, 5-10
1963 – Edgar Lacey, L.A. Jefferson, 6-6
1962 – Joe Ellis, Oakland McClymonds, 6-5
1961 – Gail Goodrich, L.A. Poly, 5-11
1960 – Paul Silas, Oakland McClymonds, 6-6
1959 – Steve Gray, S.F. Washington, 6-4
1958 – Billy McGill, L.A. Jefferson, 6-9
1957 – Tom Meschery, S.F. Lowell, 6-5
1956 – Fred LaCour, S.F. St. Ignatius, 6-4
1955 – Fred LaCour, S.F. St. Ignatius, 6-4 Jr.
1954 – Willie Davis, Alameda, 5-11
1953 – Bill Bond, Long Beach St. Anthony, 6-1
1952 – Willie Naulls, San Pedro, 6-5
1951 – Ken Sears, Watsonville, 6-7
1950 – Don Bragg, S.F. Galileo, 6-3
Note: List extends back to 1905 in the Cal-Hi Sports State Record Book and Almanac.