For the second consecutive season, the state’s top honor goes to Onyeka Okongwu of Chino Hills. The USC-bound center has a skill level, defensive ability, and clutch post-season performances over four years that puts him in rare company as a two-time Mr. Basketball winner. It’s all just enough to help him edge guard Cassius Stanley of CIF open champ Sierra Canyon.
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The boys basketball team at Chino Hills had breezed to the CIF Southern Section Division I final against a talented Santa Margarita team. The Huskies had a 50-38 lead on the Eagles in the second half and had only lost two post-season games with senior big man Onyeka Okongwu in their lineup. With those numbers on its side, it seemed like another Chino Hills victory in the bag, right?
As it turns out, Santa Margarita was able to make a spirited comeback to win in overtime, 62-61, to deny Okongwu and Chino Hills its third section title in his four years in the lineup. Chino Hills coach Dennis Latimore felt Santa Margarita was the best defensive team and did the best job on his star player of any team all season. The fact the USC-bound Okongwu finished with 29 points, eight rebounds and six blocked shots is a testament to his ability and impact on high-level games.
The defeat was Okongwu’s third and as it turns out, his last, defeat in 32 post-season games in an already legendary Chino Hills career.
“When the (section) playoff brackets came out, we we’re happy to get the W over Etiwanda in the second game and we said to ourselves, ‘We can really do this again,’” Okongwu said. “It was a breeze until we got to Santa Margarita (in the CIFSS title game) and blew a lead. In the regional, we were a sixth seed and we would be down every single game, but we fought every single game, first against Mayfair, then against open teams. Then we had to win at Clamp City (Etiwanda) and that was a very tough team.”
Chino Hills was not only the defending CIFSS D1 champion, it was also the defending D1 state champions, and had to face the CIFSS 2AA champion (Mayfair of Lakewood) in the first round of the SoCal D1 regional. The Big O finished with 28 points, 11 rebounds, eight blocks and four assists in the 72-69 victory. Against Mayfair and three teams that competed in the CIFSS Open Division playoffs (Bellflower St. John Bosco, Rancho Verde, and Etiwanda) Okongwu averaged 30.8 ppg, 10.8 rpg, 5.8 apg, and 6.5 bpg while leading his team to comeback victories in each, including an incredible 49-47 regional final win over Baseline League rival Etiwanda on the road in the which the Huskies scored the final 13 points, including Okongwu’s two free throws with 5.6 seconds remaining.
Despite its star player fouling out in the CIF D1 state title game, Chino Hills defeated James Logan, 69-63, to win its second consecutive D1 state title. Okongwu had 26 points, 15 rebounds, five assists and three blocks in less than three quarters of play, but despite some rough moments, his teammates made enough plays down the stretch to deliver Chino Hills its third state crown in four seasons. Okongwu finished his career with three CIF state titles, two CIFSS crowns and one mythical national title while making countless friends and memories along the way.
Okongwu’s winning resume, overall dominance among his peers, and clutch playoff performances make him California’s best player and today the 6-foot-9 center has been named Cal-Hi Sports Mr. Basketball State Player of the Year for the second consecutive season.
“My immediate reaction is it’s just a great accomplishment; being a back-to-back Mr. Basketball is a true achievement because there are so many great players from California,” Okongwu said.
It was a close race among the four Mr. Basketball finalists, perhaps a lot closer than in 2017-18 when The Big O was honored over NorCal Player of the Year James Akinjo (Georgetown University). In fact, he just nips shooting guard Cassius Stanley of Chatsworth Sierra Canyon for the state’s most prestigious honor. Stanley was the ringleader for the state’s best team, averaging 19 points, six rebounds and three assists for the CIF Open Division state champions. He too helped his team win back-to-back state titles after sitting out the beginning of his junior campaign. Stanley has steadily improved over the course of the past calendar year, but there was no question Sierra Canyon had the state’s deepest and most talented team, one that was able to overcome injuries on its way to a dominant season.
There were major questions when it came to the depth and talent of the Chino Hills lineup, in comparison. In fact, it’s hard to fathom Chino Hills’ success over the past two seasons inserting any other class of 2019 player in its lineup and removing the well-mannered big man. His presence and team-first approach to the game and the results they produced definitely played a role in his selection.
“Cassius Stanley really came on this year,” Okongwu said. “In the CIF open and state open, he really shined and had great numbers. I had great numbers, too, but I’m surprised he wasn’t chosen. I am really grateful I was picked Mr. Basketball.”
Okongwu becomes the third Chino Hills honoree in the past four years to earn the state’s most prestigious honor. Los Angeles Laker Lonzo Ball was the state’s best player when Okongwu was a freshman starter on an already legendary 35-0 team that finished No. 1 in the nation in 2015-16. Prior to Ball, the last Mr. Basketball honoree from the greater Inland Empire was Kawhi Leonard from Riverside M.L. King in 2008-09.
“Onyeka is the best ‘big’ in Southern California since Tyson Chandler…he was incredibly selfless and team-minded,” said U.S. Basketball Writers Association Hall of Famer Frank Burlison of burlisononbasketball.com in voicing his support for Okongwu to get the top selection in the state.
It’s interesting the well-respected Burlison mentioned Chandler, because the former Compton Dominguez standout was the last true post player to earn the Mr. Basketball distinction for California in back-to-back years before The Big O came along. Chandler was Mr. Basketball in both 2000 and 2001 before being selected as the No. 2 pick in the 2001 NBA Draft out of high school. The other two-time Mr. Basketball selections since the advent of the CIF state tournament in 1981 are John Williams from Crenshaw of Los Angeles (1983-84), Jason Kidd from St. Joseph of Alameda (1991-92) and Aaron Gordon from Mitty of San Jose (2012-13). Not only is Okongwu joining select company in our state’s proud basketball history, he also took home Player of the Year honors for the second consecutive season from the Los Angeles Times (which also could have gone with Stanley), the John Wooden Award for CIF Southern Section D1 players and the all-CIFSS D1 team. Those local honors also were a smaller factor in his selection over the other three finalists.
We always wonder what could have been had Okongwu’s good friend Melo Ball remained at Chino Hills with him all four years. The youngest brother of Lonzo was also a 14-year old freshman starter on that undefeated team. Another feather in the hat for Okongwu was being able to adjust his role and thrive under three different head coaches in four seasons. As a freshman under Steve Baik, Okongwu stepped up in big games to help slow down other big men and score timely buckets while averaging 8 ppg. As a sophomore under Stephan Gilling, Melo Ball took a bigger offensive role, but The Big O never stopped working defensively and cleaned up a ton of possessions with offensive rebound putbacks. When Latimore took over for Okongwu’s junior season, he became the focal point of the offense, which caused some early struggles but eventually paid off in the form of a section and two state crowns. If Melo was in the lineup this year, would Chino Hills have been in national title contention for the second time in four years or possibly challenged Sierra Canyon for the CIF Open crown? Would Okongwu be a two-time Mr. Basketball?
“If Melo was still on the team, I know we’d be going back and forth for Mr. Basketball,” Okongwu said. “When we were freshman, I was the player of the year and he was in our sophomore year. We don’t play for stats and awards, but it would be fun to play with him. He’s on to bigger and better things, but he’s my brother and I still talk to him all the time.”
Okongwu didn’t want to focus too much on the hypotheticals, but mentioned how much he’s learned from watching the situation surrounding Melo and the other two Ball brothers in light of recent reports that a convicted con man named Alan Foster reportedly stole 1.5 million dollars from Lonzo Ball and the Big Baller Brand, a company Lonzo is one of the part owners. The Big O mentioned how he’s learned to be mindful of who his associates with and what he says around people he may not know. It’s not surprising he also wanted to talk about how much his teammates stepped up and helped him earn individual accolades.
“As friends and brothers, we gave it our all,” Okongwu said about the team while pointing out seniors Will Pluma, Nick Manor-Hall, Anthony Bell and Sam Keenan. “Will, he played with a messed up shoulder and was the heart and soul of our team. We really needed him (to win). Nick, he’s been with me since the 35-0 team and he’s improved so much. Anthony didn’t get any burn (playing time) over there (at Etiwanda) and Sam Keenan was another key piece. He wasn’t playing at the beginning of the season, but man, he is the reason why we won that Etiwanda game at home.”
When Okongwu was named Mr. Basketball last season, we went into depth on the role his late brother Nnamdi, who passed away from a skateboarding accident in July of 2014, plays in his life. This season, we’re sure it was a real treat for his mother Kate, a nurse, and his younger sister Chinenye to see Chukwuemeka, the youngest Okongwu brother, join the Chino Hills varsity. Although he played a small role, he now can call himself a state champ and when the Logan game was completed Kate was as relieved as she was happy considering how the D1 state game had played out. It’s been quite a journey for her middle son the past five years, from losing his older brother before joining the team to heading to USC as one of the state’s most accomplished players in recent times.
The Big O also wanted to thank more than just his immediate family for their support.
“I want to say thank you to the whole community of Chino Hills,” Okongwu said. “A lot of people took the bus ride to state. All of the school came out to support us each game, from the baseball team to the cheerleaders. We really had a strong fan base. I want them to remember me as the humble kid around school who smiled around people and made them laugh.”
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.
2019 – Onyeka Okongwu, Chino Hills, 6-9
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.