Steve Marcus / Las Vegas Sun
Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2010 | 2:10 a.m.
Godwin Okonji often is overlooked in the Findlay Prep basketball team's starting lineup.
Playing alongside the likes of point guard Cory Joseph and forward Tristan Thompson, two polished offensive players who were both recently selected to the 24-member McDonald's All-American team, it's easy to understand why Okonji doesn't receive as much publicity.
But that's far from the case when talking with people associated with the program, which is ranked No. 3 nationally by USA Today. They will be the first to confirm that the 6-foot-8, 225-pound forward brings a certain toughness to the lineup that can't be measured on the stat sheet.
Okonji, who averages 8.1 points and 7.4 rebounds per game, is one of the Pilots' top defenders and rebounders. More importantly, the 19-year-old senior brings a level of stability and maturity to the team that insiders feel is invaluable.
"My style of play is to put pressure on the defensive end first," Okonji said. "I know what I do defensively is a difference in helping us win."
Okonji has caught the eye of several Division-I college programs. He has scholarship offers from Hawaii, New Mexico and TCU.
But when he arrived at Findlay three years ago from Lagos, Nigeria, his basketball skills — especially on offense — were limited. A few years of hard work later, Okonji has punched his ticket to the next level.
"He came in right away and listened to what he was told," Findlay coach Mike Peck said. "He's a product of doing what he was told."
Okonji remembers being introduced to the sport as a child in Nigeria and spending countless hours experimenting with his game at a makeshift court near his house. He's taken that passion and worked himself into a key piece of one of high school basketball's top programs.
The Pilots went undefeated last year in winning ESPN's national title, and Okonji has experienced only three losses in nearly 100 games.
One of those setbacks still haunts him.
The Pilots in December were defeated 53-52 by Northland High of Columbus, Ohio, a game Okonji felt he could have had a bigger impact in. Jared Sullinger, the nation's top recruit and an Ohio State commit, scored 32 points and grabbed 17 rebounds in dominating Findlay on the inside.
It's one of the rare times in Okonji's career where he was physically outmatched. The loss snapped a 45-game Findlay winning streak.
"I know there are no do-overs, but I would love to play that game again," Okonji said. "That game taught me that I need to be more aggressive."
Peck compares Okonji to another great big-man of African decent.
"Minus the shot-blocking presence, he's a lot like Dikembe Mutombo," Peck said. "He's a guy who can run the floor and establish defensive pressure. He's always had the body type that lent itself to being (a force on the inside)."
Okonji will continue to work on his offensive skills in his final two months with Findlay and probably won't decide on a college until the season ends in early April. He talks about thriving at Findlay — on the court and in the classroom — with great pride, and says a significant part of picking a college will involve academics.
"I'm not pressing it," he said of the decision. "I want a good basketball school and a good education, too."