MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Slowly but surely, James Okonkwo appears to be improving.
The sophomore big man out of Maidenhead, England, has seen his minutes off the bench go up, and his role expand in recent weeks.
It started with a solid performance against Texas, which was then followed by Okonkwo making a play that will certainly be a candidate for the team’s play of the year — a two-handed block at the rim against Texas Tech’s Daniel Batcho — during a game in which Okonkwo also grabbed a career-high 10 rebounds.
He played another solid 14 minutes in WVU’s win over then-No. 15 Auburn. Those building-block performances culminated in his performance Saturday against Oklahoma: 14 minutes, 10 points, 10 rebounds, 4 for 4 on free throw attempts, one block, and one assist. The first double-double of his collegiate career.
“I think I’m a lot more confident now. I’m getting in the groove more,” Okonkwo said Saturday in his British accent. “I think my positioning on the court’s getting a little bit better. I think it’s all just going to come with time. No rush, it’s all just going to come when it comes.”
Okonkwo is easy to understand, but his teammate provided a translation anyway.
“He’s going to be a problem, that’s what he’s trying to say. He’s going to be a problem,” said Erik Stevenson, who was the main problem for the Sooners Saturday, dropping 34 points in a career performance.
Stevenson appears to be one of Okonkwo’s biggest advocates. Late last month, the veteran guard called the youthful big man, “[P]robably one of the best athletes I’ve ever played with.”
Stevenson may have had a glimpse into the future. He followed that statement by saying Okonkwo is just tapping into his potential. A week later, the center put forth the best game of his still-young college career.
Okonkwo had a pair of crowd-energizing dunks in the second half against Oklahoma. One came off a lob pass by Stevenson. The other was a putback dunk off a missed shot, which was coincidentally taken by Stevenson. Okonkwo also finished a fast break opportunity with a slam in the first half.
“I think James has made tremendous strides,” head coach Bob Huggins said. “He’s a guy who could end up being a force in college basketball if he continues to improve, if he continues to work at it, if he continues to grow and understand.”
As Huggins has stated previously, Okonkwo is continuing to learn and grow within the game of basketball.
It has been a team-wide effort in molding Okonkwo from the very raw prospect that he was when he first arrived at WVU to the player that fans see today.
“He just continues to get better and better, and I think our other guys have started to understand how talented he is,” said Huggins. “I think they’re much more encouraged by where he can go, but I think more importantly I think they’re really encouraging him to continue to improve, to continue to work.”