Finding the right fit for your college basketball program isn't just about what happens on the court, but off it as well. Ohio State added a key piece. How will that commitment impact the Buckeyes?
He doesn't need any more time to think things over.
Felix Okpara is ready. Ready to be a Buckeye.
The four-star rising senior center who left Nigeria for the United States three years ago went on an official visit to Ohio State a month and a half ago, took time to think it over, then told the coaching staff on Friday that he's ready to take the next step with them. On Monday, the 6-foot-11, 215-pound big man made it official by committing to play hoops for the Buckeyes.
In Okpara, Ohio State filled a key need in the 2022 cycle by getting its center of the future and somebody whose skillset is different than anybody who is currently or recently has been on the roster.
On The Court
The first thing to know about Okpara’s game is that he’s already a defensive problem for opposing teams around the rim. He understands he has to put on weight in order to effectively play center in the Big Ten, which he and the coaching staff have discussed. But the rest of his physique – 6-foot-11 height and long arms – is ideal for protecting the rim, as evidenced by his 2.6 blocks per game as a junior in high school and 1.8 blocks in 21 minutes a contest across 12 games with MOKAN Elite this month on the Nike EYBL circuit and in Peach Jam.
“Man, it's just something about smacking the ball,” Okpara told Eleven Warriors. “I just like smacking the ball out to two rows.”
E.J. Liddell has a knack for blocking shots, but he's only 6-foot-7. Okpara is different in that he’s a true center defensively who knows his defensive role will be to guard opposing fives and the area around the basket. He’s also shown to be effective on the glass as a rebounder, even without some of the strength he’ll need at the next level, by grabbing 7.9 rebounds per game in high school and 6.7 boards a game with MOKAN Elite.
That rim-protecting aspect of Okpara’s game is a big part of what attracted the Buckeyes to him. They will add him to a frontcourt that includes Zed Key and Kalen Etzler, neither of whose games are similar. He should eventually be able to play next to both of them.
The upside of Okpara largely stems from what he develops into offensively. Right now, he’s mainly somebody who’ll get his points by screening and rolling to the basket or pulling down offensive boards. He has also shown he has some catch-and-shoot potential.
Okpara specifically referenced Ohio State’s offensive development of him as a main reason why he decided to become a Buckeye. The coaches showed him Liddell’s offensive improvement as both a scorer in general and specifically as a shooter, for example, which caught his attention. He believes they’ll be able to help him get significantly better on that side of the court.
Here’s how Okpara described what Ohio State liked about his game: “Obviously my defensive presence and also my offensive skillset. They pretty much watched my games. I'm not like a traditional big. I can come out and I can shoot the ball, and I can also score in the post. He just told me I fit well in the system and that's what I was looking for.”
In The Class
The center need in the 2022 was readily evident for everybody involved – fans, coaches, media, etc.
Holtmann had previously succeeded in landing high-end guard recruits (Malaki Branham, Bruce Thornton, Roddy Gayle, DJ Carton) and highly-rated forward prospects (Liddell, Alonzo Gaffney). However, between the 2018 and 2021 high school classes, the only centers Ohio State landed were three-stars in Key and Ibrahima Diallo.
Okpara, the No. 47 overall prospect in the 2022 class, is a departure from the three-star range. To put it into perspective, you have to go back 14 recruiting cycles to B.J. Mullens to find a center the Buckeyes have landed who's at highly rated as the rising senior at Hamilton Heights Christian Academy.
With Okpara added, here's a look at Ohio State's roster and scholarship distribution by year:
|C||JOEY BRUNK (6TH)||–||ZED KEY||–||FELIX OKPARA|
KYLE YOUNG (5TH)
SETH TOWNS (6TH)
|E.J. LIDDELL||–||KALEN ETZLER||–|
JUSTICE SUEING (5TH)
JUSTIN AHRENS (4TH)
|SG||CEDRIC RUSSELL (5TH)||–||
JIMMY SOTOS (5TH)
JAMARI WHEELER (5TH)
|–||MEECHIE JOHNSON||–||BRUCE THORNTON|
Okpara is the fourth piece of the Buckeyes' 2022 class and the third top-50 commit. He'll be accompanied by four-star point guard Thornton, four-star shooting guard Gayle and three-star shooting guard Bowen Hardman when he arrives in Columbus next summer.
One of those other pledges – Thornton – played a not-insignificant role in Okpara's commitment, too.
“My boy Bruce, that's another key reason why I want to come play with Ohio State,” Okpara said. “Bruce, we've been playing each other for a while now. Since freshman year. He's a really good point guard. He can really pass the ball. I love playing with him.”
Okpara isn't the final piece of the 2022 class.
Ohio State continues to pursue forwards/bigs to fill at least one more spot. Looking at the roster construction, it's clear why that's the case. The Buckeyes, with eight seniors and Liddell a likely 2022 NBA Draft entrant, are set up for a massive exodus next offseason. Several of the seniors – Justin Ahrens, Seth Towns and Justice Sueing – could stay for an additional season of college basketball in 2022-23, but those decisions haven't been made yet. If all eight seniors plus Liddell leave, the Buckeyes would have to replace nine guys.
Certainly, they can be expected to tap into the transfer market next offseason. Still, they want to have a strong incoming 2022 class. And given that it ranks No. 1 nationally, they've done that. Yet they're interested in continuing to fill it up with at least one more wing/forward. Among the options are five-star Jarace Walker, four-star Alex Karaban, four-star AJ Casey, four-star Jordan Mitchell, four-star Tarris Reed and four-star Dillon Mitchell. Walker, Casey, Reed and Dillon Mitchell took official visits to Ohio State last month and Karaban and Jordan Mitchell were recently extended scholarship offers.
Okpara won't be the first African native to have only spent a few years in the United States before suiting up for Ohio State. Diallo, who's originally from Senegal, took a similar path before arriving in Columbus in 2019.
That said, the decision to leave your home continent alone to pursue your dreams shouldn't ever be understated. That's exactly what Okpara did when he took a flight from Nigeria and landed in the U.S. to begin high school three years ago.
“I came over myself,” Okpara said. “I came on an I-20 (student visa).”
At the time, he says, he wasn't sure whether he even liked basketball, and he knew he wasn't good at it – he just was tall. Initially, it was “really tough,” he says. But he stuck it out and “just kept on working and grinding.”
Now, here he is. A Buckeye bound for the Big Ten in a year.
Oh, and the weirdest thing the U.S., after living 14 years in Africa?
“Man, the weirdest thing was, I don't know why Americans put pickles in a burger,” Okpara said. “I just came, I had a burger, I'm like, what is this? It was nasty. I didn't eat burgers for like a whole month because I thought all burgers were made like that. And I forgot you can take out the pickles, you can tell them you don't want pickles.”
Note to Ohio State: Don't serve him any pickles with his burgers.