SPRINGFIELD, Mass. – Chino Hills has been the center of attention in the high school basketball world for a few years now, so it was no surprise to see the Huskies in the marquee billing Saturday night at the Hoophall Classic.
But when the teams came out for pregame warmups and the crowd began to swell into a frenzy, it had little to do with the Southern California side. They were here to see Zion Williamson, one of the most hyped high school athletes in recent history. His insane athleticism has made him a YouTube sensation and probably more famous than half of the NBA.
MORE FROM HOOPHALL: Duke signee RJ Barrett puts on two-way tour de force | Perry powers No. 23 Oak Ridge past Roselle Catholic | Gonzaga’s Terrance Williams steals show in win over Sacred Heart | No. 18 Imhotep Charter rolls past Hillhouse
But this night would not belong to Williamson. Chino Hills no longer represents the brash star power the Ball family once brought. It is now a cohesive unit led by unassuming junior big man Onyeka Okongwu, who revels in surprising the world from outside the spotlight.
“We’re more of the underdogs, with people doubting us,” Okongwu said. “I have faith in my teammates and my team. I know we’re just as fine as we were last year. I think we’re one of the best teams around.”
Now in charge of Chino Hills, first-year coach Dennis Lattimore has revived an egalitarian culture in his program that has the faces of the team pulling for one another. Okongwu says he likes his new coach because he brings out the best in everyone and doesn’t believe in favoritism. Compared to previous years under the shadow of the Big Baller Brand, Okongwu feels free. Lavar Ball pulled his youngest son LaMelo from the program in October and that finally allowed Chino Hills to function in a more productive way
“Biggest difference is the ball gets moved around more, people get shots up, no more selfish plays, we have better defense, stuff like that,” Okongwu said.
This game had all of those things. Great transition play, impressive half-court stops and a highlight reel that could reach from California to South Carolina. But while Williamson came through for the crowd with 36 points and countless remarkable plays, Okongwu was a technically proficient and relentlessly consistent center.
He nearly matched Williamson with 35 points and 14 rebounds before fouling out in the final minute, but his stops at the rim made the difference. Okongwu had a knack for rim-protecting and then managing to consistently be the one to finish on the fast break. Even when he appeared gassed toward the end, he was still running the floor and finishing in any way the defense forced him to. Even though Williamson is a physically superior specimen to seemingly everyone on this level, Okongwu still won the day by this persistence and deft footwork to put Williamson in compromising situations.
“It’s more of a mental thing, you know. I just push through all of the fatigue, knowing I have to play to my best strength for my team to win,” Okongwu said. “It challenged me a lot. Zion’s a big force, a big presence. I know if I can just score on people like him, I can score on most people.”
Even though he’s a junior and Zion is dunking on everyone in the country’s heads whenever he takes the floor, it didn’t faze Chino Hill’s budding star.
“Yeah, I wasn’t backing down from it. That’s not who I am. I’m not afraid of anyone. When I found out I was guarding Zion, I just took it like a man.”
Lattimore was blown away by the guy he calls “O” and his relentlessness in crunch time.
“He does a lot of stuff on his own, but we really talked about running the floor and being willing to run the floor,” Lattimore said. “Whether it’s sprinting back on defense so you can get the block or springing on the other end so you post-up and establish position. The guy is a very talented player and only a junior. I personally think he could be starting at a lot of Top 25 college teams right now, so it’s going to be scary two years from now.”
It was Williamson’s second game since returning from injury. He looked a bit gassed and dragging on occasion, but his game still looked elite in so many ways. He is a dynamic scorer in almost every phase of the game with the power and nimbleness to play every position. Okongwu is more simply a big at this point, but he is flashing perimeter skills that could propel him at the next level.
He hit his only three-point attempt and attacked a guard on the perimeter in crunch time with an up-and-under to get a crucial basket. Lattimore is trying to put the offense in position to accentuate his strengths while he improves on his weaknesses.
“What we do have is a guy inside that is unstoppable, so it makes the most sense for us to slow it down and let him get position,” Lattimore said. “The guy can actually get things from the outside, it’s just for spacing, we’re using him more on the inside so he can truly be dominant at the high school level.”
He’s proving that he is in fact dominant at the high school level and still has a whole other side of his game to open up to reach the top of his class.
“I just want to stretch out my game a little bit,” Okongwu said. “Work on my perimeter game and my inside game. Just trying to be the best all-around player I can be.”
His top five is down to Kansas, UCLA, USC, Arizona State and Washington, and the decision will come in the next year. He’ll come away from this evening with a new reputation to be able to go against the giants and match them blow for blow, making his college choice even more highly anticipated.
But Okongwu’s favorite takeaway from the day was a flip-flop with a chain around it, the MVP trophy handed out to each team in each game.
“It’s an iconic award, so I’m going to save it,” he said. “I’ve never gotten anything like that before in my life and I don’t think I ever will.”