Season after season, the state of North Carolina produces some of the nation’s top high school basketball talent. Recent years have included names such as Dennis Smith Jr., Harry Giles, Theo Pinson and Grant Williams. This year’s senior class was no exception, with the state boasting two McDonald’s All Americans in Devon Dotson (Kansas) and Coby White (UNC).
Earlier this month, Dotson and White were both participants in the annual N.C. Private School All-State Game. The duo was also joined by some of the state’s best players, including John Newman (Clemson) and Nate Hinton (Houston).
And then… right in the middle of all the action… was Stephen Edoka.
“It was great man, especially playing with Coby White. I don’t even like Chapel Hill, but I’ll probably root for them next year because he’s going to play there,” Stephen says with a smile.
Edoka is a 6-foot-5 senior at Concord First Assembly Academy. On the court, he’s a ferocious defender and a high-flyer. Off the floor, he’s a humble guy who’s usually pretty quiet in group settings. However, as the two of us sit in his kitchen going back-and-forth about the NBA, college and high school hoops— Stephen comes alive.
Stephen leans forward as he talks about his teammates in the All-Star Game. He jokes about blocking John Newman, a notorious trash-talker who led Greensboro Day to a second straight state championship this year.
“We were guarding each other and he was definitely talking. I blocked him one time and I was like ‘Get your weak stuff outta here.’”
I start to laugh… Stephen cracks a smile, but then quickly mentions how much he respects Newman and enjoyed befriending him. Besides, I’m sure Stephen left out the part where Newman returned the favor.
“Before the camp, I did not like him, because I played him once before and he was talking a lot of trash… But you don’t really know people until you actually meet them. And when we played at the All-Star Game and practiced together— [I saw] he’s nice… And I respect people like that… that work to get what they want.”
It’s easy for me to see Stephen’s love for the game. Not long after he’s done discussing the top prospects in North Carolina, he’s already moved onto the NBA.
“When I started to watch basketball, I liked the OKC Thunder. I loved KD. I don’t like him as much anymore,” Stephen says jokingly. “But right now, my favorite player is Russell Westbrook. I love the way he plays… He’s gonna come at you.”
Stephen tells me he strives to play like Westbrook in his toughness and competitive fire. His style of play compares well with that of Westbrook. If there’s one thing that’s abundantly clear about him– it’s that no one’s going to outwork Stephen Edoka.
And yeah… he’s got some ridiculous bounce.
Stephen also plays with a certain recklessness that reminds me of Westbrook. Whether it’s his slashing through the lane, diving for loose balls, or soaring high above the rim, he plays with a level of disregard for how much his body might get banged up as a result of his extraordinary effort.
It was this toughness and drive that initially attracted the attention of college coaches when Stephen arrived in America… but also drew the joking criticism of some of his teammates at the All-Star Game.
“We started the game, and I was just playing– to me I was just playing regularly. But the guys were like ‘Hey man, you’re going too hard’… I was like, ‘I don’t know man, this is the only way I know how to play,’” Stephen says while laughing.
At this point, I should probably mention that Stephen didn’t start playing basketball until he was 14 years old. As a kid growing up in Nigeria, Stephen spent his time on the soccer pitch rather than the basketball court.
However, after picking up the game as a teenager, Stephen’s life would be forever changed at the 2014 Giants of Africa Camp in Lagos.
“I still love soccer… But when I went to that camp, I was like, ‘Yo this is a cool sport.’ Like playing basketball was cool. Just being a basketball player is really cool.”
Founded by the current president of the Toronto Raptors, Masai Ujiri, the Giants of Africa organization was formed with the vision of bringing coaches and needed resources to African players. Since its inception, the camp has helped hundreds of athletes reach personal and professional success through the game of basketball. Stephen Edoka is one of its success stories.
From one life-altering event to another, Stephen was then invited to camps with Basketball Without Borders in 2015 and then again in 2016. Pretty soon, Edoka was competing against the best players in the entire world in Toronto.
“I was blown away… I did not know who DeAndre Ayton was at that time. I did not know who Thon Maker was at that time. Frank Ntilikina was on my team and I was talking to him.”
His experience with Basketball Without Borders solidified Stephen’s future– he was going to be a basketball player.
Through Basketball Without Borders, Stephen also managed to gain the attention of coaches who saw a chance to send him to the United States. He quickly jumped at the opportunity.
In 2016, Stephen arrived in America and enrolled as a foreign exchange student at Concord First Assembly Academy, a private school just outside of Charlotte with a respected basketball pedigree.
Stephen was also welcomed into the home of Chip and Stephanie Dobner, where the connection was almost instant. Chip and Stephanie’s children, Courtney, Chuck and Daquan, even refer to Stephen as their brother.
The transition to America wasn’t always easy though. One of the biggest changes that Stephen had to make was learning how to play in the faster American game.
“It was the running, man. The first game that I played, for a fall league game, I could barely stand after the game because I was so tired. That was the biggest adjustment I had to make, learning how to play with the pace because it was a lot of running.”
Still, despite the steep learning curve, Stephen led his team in scoring and garnered All-Conference and All-State honors. For the Nigerian kid that only started playing basketball three years earlier, this was an impressive feat.
When his senior season finally arrived, Stephen set his sights on playing college basketball. As a junior, Stephen never considered playing at the next level, but after a breakout summer season, coaches and scouts began to call.
“My junior year, I just played… I was just glad to be in the United States. I had been here before but never for school. So when I was coming to school, I wasn’t really thinking about scholarships because I knew I had AAU that summer.”
After playing with the Charlotte ACES on the AAU circuit, Stephen’s senior year would present itself with new challenges. Similar to the experiences of many high school athletes across the country, Stephen often struggled to find the balance between seeking individual exposure while still being a team player.
“I’ve been in that situation a lot of times. You can’t force it though. So what you’re not an ESPN Top 100 guy– you still gotta play. There have been games where I said ‘Man I gotta be the one to score’ or ‘I gotta have a dunk’ or ‘I gotta force the game.’”
After walking through that period of his playing career, Stephen can now look back and provide his insights for the next generation of athletes.
“I realized that every time you go into the game, you have to go in with the same mentality… You gotta play hard, it doesn’t matter what level or stage you’re on…When you start to overthink things, that’s when you get into trouble… Just play man and don’t force it.”
Stephen currently has a Division I offer from Winthrop University, but he’s fielding interest from a variety of Division I and Division II schools.
“First of all, I’m grateful to be where I’m at right now. I’m not even trying to say Division II or Division I. I’m just grateful for where I’m at… Right now, I’ve got a couple of Division II schools that would love to have me if I told them that I wanted to go… But I’m also talking to a couple of Division I schools… So my decision will probably be a lot later.”
Two of the schools that showed interest in Stephen early in the season were Virginia and Tennessee.
“It felt good to have Virginia come in your gym. Like the University of Virginia was in my gym. The University of Tennessee, they also came in my gym too which felt good.”
The scholarship offers from Tony Bennett and Rick Barnes never came, but that didn’t stop Stephen from continuing his development.
“I rather tell myself the hard truth than make stuff up. That’s the way I like to work. So in my mind, I was like, ‘Maybe your game is not where they want it to be”… So [not receiving an offer] didn’t make me mad or anything like that– it was just like ‘You gotta step up your game if you want to play at the next level.’”
Although the interest from Virginia has cooled, the duo remain a compelling match. Stephen is the type of player that would thrive in Tony Bennett’s system. He’s a relentless defender and physical presence in the paint. Also, Stephen’s offensive game (though he likes to be modest about it) keeps getting better and better.
“My shot wasn’t good junior year… I could shoot the ball, but it didn’t translate into the game. At practice, I would go-off and shoot the ball real well, but I would barely shoot in games… So my plan was to work my shot into my game so that it would translate every time I stepped on the floor.”
And the results followed…
“In the offseason I was at the gym a lot… I think last year I scored maybe 11 or 12 three-pointers the whole year, but this year, I hit 7 in one game and 4 or 5 in a couple of other games.”
At the conclusion of his senior season, Edoka was again named an All-Conference and All-State performer averaging 17.6 points and 8.9 rebounds per game.
As the April late-signing period approaches, Stephen Edoka is a name that college coaches should keep in mind. Stephen is perhaps the top under-the-radar prospect in North Carolina.
The exciting part of Stephen’s game is that no one knows how good he can be. He started playing basketball only a few years ago, which demonstrates his ability to develop quickly and learn how to improve himself.
Stephen has routinely showcased an ability to perform against the best players in North Carolina. More than that though, he’s an all-around great guy. Stephen is a dedicated student, a kind young man and a loyal friend.
I am excited to watch Stephen as he continues to step into his bright future. Wherever he chooses to go, you can be sure of one thing: Stephen Edoka will accomplish great things on and off the floor, making his family and the nation of Nigeria proud.