Dana Altman was discussing the recent surge of Francis Okoro when the Oregon basketball coach began to explain why he “gave him the start” at UCLA on Feb. 23.
Altman suddenly re-arranged his words.
“He earned that start and he’s going to start for a while because he is playing so hard and practicing so hard,” Altman said.
The 6-foot-9 freshman forward was back in the starting lineup for Oregon’s wins over Arizona State and Arizona last week while combining for 17 points and 17 rebounds during his best back-to-back performances of the year. Okoro had a career-high 10 rebounds in the 79-51 win over ASU on Thursday and matched his career high with 10 points in a 73-47 win over the Wildcats on Saturday.
“Francis has been practicing so well that it has given him confidence because he is working his tail off,” Altman said.
Okoro had five offensive rebounds among his 12 total boards last week while going 7-for-15 from the field in a total of 42 minutes.
“He has a lot of upside,” Oregon freshman Louis King said. “Not just getting the ball and dunking, he has a lot of moves on the post and can shoot from 15 feet. As we go along, he will show more of his versatility.”
Okoro played a reserve role in his first 11 college games before moving into the starting lineup for 10 straight games after sophomore forward Kenny Wooten suffered a broken jaw in a loss at Baylor. He came back off the bench for four games before Altman opened the past three games with a tall lineup that features four players at 6-9 - Okoro, Wooten, King and Paul White - along with point guard Payton Pritchard.
Altman noted that Okoro has also become an emerging voice for the Ducks.
“He reminds me of Dillon Brooks,” the coach said of his former Pac-12 player of the year who now plays for the Memphis Grizzlies. “Francis is all about the team and clapping, saying ‘Get your head in the game’ and yelling at guys to wake up and get going before the game. Dillon’s energy level for three years, sometimes he went a bit overboard, but you never had to question whether or not his motor was running. During the last two weeks, Francis has really set the standard and given us a big lift with his energy in practice and in games.”
Okoro was 3-for-6 on free throws against ASU as Romello White and De’Quon Lake combined for five fouls in the first half.
“He got both of their ‘5’ men in foul trouble early and established the board game and that is how they beat us at their place so it was an emphasis for us,” UO senior Ehab Amin said.
Oregon looked inside to Okoro during the second half against Arizona when he made all four shots from the field as the Ducks outscored the Wildcats 42-16.
“He really played well and finished some,” Altman said.
The 235-pound Okoro, who graduated early from high school in Illinois to reclassify into the Class of 2018, has been the most physical Duck in the post.
‘“We are a little on the skinny side so we are going to have to get bigger, but Francis gives us a little physicality,” Altman said.
Okoro’s play last week highlighted strong performances from the freshmen class as the Ducks (17-12, 8-8) moved into a tie for sixth place in the Pac-12 as they head to Washington State (11-18, 4-12) Wednesday to begin the final week of the regular season.
Louis King was nominated for Pac-12 player of the week after averaging 16.5 points and 4.5 rebounds per game. Will Richardson scored 19 points on 8-for-12 shooting from the field while Miles Norris added five points and three rebounds in 16 minutes against Arizona.
“Miles goes 2-for-3 from the field with five points and three rebounds,” Altman noted after the win over UA. “Francis is 5-for-9 and has 10 points and seven rebounds while Will really handled it well and went 5-for-7 with three assists. Those freshmen had a big night.”