In order to play for the Oregon men's basketball team this season, Francis Okoro loaded up on credits during his junior year at Normal West (Ill.) High School.
“I had to take a lot of online classes,” the Oregon freshman explained Tuesday during his first media interview of the season. “At one time in high school, I was taking 13 classes. It was tough.”
The 6-foot-9 Okoro graduated early and reclassified into the Class of 2018 to become the final addition to the top-ranked recruiting class in Oregon history. He was a four-star recruit ranked among the top 40 prospects in the Class of 2019 after averaging 15.7 points and 12.4 rebounds last season.
Even after Okoro qualified to arrive one year early for college, he waited until late July to make a final decision.
“You have to believe in yourself and have a goal,” Okoro said. “My goal was to come here and learn my first year and that is working for me. … I have seen a lot of players come here and get better and I want to get better.”
There has been evidence of that as Okoro nears the end of his first collegiate season. He had a career-high 10 rebounds in last week’s win over Arizona State and matched his career high with 10 points two nights later in a win over Arizona.
“I believe a lot in progress and I believe it’s going to take time,” Okoro said. “You may have a good game, you may not have a good game, but you have to keep working and focusing on getting better.”
Okoro’s 17 points in two games last weekend exceeded his total from the previous eight games and the 17 rebounds surpassed his total from the previous six games.
“He went through kind of a freshman lull there for a while, but his effort to get here early and stay late has been very consistent,” UO coach Dana Altman said. “Francis has a purpose academically and on the floor and he is working very hard. He has been a pleasure to work with.”
Okoro moved from Imo, Nigeria, in 2014 and lived with his aunt and uncle in Illinois. He only played organized basketball for a couple of years before high school.
“He started basketball late so he kind of had to look at it in steps,” Altman said. “Coming over here late, I think he looks at it a little different than some guys who have grown up in the states.”
Okoro does have a step-by-step outline in mind for his college career.
“I have a plan for every year, things I want to do,” Okoro said. “This year, the plan was to dominate the post and I believe it is going to come. Next year, I will move to the next plan.”
Altman has a few ideas for what should be on Okoro’s sophomore plan.
“I think next year he will be able to hit the 15- or 17-foot jumper, he has worked on that,” Altman said. “Offense just takes longer. It takes years to develop a low-post game and years to develop a perimeter game. You build a foundation, something you can go to. That is something I talked to Francis about. ‘I’ve got to get a bucket here and where do I go?’ Next year, hopefully he develops more but it is a long process.”
Okoro is averaging 2.8 points and 3.1 rebounds while playing all 30 games for the Ducks (18-12, 9-8), including 14 starts. He is Oregon’s most physical presence in the post and said that was not a major adjustment despite arriving in college a year early.
“To me, it was more mental,” he said. “I was trying to learn a lot of stuff in college and I am still learning. … Getting the feel of the game and understanding more about basketball. I think I took a big step in that.”