In 2015-16 Chino Hills head basketball coach Steve Baik led the Huskies to a 35-0 season and consensus number one national ranking. That team started three future NBA players in Lonzo Ball (New Orleans Pelicans) as well as his brother LaMelo and Onyeka Okongwu, two projected lottery picks in Wednesday’s 2020 NBA Draft. LiAngelo Ball (Oklahoma City Blue) and Eli Scott (Loyola Marymount) also started.
Okongwu played his freshman college basketball season in 2019-20 at USC, and is projected to be a Top 10 pick in Wednesday’s NBA Draft. Baik spoke with SBLive ahead of Wednesday’s draft to discuss Okongwu’s role in the 35-0 team as well as his NBA potential.
SBLIVE: Everyone knew about the Ball brothers, but was there buzz around Onyeka Okongwu early on in the 2015-16 season?
BAIK: Even though he was a 6-9 freshmen that was 14 years old, people didn’t think much of him at first. But then that changed after some of the big games that we were fortunate to play in that year.
For both [LaMelo and Onyeka] to end up in the same draft class as high lottery picks, it’s just a really, really fun thing for me to see.
SBLIVE: Describe Onyeka’s game that season.
BAIK: For Onyeka, physically you could see how he could have a good chance of making the NBA being that he was a 6-8 freshmen that was really skilled.
But the thing that really stood out about Onyeka was his poise and his maturity. He’s just one of those kids that just has that maturity about him, that makes him seem older.
He he did things during his freshman year that were just veteran plays that saved our season numerous times that year. Onyeka was able to do it in so many different ways.
At the time, we were always surrounded by the UCLA staff because they had three of their recruits on one team in the Ball brothers. I was pushing the Bruins staff to recruit this kid early because he was making these incredible plays against Bam Adebayo twice and T.J. Leaf, who we played against three times that season. He was doing things kind of under the radar because everybody was so enamored by the Ball brothers.
I was like guys, how the heck do you not offer this kid already? He’s 6-8 and he’s only a freshman playing against some serious guys and he’s doing really well. He’s a starting center for us. It took a little bit longer for people to recognize how special he was.
SBLIVE: Was there a specific game that made you think, ‘wow this kid will be a pro’?
BAIK: The game that really just forced people to see how great he was was the first time we played Bishop Montgomery. That game was just the worst combination of injuries, scheduling and fatigue. For us to go and play against a team that was ready to knock our heads off, it was a big ask.
Lonzo wasn’t feeling well because he had a slight groin injury, LaMelo was off too. Everybody was off really. During the game I pulled Lonzo aside and I said everybody’s paying attention to you and everybody’s paying attention to your brothers. The one guy that they’re not paying attention to is Onyeka. Let’s get him in the pick and roll. They’re going to double you which will give Onyeka wide open lanes to the basket.
That literally saved us. There was a possession where Onyeka was wide open and he took a dribble and he nearly took off on the free throw line and he dunked it. That was the momentum shift that we needed that game. After that game the UCLA and USC assistants told me that they were going to start recruiting him. He literally saved us that game and preserved our number one ranking.
SBLIVE: What other games stand out to you when you look back on Onyeka’s freshman season?
BAIK: So one of the first ones I can think of was against Patrick School from New Jersey. They were absolutely loaded and they had veteran guys on their team plus they were coached by Mike Rice, who was a former Rutgers coach.
They have a couple African kids that are seven footers. They have Cyril Langevine who played for Rhode Island, a 6-8 stud. It’s just unbelievable how much talent they had on their team, in particular the bigs. The great big men Onyeka faced as a freshman were probably better than the ones he took on in any of his other three seasons in high school.
In that game we’re just exhausted because it’s the City of Palms Championship and we’d just had such an emotional win over Montverde Academy. So when we got to the Patrick game, our guys are missing shots that we normally make. Credit to the Patrick School as well because they were making things so hard for us on the defensive end.
So the game is tight and I believe we’re up one late, late in the game and we’re on defense. They had a kid named Bryce Aiken who went on to play at Harvard and Seton Hall. He’s one of the top guards in the nation. He’s pushing a two on one right at Onyeka and I would say nine out of ten times the offense scores in that situation, most likely on a pass and then a dunk. But on that possession Onyeka saved us by staying home near the basket and baiting the pass. He was able to tip the ball and then save it and outlet it to a guard to win us the game. No one talked about that play because everyone was so enamored by the Ball brothers, but that won us the game.
In the De La Salle state championship game, Onyeka has a horrible first half and then comes out just on fire in the the second half blocking every single shot, getting tipped dunks and just is phenomenal. That game was the first time we were ever down at halftime the whole season. That just goes to show how special Onyeka was. When he played bad, we were bad and when he played well, we were world beaters.
Early in the season in the Corona Centennial Battlezone tournament we play Foothills Christian and TJ Leaf and TJ just dominated scoring over 40 points. Onyeka had a tough time against him offensively and defensively.
Later in the year, we play them again at the Sierra Canyon showcase. What was I thinking scheduling all of these games? We squeak by them again. Then we meet them in the state playoffs and you’d think they’d have us figured out, but Onyeka, oh my lord, he had the game of his life. His performance was just phenomenal.
I think he had like 20 points, double digit rebounds, a number of blocked shots and steals. But what was cool was being able to see the progression of this kid who was playing middle school basketball the year before and is now playing against nationally ranked seniors. To have this little unknown freshman playing against these guys and literally growing up right before our eyes was incredible. He went from getting his rear end handed to him his first two outings against TJ to now outplaying him. It was special.
SBLIVE: What do you think he’ll look like in the NBA?
BAIK: It’s funny how you see a guy like Bam Adebayo having this recent success being the new modern NBA center. I texted Onyeka a few weeks ago and I said I think that you really have a chance to open up the eyes of these scouts because Bam is really paving the way for you. I think he should position himself and market himself that way.