MORGANTOWN — Two years ago Jalen Bridges, a highly sought-after recruit out of Fairmont Senior High, was headed toward a year of prep school before entering West Virginia University, where he had committed to play for Coach Bob Huggins.
The veteran coach, however, convinced Bridges and his family that it would benefit him most not to play prep school basketball but to instead enroll at WVU, get a start on his education both academically and athletically, insisting it would be better that he redshirt.
That way he could work out daily with and against Division 1 college athletes rather than prep school players while familiarizing himself with the Mountaineers’ system.
The decision worked out so well that Bridges wound up starting last season and gave fans glimpses of what appeared to be a budding college star. Now, Huggins is repeating the process with James Okonkwo, a 6-9, 230-pound freshman, who is giving up his final two years of high school ball to enroll at WVU this year.
Originally, Okonkwo had committed out of Beckley Prep as a 2022-23 recruit but that changed after a scholarship for this year opened up with Miles McBride entering the NBA draft.
Not that there was a pressing need he be available to play this season as WVU has filled the spot left by the transfer of senior Emmitt Matthews Jr. to Washington by the transfer of Jamel King and the expected return from Achilles tendon surgery for the talented Isaiah Cottrell.
But after this year, Gabe Osabuhien will have used up his eligibility and King is a one-year transfer, so that will leave Bridges, Cottrell and Seny Ndiaye on the roster, so it is important that Okonkwo must be game-ready by then.
Bridges knows what’s it’s like when you first step in to college play.
“It’s way, way harder than anything I could have imagined,” Bridges said last year. “The physicality is just crazy. If you’re not ready, you’re in trouble. At the start of Big 12 play, I won’t lie, I was 100 percent taken aback. It’s a man’s game you have to be tough; you can’t be soft or you’re going to get beaten badly.”
So, the plan is to toughen up Okonkwo during a redshirt freshman year when he daily will be going against Bridges, Osabuhien, Cottrell, King and Ndiaye.
Okonkwo is a tremendous find for Huggins as he has potential to be a top-line recruit yet was under the radar because he did not get much playing time last year as a sophomore due to the COVID-19 outbreak and a broken finger. Being from England also made him something of an unknown commodity.
He is eligible this year because, in England, he earned a General Certificate of Secondary Education, which the NCAA equates to a high school diploma.
Okonkwo is a raw talent, having gotten a late start in basketball. He originally was a promising tennis player.
His older brother, James, became one of the nation’s Top 10 doubles players at the University of Iowa and Okonkwo was following his lead until he got the basketball itch in his eighth year of school.
“I used to be an avid tennis player,” Okonkwo told 247Sports last year. “I stopped playing tennis because I wanted to use my size and athleticism on the [basketball] court.”
Huggins sees his kind of player in Okonkwo despite his age and inexperience.
“James is 17 years old, 6-foot-8 and can run and jump,” Huggins said in the press release announcing his signing. “He’s had a great summer and James is a very good rebounder and shot blocker. He will fit in extremely well with our style of play”
He’s expected to enroll for fall semester, which begins Aug. 18.
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