Replacing Ball Family, Chino Hills’ Onyeka Okongwu Stars On Big Stage

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. – Chino Hills has been the center of attention in the high school basketball world for a few years now, so it was no surprise to see the Huskies in the marquee billing Saturday night at the Hoophall Classic.

But when the teams came out for pregame warmups and the crowd began to swell into a frenzy, it had little to do with the Southern California side. They were here to see Zion Williamson, one of the most hyped high school athletes in recent history. His insane athleticism has made him a YouTube sensation and probably more famous than half of the NBA.

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But this night would not belong to Williamson. Chino Hills no longer represents the brash star power the Ball family once brought. It is now a cohesive unit led by unassuming junior big man Onyeka Okongwu, who revels in surprising the world from outside the spotlight.

“We’re more of the underdogs, with people doubting us,” Okongwu said. “I have faith in my teammates and my team. I know we’re just as fine as we were last year. I think we’re one of the best teams around.”

MORE: Full coverage from Hoophall Classic

Now in charge of Chino Hills, first-year coach Dennis Lattimore has revived an egalitarian culture in his program that has the faces of the team pulling for one another. Okongwu says he likes his new coach because he brings out the best in everyone and doesn’t believe in favoritism. Compared to previous years under the shadow of the Big Baller Brand, Okongwu feels free. Lavar Ball pulled his youngest son LaMelo from the program in October and that finally allowed Chino Hills to function in a more productive way

“Biggest difference is the ball gets moved around more, people get shots up, no more selfish plays, we have better defense, stuff like that,” Okongwu said.

This game had all of those things. Great transition play, impressive half-court stops and a highlight reel that could reach from California to South Carolina. But while Williamson came through for the crowd with 36 points and countless remarkable plays, Okongwu was a technically proficient and relentlessly consistent center.

He nearly matched Williamson with 35 points and 14 rebounds before fouling out in the final minute, but his stops at the rim made the difference. Okongwu had a knack for rim-protecting and then managing to consistently be the one to finish on the fast break. Even when he appeared gassed toward the end, he was still running the floor and finishing in any way the defense forced him to. Even though Williamson is a physically superior specimen to seemingly everyone on this level, Okongwu still won the day by this persistence and deft footwork to put Williamson in compromising situations.

Onyeka Okongwu and Zion Williamson. (Photo: Gregory Payan, AP)

“It’s more of a mental thing, you know. I just push through all of the fatigue, knowing I have to play to my best strength for my team to win,” Okongwu said. “It challenged me a lot. Zion’s a big force, a big presence. I know if I can just score on people like him, I can score on most people.”

Even though he’s a junior and Zion is dunking on everyone in the country’s heads whenever he takes the floor, it didn’t faze Chino Hill’s budding star.

“Yeah, I wasn’t backing down from it. That’s not who I am. I’m not afraid of anyone. When I found out I was guarding Zion, I just took it like a man.”

Lattimore was blown away by the guy he calls “O” and his relentlessness in crunch time.

“He does a lot of stuff on his own, but we really talked about running the floor and being willing to run the floor,” Lattimore said. “Whether it’s sprinting back on defense so you can get the block or springing on the other end so you post-up and establish position. The guy is a very talented player and only a junior. I personally think he could be starting at a lot of Top 25 college teams right now, so it’s going to be scary two years from now.”

It was Williamson’s second game since returning from injury. He looked a bit gassed and dragging on occasion, but his game still looked elite in so many ways. He is a dynamic scorer in almost every phase of the game with the power and nimbleness to play every position. Okongwu is more simply a big at this point, but he is flashing perimeter skills that could propel him at the next level.

He hit his only three-point attempt and attacked a guard on the perimeter in crunch time with an up-and-under to get a crucial basket. Lattimore is trying to put the offense in position to accentuate his strengths while he improves on his weaknesses.

“What we do have is a guy inside that is unstoppable, so it makes the most sense for us to slow it down and let him get position,” Lattimore said. “The guy can actually get things from the outside, it’s just for spacing, we’re using him more on the inside so he can truly be dominant at the high school level.”

He’s proving that he is in fact dominant at the high school level and still has a whole other side of his game to open up to reach the top of his class.

“I just want to stretch out my game a little bit,” Okongwu said. “Work on my perimeter game and my inside game. Just trying to be the best all-around player I can be.”

His top five is down to Kansas, UCLA, USC, Arizona State and Washington, and the decision will come in the next year. He’ll come away from this evening with a new reputation to be able to go against the giants and match them blow for blow, making his college choice even more highly anticipated.

But Okongwu’s favorite takeaway from the day was a flip-flop with a chain around it, the MVP trophy handed out to each team in each game.

“It’s an iconic award, so I’m going to save it,” he said. “I’ve never gotten anything like that before in my life and I don’t think I ever will.”

Chino Hills Phaquon Davis #15 runs the offense against Spartanburg Day during a high school basketball game at the Hoophall Classic, Saturday, January 13, 2018, in Springfield,MA. (Photo: Gregory Payan, AP)

Chino Hills Phaquon Davis #15 runs the offense against Spartanburg Day during a high school basketball game at the Hoophall Classic, Saturday, January 13, 2018, in Springfield,MA. (Photo: Gregory Payan, AP)

Spartanburg Day's Zion Williamson #12 in action against Chino Hills during a high school basketball game at the Hoophall Classic, Saturday, January 13, 2018, in Springfield,MA. Chino Hills won the game. (Photo: Gregory Payan, AP)

Spartanburg Day's Zion Williamson #12 makes a pass through defenders against Chino Hills during a high school basketball game at the Hoophall Classic, Saturday, January 13, 2018, in Springfield,MA. Chino Hills won the game. (Photo: Gregory Payan, AP)

Spartanburg Day's Zion Williamson #12 drives to the hoop against Chino Hills during a high school basketball game at the Hoophall Classic, Saturday, January 13, 2018, in Springfield,MA. Chino Hills won the game. (Photo: Gregory Payan, AP)

Spartanburg Day's Zion Williamson #12 drives to the hoop against Chino Hills during a high school basketball game at the Hoophall Classic, Saturday, January 13, 2018, in Springfield,MA. Chino Hills won the game. (Photo: Gregory Payan, AP)

Spartanburg Day's Zion Williamson #12 drives to the hoop against Chino Hills during a high school basketball game at the Hoophall Classic, Saturday, January 13, 2018, in Springfield,MA. Chino Hills won the game. (Photo: Gregory Payan, AP)

Spartanburg Day's Zion Williamson #12 is introduced before a game against Chino Hills during a high school basketball game at the Hoophall Classic, Saturday, January 13, 2018, in Springfield,MA. (Photo: Gregory Payan, AP)

Spartanburg Day's Zion Williamson #12 takes a jumper against Chino Hills during a high school basketball game at the Hoophall Classic, Saturday, January 13, 2018, in Springfield,MA. Chino Hills won the game. (Photo: Gregory Payan, AP)

Chino Hills Onyeka Okongwu #21 takes a shot against Spartanburg Day during a high school basketball game at the Hoophall Classic, Saturday, January 13, 2018, in Springfield,MA. (Photo: Gregory Payan, AP)

Chino Hills Onyeka Okongwu #21 in action against Spartanburg Day during a high school basketball game at the Hoophall Classic, Saturday, January 13, 2018, in Springfield,MA. (Photo: Gregory Payan, AP)

Chino Hills Onyeka Okongwu #21 in action against Spartanburg Day during a high school basketball game at the Hoophall Classic, Saturday, January 13, 2018, in Springfield,MA. (Photo: Gregory Payan, AP)

Spartanburg Day's Zion Williamson #12 shoots a free throw against Chino Hills during a high school basketball game at the Hoophall Classic, Saturday, January 13, 2018, in Springfield,MA. Chino Hills won the game. (Photo: Gregory Payan, AP)

Chino Hills Onyeka Okongwu #21 is seen before a game against Spartanburg Day during a high school basketball game at the Hoophall Classic, Saturday, January 13, 2018, in Springfield,MA. Chino Hills won the game. (Photo: Gregory Payan, AP)

Spartanburg Day's head coach Lee Sartor is seen against Chino Hills during a high school basketball game at the Hoophall Classic, Saturday, January 13, 2018, in Springfield,MA. Chino Hills won the game. (Photo: Gregory Payan, AP)

Chino Hills head coach Dennis Latimore is seen on the sidelines against Spartanburg Day during a high school basketball game at the Hoophall Classic, Saturday, January 13, 2018, in Springfield,MA. (Photo: Gregory Payan, AP)

Montverde Academy's R.J. Barrett #5 in action against Simeon Career Academy during a high school basketball game at the Hoophall Classic, Saturday, January 13, 2018, in Springfield,MA. Montverde won the game. (AP Photo/Gregory Payan) ORG XMIT: NYOTK
Simeon Career Academy's head coach Robert Smith argues with a referee during a high school basketball game at the Hoophall Classic, Saturday, January 13, 2018, in Springfield,MA. Montverde won the game. (AP Photo/Gregory Payan) ORG XMIT: NYOTK
Jan 13, 2018; Springfield, MA, USA; Montverde Academy, FL Eagles guard Andrew Nembhard (2) looks to shoot against Simeon Career Academy, IL Wolverines shooting guard Kenny Pittman (24) at Springfield College. (Photo: Gregory J. Fisher, USA TODAY Sports)

Jan 13, 2018; Springfield, MA, USA; Montverde Academy, FL Eagles guard R.J. Barrett (5) makes a game winning free throw against the Simeon Career Academy, IL Wolverines at Springfield College. (Photo: Gregory J. Fisher, USA TODAY Sports)

Jan 13, 2018; Springfield, MA, USA; Montverde Academy, FL Eagles guard Andrew Nembhard (2) drives to the basket against Simeon Career Academy, IL Wolverines forward Messiah Jones (15) at Springfield College. (Photo: Gregory J. Fisher, USA TODAY Sports)

Jan 13, 2018; Springfield, MA, USA; Montverde Academy, FL Eagles guard Michael Devoe (0) shoots the ball over Simeon Career Academy, IL Wolverines shooting guard Kenny Pittman (24) at Springfield College. (Photo: Gregory J. Fisher, USA TODAY Sports)

Jan 13, 2018; Springfield, MA, USA; Simeon Career Academy, IL Wolverines guard Jalen Horton-Tucker (5) leaps for the basket against the Monteverde Academy, FL Eagles at Springfield College. (Photo: Gregory J. Fisher, USA TODAY Sports)

Jan 13, 2018; Springfield, MA, USA; Simeon Career Academy, IL Wolverines guard Jalen Horton-Tucker (5) shoots a layup against Montverde Academy, FL Eagles guard R.J. Barrett (5) at Springfield College. (Photo: Gregory J. Fisher, USA TODAY Sports)

Montverde Academy's R.J. Barrett #5 is seen against Simeon Career Academy before a high school basketball game at the Hoophall Classic, Saturday, January 13, 2018, in Springfield,MA. Montverde won the game. (AP Photo/Gregory Payan) ORG XMIT: NYOTK
Montverde Academy's R.J. Barrett #5 is seen against Simeon Career Academy before a high school basketball game at the Hoophall Classic, Saturday, January 13, 2018, in Springfield,MA. Montverde won the game. (AP Photo/Gregory Payan) ORG XMIT: NYOTK
Jan 13, 2018; Springfield, MA, USA; Simeon Career Academy, IL Wolverines point guard Xavier Pinson (3) dunks the ball against the Monteverde Academy, FL Eagles at Springfield College. (Photo: Gregory J. Fisher, USA TODAY Sports)

Jan 13, 2018; Springfield, MA, USA; Oak Ridge High School, FL Pioneers guard Antwann Jones (1) shoots the ball against the Roselle Catholic High School, NJ Lions at Springfield College. (Photo: Gregory J. Fisher, USA TODAY Sports)

Jan 13, 2018; Springfield, MA, USA; Roselle Catholic High School, NJ Lions forward Alanzo Frink (20) shoots the ball against Oak Ridge High School, FL Pioneers at Springfield College. (Photo: Gregory J. Fisher, USA TODAY Sports)

Jan 13, 2018; Springfield, MA, USA; Oak Ridge High School, FL Pioneers forward Kaleb Coleman (24) shoots the ball against Roselle Catholic High School, NJ Lions guard Kahili Whitney (2) at Springfield College. (Photo: Gregory J. Fisher, USA TODAY Sports)

Jan 13, 2018; Springfield, MA, USA; Roselle Catholic High School, NJ Lions forward Nazreon Reid (5) brings the ball up court against Oak Ridge High School, FL Pioneers at Springfield College. (Photo: Gregory J. Fisher, USA TODAY Sports)

Jan 13, 2018; Springfield, MA, USA; Roselle Catholic High School, NJ Lions forward Nazreon Reid (5) shoots the ball over a Oak Ridge High School, FL Pioneers defender at Springfield College. (Photo: Gregory J. Fisher, USA TODAY Sports)

Jan 13, 2018; Springfield, MA, USA; Gonzaga College High School, DC Purple Eagles forward Terrance Williams (5) shoots the ball against Sacred Heart High School, CT Hearts at Springfield College. (Photo: Gregory J. Fisher, USA TODAY Sports)

Jan 13, 2018; Springfield, MA, USA; Gonzaga College High School, DC Purple Eagles forward Myles Dread (24 shoots the ball against Sacred Heart High School, CT Hearts at Springfield College. (Photo: Gregory J. Fisher, USA TODAY Sports)

Jan 13, 2018; Springfield, MA, USA; Sacred Heart High School, CT Hearts guard Noah Francisco (1) shoots the ball against Gonzaga College High School, DC Purple Eagles at Springfield College. (Photo: Gregory J. Fisher, USA TODAY Sports)

Jan 13, 2018; Springfield, MA, USA; Sacred Heart High School, CT Hearts guard Raheem Solomon (11) shoots the ball against Gonzaga College High School, DC Purple Eagles at Springfield College. (Photo: Gregory J. Fisher, USA TODAY Sports)

Jan 13, 2018; Springfield, MA, USA; Gonzaga College High School, DC Purple Eagles guard Will Turgeon (11) shoots the ball against Sacred Heart High School, CT Hearts at Springfield College. (Photo: Gregory J. Fisher, USA TODAY Sports)

Jan 13, 2018; Springfield, MA, USA; Imhotep Charter School, PA Panthers forward Elijah Taylor (22) shoots the ball over Hillhouse High School, CT Academies guard / forward Quentin Paisley (2) defending at Springfield College. (Photo: Gregory J. Fisher, USA TODAY Sports)

Jan 13, 2018; Springfield, MA, USA; Hillhouse High School, CT Academies forward Mekhi Warren (11) shoots the ball against Imhotep Charter School, PA Panthers forward Jamil Riggins (23) defending at Springfield College. (Photo: Gregory J. Fisher, USA TODAY Sports)

Jan 13, 2018; Springfield, MA, USA; Hillhouse High School, CT Academies forward Mekhi Warren (11) dunks the ball with Imhotep Charter School, PA Panthers guard Bernard Lightsey (4) defending at Springfield College. (Photo: Gregory J. Fisher, USA TODAY Sports)

Jan 13, 2018; Springfield, MA, USA; Imhotep Charter School, PA Panthers guard Donta Scott (24) shoots the ball with Hillhouse High School, CT Academies guard / forward Aiden Rountree (0) defending at Springfield College. (Photo: Gregory J. Fisher, USA TODAY Sports)

Jan 13, 2018; Springfield, MA, USA; Imhotep Charter School, PA Panthers forward Marquise Greenwood (30) shoots the ball with Hillhouse High School, CT Academies forward Rayshawn Brewer (1) defending at Springfield College. (Photo: Gregory J. Fisher, USA TODAY Sports)

Jan 13, 2018; Springfield, MA, USA; Hillhouse High School, CT Academies forward Mekhi Warren (11) dribbles the ball against Imhotep Charter School, PA Panthers at Springfield College. (Photo: Gregory J. Fisher, USA TODAY Sports)

Jan 13, 2018; Springfield, MA, USA; Rice Memorial High School, VT Green Knights guard Leo Chaikin (10) shoots the ball against McQuaid Jesuit, NY Knights at Springfield College. (Photo: Gregory J. Fisher, USA TODAY Sports)

Jan 13, 2018; Springfield, MA, USA; Rice Memorial High School, VT Green Knights guard Leo Chaikin (10) shoots the ball with McQuaid Jesuit, NY Knights guard Kobe Long (30) defending at Springfield College. (Photo: Gregory J. Fisher, USA TODAY Sports)

Jan 13, 2018; Springfield, MA, USA; Rice Memorial High School, VT Green Knights guard Connor O'Brien (5) shoots the ball against McQuaid Jesuit, NY Knights guard Jermaine Taggart (14) defending at Springfield College. (Photo: Gregory J. Fisher, USA TODAY Sports)

Jan 13, 2018; Springfield, MA, USA; McQuaid Jesuit, NY Knights guard Josh Purcell (13) drives to the basket with Rice Memorial High School, VT Green Knights forward Greg Bolger (13) defending at Springfield College. (Photo: Gregory J. Fisher, USA TODAY Sports)

Jan 13, 2018; Springfield, MA, USA; McQuaid Jesuit, NY Knights guard Kobe Long (30) shoots a layup against Rice Memorial High School, VT Green Knights at Springfield College. (Photo: Gregory J. Fisher, USA TODAY Sports)

Jan 13, 2018; Springfield, MA, USA; McQuaid Jesuit, NY Knights guard Kobe Long (30) shoots a 3 against Rice Memorial High School, VT Green Knights at Springfield College. (Photo: Gregory J. Fisher, USA TODAY Sports)

Jan 13, 2018; Springfield, MA, USA; Albany Academy, NY Cadets guard / forward Andre Jackson (22) shoots the ball against the Bishop O'Connell High School, VA Knights at Springfield College. (Photo: Gregory J. Fisher, USA TODAY Sports)

Jan 13, 2018; Springfield, MA, USA; Albany Academy, NY Cadets guard August Mahoney (1) shoots the ball with Bishop O'Connell High School, VA Knights guard Xavier Johnson (0) defending at Springfield College. (Photo: Gregory J. Fisher, USA TODAY Sports)

Jan 13, 2018; Springfield, MA, USA; Albany Academy, NY Cadets guard / forward Andre Jackson (22) shoots the ball against the Bishop O'Connell High School, VA Knights at Springfield College. (Photo: Gregory J. Fisher, USA TODAY Sports)

Jan 13, 2018; Springfield, MA, USA; Bishop O'Connell High School, VA Knights forward Jahmal Banks (35) shoots the ball over Albany Academy, NY Cadets defenders at Springfield College. (Photo: Gregory J. Fisher, USA TODAY Sports)

Jan 13, 2018; Springfield, MA, USA; Bishop O'Connell High School, VA Knights guard Matt Becht (3) shoots the ball against the Albany Academy, NY Cadets at Springfield College. (Photo: Gregory J. Fisher, USA TODAY Sports)

Source : http://usatodayhss.com/2018/onyeka-okongwu-stars-chino-hills-zion-williamson

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