Last summer, Chisom Ajekwu reflected on her sophomore basketball season. She averaged nine points and nine rebounds. She was an all-Sunflower League selection. She was mentioned on all-state lists. And when she looked back, she saw the season as a disappointment.
By most standards, she had plenty to celebrate. The 6-foot-3 Ajekwu helped Lawrence High to its first Class 6A state tournament berth in nine years. But she expected more out of herself.
“It was not really my best year,” Ajekwu said. “I knew I could’ve done way better than what I did. I was just going through the motions.”
Ajekwu was proud of the way she burst onto the varsity scene as a freshman. Opposing teams struggled to figure out ways to shoot over her or stop her in the low post.
Now a junior, Ajekwu didn’t build on her sophomore season the way she wanted. Every athlete wants to see progress with a clear upward trajectory. But she didn’t feel opponents feared her on offense as much. Too many times, she essentially took herself out of games because she was in foul trouble or upset that fouls weren’t being called against her.
Always the tallest on her basketball teams growing up, Ajekwu is used to absorbing more contact than most players — “It’s always been that way for me,” she said.
Once the summer arrived, Ajekwu rededicated herself to becoming a mentally tougher player. Her teammates immediately noticed a difference.
She’s led Lawrence to a 5-0 record into winter break by averaging 12.2 points with three double-doubles.
“She came into this season bound and determined to take those next steps,” Lawrence coach Jeff Dickson said. “I think what she’s done so far is evidence of that.”
Look no further than Ajekwu's performance to help the Lions rally from a 13-point deficit against Leavenworth (ranked No. 2 in 5A) last week. Facing another center who could nearly match her height, Ajekwu had 13 points and nine rebounds in the second half.
Several Big 12 schools, along with other colleges, have sent coaches to watch Ajekwu at games throughout her high school career. She had two Division I coaches on hand in her season debut at Topeka on Dec. 1, and she already has a scholarship offer from Kansas.
She said it’s always been a goal to play college basketball. It was her first sport and she remembers when her dad bought a little goal for her and her siblings to use when she was around 8 years old.
“She’s not even 50 percent of where she could end up being,” Dickson said. “I honestly believe that she could be one of the best players in the entire country. She’s working toward that as we speak.”
Ajekwu is starting to extend her range outside of the paint, swishing a jump shot from the free-throw line earlier this season. In practices, she will do the same ball handling and shooting drills as guards so she has some comfort at the 3-point line.
A troubling sign for opposing teams is that she is growing more confident. She isn’t afraid to call for the ball in the fourth quarter. Her teammates love how she will immediately throw outlet passes past midcourt following rebounds.
On defense, Ajekwu hovers around the paint and is ready to block shots like a volleyball player drilling a spike.
"I just feel like I value it more than what I used to last year," Ajekwu said. "Just making every game count."
In one practice, Ajekwu blocked a shot and secured the ball in her hands in one motion. She dribbled down the length of the court and did a Eurostep past a player in front of her to convert on a layup. It was a play that even made her think, "Whoa!"
Since the start of the NBA season, Ajekwu has caught herself watching more NBA highlights of Russell Westbrook. She’s envious of the passion in his play.
“Every game he plays, he plays his best,” Ajekwu said. “Everything he does is just his best and I just want to do that. I just strive to do that.”
If the first five games were any indication, Ajekwu is ready to make sure that this is a season to remember.