Tom Keegan: Ochai Agbaji, KU’s stealth recruit, fits right in
photo by: Nick Krug
TOPEKA — His junior year soccer season at Oak Park High in Kansas City, Mo., was winding down, basketball season around the corner, when Ochai Agbaji received a couple of scholarship offers to play Division I basketball.
That was when he decided to finish up his soccer career to concentrate on basketball.
Miami of Ohio and the Air Force Academy offered him an opportunity to use basketball to pay for his education. Little did he know then that it was the beginning of a recruitment that a little more than a year later would explode.
“Division I, Miami of Ohio, good conference,” Agbaji remembered thinking. “To play at a Division I level is something great, so I was really excited.”
He figured, though, that there was plenty of time to choose a school and saw no reason to do so until after finishing his senior season.
Then he was sitting at home one day last December when his text alert shifted his eyes to his telephone and he read words that seemed surreal: “This is Norm Roberts of the University of Kansas.”
“I was like, ‘Wow!’ I was in awe at the time,” Agbaji said Tuesday during a break from working with young campers at Brett Ballard’s Washburn University basketball camp.
He quickly showed the text message to his parents.
“They were excited, too,” he said.
He committed in early February.
“I could have dragged it out,” he said. “My plan originally was to wait until after my basketball season to commit, but once that came along, what else could I ask for in a school?”
A late-blooming, high-flying 6-foot-5 shooting guard, Agbaji is one of seven newcomers on this coming season’s basketball team. Four were McDonald’s All-Americans, including junior transfer Dedric Lawson. Two others, K.J. Lawson and Charlie Moore, already have averaged in double figures for Division I programs.
Yet, if the fanfare surrounding the other six newcomers makes Agbaji feel the slightest bit insecure, he certainly doesn’t show it.
Humble, respectful, smart, friendly, comfortable and confident in his ability to help make whatever basketball team for which he plays better is how Agbaji comes across.
“Obviously, they recruited me for a reason,” Agbaji said. “They wanted me for a reason, so I feel like it’s a place I belong. I’m working to get better for me, for the school, for the program.”
The best way to get better is to stand up to challenges from talented players with more experience. Agbaji’s smile reveals how much he’s enjoying competing against so much talent.
“Obviously, it’s a big difference,” he said. “It’s just faster. Guys are much more athletic (than in high school), same speed, same caliber as you. It’s something different, but it’s fun.”
His father, Olofu Agbaji, came to a prep school from Nigeria at age 17 and played college basketball at UW Milwaukee, averaging 7.3 points and 4.9 rebounds as a senior.
His mother, Erica, is from Milwaukee and also played at UWM. Ochai’s sister, Orie, plays volleyball for Texas. Erica and Olofu started their family in Milwaukee and moved to Kansas City when Ochai was 6, about the age of some of the children to whom he taught basketball Tuesday.
He said the English translation of his Nigerian name is “King of Children.” The campers treated him as such, but something tells me Agbaji’s head never will grow too big for any crown to fit on it.