Anali Okoloji left Banneker for Charis Prep (NC) following his junior year to test himself against elite competition. Instead, the versatile 6-foot-8 forward found himself being tested in another way altogether.
He never played at Charis, leaving December of that year because he was worried the academic work – which he characterized as at an eighth-grade level – would not be recognized by the NCAA.
“I learned nothing’s ever guaranteed,” he said. “That taught me never take things for granted.”
Now, following a year at Impact Basketball Academy in Florida, he is on the verge of becoming a Big East player, a lifelong dream. Last week, Okoloji, a Fort Greene native, verbally committed to Seton Hall and new coach Kevin Willard. Next week he plans to sign his National Letter of Intent, joining an impressive class featuring Fuquan Edwin, Eugene McCrory and Jamir Hanner should they hold their commitments
Rice, Providence, Tulsa and SMU also recruited him.
“It’s been a long journey,” he said. “I knew Coach Willard and [assistant] coach [Shaheen Holloway] and they were real straight forward with me. They told me what I was going to have to do. If I work hard, great things will happen to me.”
Okoloji impressed Impact coach Matt Hiller from the start. His first night, Okoloji arrived at 11:30 p.m. Instead of unpacking, he asked for the keys to the gym. Hiller has no doubt Okoloji can not only play in the Big East, but eventually excel.
“By the end of his sophomore year, start of his junior year, he’ll be a major contributor,” Hiller said.
After averaging 17 points and nine rebounds per game as a junior at Banneker, Okoloji attracted plenty of mid-major Division I interest. It was the year after when he truly blossomed, Banneker coach Wendell Saunders said, despite missing his senior year on the court altogether. Upon returning to Banneker, Saunders said he saw a more mature Okoloji, who practiced with the team and graduated from the Brooklyn school that spring.
He talked about raising his test scores and grades.
“It was a wakeup call,” Saunders said of Okoloji’s failed few months at Charis. “It helped him mature.”
Okoloji doesn’t regret the decision. If not for the route he took, Okoloji may have never ended up at Impact, where he learned a new level of work ethic, hours of weight lifting, running and skill drills, and averaged 25 points, 11 rebounds and six assists. He may never have met Willard, who began recruiting him as the coach of Iona and brought him over to Seton Hall.
“I took risks and chances, but now I’m going to the Big East,” he said. “I’m still not satisfied. I was happy for one day. I just want to lock myself in the gym and keep working.”