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KZ Okpala: The ‘late bloomer’ becomes youngest Stanford player ever drafted to NBA

(Bob Drebin/isiphotos.com)

KZ Okpala’s basketball journey has been all about patience.

Raised in California by Nigerian-born parents, Okpala entered Esperanza High School at 5-feet-8-inches tall, and he left a foot taller. Known as the “late bloomer” for this significant growth spurt, Okpala adapted to different positions on the court as he grew. By the end of his time in high school, he had switched from primarily playing point guard to playing forward.

Now, after just two seasons as a forward on the Stanford men’s basketball team, Okpala (born April 28, 1999) has become the youngest Stanford player ever selected in the NBA Draft. The Phoenix Suns took Okpala with the 32nd pick overall on June 20, but he was later traded to the Indiana Pacers and then to the Miami Heat, where he is set to begin his first NBA season this fall.

“I’m definitely excited and ready to prove myself to others,” Okpala told The Daily.

For all the patience developed in Okpala’s life — from his late-blooming high school career to the delayed start of his first season at Stanford — that patience was put to the test when he waited to hear his name called on draft day. He held his draft party at his agent’s office and celebrated with his family, friends and former coaches.

“There were tense moments, there were a lot of rumors, but more than anything it was great to be there for him,” said Adam Cohen, an associate head coach for Stanford men’s basketball. “As coaches, our job is to help our guys achieve their dreams and support them. I was so happy to be there for him and I’m so thankful that his family invited us.” 

Cohen said Okpala “was always willing to learn.” On top of his Stanford coursework, Okpala spent hours studying film of past basketball games with his coaches.

“His story is different,” Cohen said. “He got a late start to playing basketball … he did not play for the elite AAU-level basketball [teams] when he was young like others. He got into it at the end of his senior year, and because of that growth, he can defend a number of positions and can play like a guard.”

KZ Okpala prepares for a home game against Arizona on Jan. 20, 2018. (Photo: Casey Valentine/isiphotos.com)

Okpala’s growth spurt helped him develop a different game than others. He was the first recruit under current Stanford head coach Jerod Haase in 2017, and that year’s recruiting class has been considered one of the best ever for the Cardinal. Stanford secured two top-50 recruits — Okpala and Daejon Davis — while also netting difference-makers such as Isaac White and Oscar de Silva.

“[Okpala’s] ability to move at 6-feet-9-inches is extremely unique,” Cohen said. “If he gets in a one-on-one matchup, he is really good at making the move to the basket.”

In his final semester of high school, Okpala’s grades slipped below the standards agreed upon in his admission to Stanford. Under revised terms, Stanford accepted Okpala but sat him out of competition, and he was not cleared to play until the 12th game of his freshman season. Despite this setback, Okpala’s patience prevailed again, and he was able to form bonds with his fellow freshmen players on and off the court. 

“I’ll remember my teammates,” Okpala said. “The bonds that I formed with my teammates were special.”

Using his size and guard skills to his advantage, Okpala thrived in his sophomore year with the Cardinal. He was a standout in the summer practices, and scouts noticed. 

“He got stronger in his second year, and his confidence increased,” Cohen said. “As the year went on, he just got better and better.”

Okpala’s improvement showed on the court. He started his 2018-19 season with 29 points in a win against Seattle University, and he went on to score 20 or more points in 15 games total, the second most among players in the Pac-12.

KZ Okpala scores a basket against Eastern Washington University in a home game on Dec. 15, 2018. (Photo: Bob Drebin/isiphotos.com)

Cohen said Okpala was “the best player on the court” against Oregon, and he dazzled with a double-double (22 points and 10 rebounds) against UCLA. It was at that point, Cohen said, that Okpala realized he had a shot at going pro. After those marquee matchups, Okpala started creeping up in some basketball analysts’ mock drafts. 

Solid performances against UNC and Kansas bolstered his sophomore resume, which included a First All Pac-12 Team selection and fifth place on the Pac-12 scoring rankings, with an average of 16.8 points per game.

As professional teams’ interest in him increased, Okpala decided to enter the 2019 NBA Draft in late May. He worked out for more than 10 teams before the draft.

Even after he was drafted and traded to the Heat, the NBA’s moratorium period meant that Okpala had to wait until July 6 for his status as a member of the Heat to become official. He was signed to a three-year deal on July 7.

“It’s been a learning experience — being young and eager to play, but you have to deal with the cards that you have been dealt with,” Okpala said. “I have learned to just control the things that I can control.”

Okpala is the 38th Stanford player ever to be drafted to the NBA, and he joins four ex-Stanford players who are currently in the association: Brook Lopez, Robin Lopez, Dwight Powell and Chasson Randle. Okpala is just one month younger than the formerly record-holding Lopez twins were when they were drafted in 2008.

“It makes me proud to represent Stanford,” Okpala said. “It’s such a great school and was always my dream school.”

When asked what advice he has for Okpala in the NBA, Cohen said he “would tell him to keep working the way he has. The thing that separates him is his work ethic.”

Though he did not play in the NBA Summer League, Okpala is making an impression on Heat fans with workout videos posted to the Heat’s social media pages. While he is currently focused on his new life across the country, Okpala plans to return to Stanford someday and finish his degree.

Contact Sunay Sanghani at ssanghani22 ‘at’ gmail.com.

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