Sam Mellinger

How and why Kansas freshman Ochai Agbaji went from overlooked recruit to NBA prospect

KU freshman guard Ochai Agbaji: ‘Every second I’m playing out there, I’m having fun’

Kansas Jayhawks freshman guard Ochai Agbaji says "every second I'm playing out there I'm having fun," as he previews the Jayhawks' game against Texas Tech on Saturday, Feb. 23, 2019.
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Kansas Jayhawks freshman guard Ochai Agbaji says "every second I'm playing out there I'm having fun," as he previews the Jayhawks' game against Texas Tech on Saturday, Feb. 23, 2019.

The 18 year old at the center of one of college basketball’s best stories went full giggle when presented with the absurdity of it all.

“It really has been wild,” Ochai Agbaji said.

He is the son of a Kansas City city planner and Northland kindergarten teacher, a good and serious student from Oak Park High who was the nation’s 145th-best prospect in his class according to Rivals. Late into his senior year, he was judging offers from Colorado State, Air Force and Fresno State.

Now, he is a 6-foot-6 starting guard for Kansas, the No. 12 team in the country, and an irreplaceable reason that a 15th straight Big 12 championship is still possible for the Jayhawks. He began the season as a redshirt. He is now the subject of NBA inquiries, a possible lottery pick in the future, and a talent that professional teams are at least researching for this year’s draft.

“I do think he’s probably our best long-range prospect,” KU coach Bill Self said.

There is little or no precedent for this. Ben McLemore redshirted at KU and then the next year in 2013 was picked seventh overall in the NBA Draft, but he was a top recruit who sat out only because of academics. McLemore’s path is uncommon, but not rare.

Tyrus Thomas might be the best precedent. He redshirted at LSU and then the next year in 2006 went fourth overall. But even he was a late bloomer, growing some three inches as a high school senior, and his redshirt came after a preseason neck injury.

Agbaji today is essentially the same talent colleges overlooked until the last moment. Long, bouncy and inexperienced even by the standards of incoming freshmen. His improvement came quick, and relatively late, bypassing the normal pace and path of college stars who are now his peers.

The guy who did not start for his local AAU team and who was fully on board with redshirting — his dad thought maybe by his fifth year in college scouts might notice him — is now a central figure for a blueblood program.

“Honestly,” said Brennan Scanlon, Agbaji’s high school coach. “We didn’t know he’d be doing what he’s doing now.”

So, the questions so many are asking about Agbaji: how the heck did this happen? How does everyone — recruiting services, college recruiters, his own AAU coach — miss this much talent?

And if he is this good, why in the world was he redshirting?

These are good questions. Let’s talk about how everyone missed on him first.

Competing interests

Coaches call it the circuit, and Agbaji wasn’t on it. The circuit is shorthand for major AAU tournaments, elite camps and everywhere else those branded as America’s best young basketball players are invited.

It all happened without Agbaji. Most of this is circumstance. His parents both played basketball at Wisconsin-Milwaukee, but his father, Olofu, also pushed Ochai toward soccer.

The kid was good, too. Quick feet, with a mind that naturally processed the ball’s flight. Ochai stopped playing soccer as a high school sophomore, which happened to be the middle of a 9-inch growth spurt between his freshman and junior years.

Olafu thought he was raising a point guard; turns out he was raising a power guard.

Ochai played club soccer and AAU basketball as a kid, but with his time and energy split, he was not on so-called elite teams until his junior year. By then, when he made Mo-Kan’s top squad, he was behind two kids who’d been in the system for years.

Israel Barnes was a three-star recruit from Wichita Southeast who had been a college prospect since the eighth grade. Cooper Kaifes was a three-star recruit from Mill Valley and was one of Nike EYBL’s better 3-point shooters. Barnes is now at Weber State; Kaifes at Loyola-Chicago.

“To be honest, they were just veterans of ours,” said Chris Neff, who coached that Mo-Kan team. “We had them in our program for years. They were Mo-Kan kids. They got the first chance.”

So even on a team with eight players, Agbaji averaged just 11 minutes per game. He was the only guard off the bench.

Neff has a theory about how Agbaji slipped through. Coaches, he says, have deemphasized what he calls “solid play.” They look for big verticals, long arms, spectacular plays.

“Sometimes we poo-poo all over kids who are just doing it right,” Neff said. “Those other kids get the opportunity, and then you think, ‘Man, I wish I had the kid that didn’t turn it over.’”

It goes unsaid that Agbaji is developing into the best of both types of kids. He is a relentless defender, aggressive rebounder, improved passer, reliable shooter and developing source of highlights.

Should more people have seen this? Perhaps. But everyone missed. Eric Bossi is a national basketball analyst for Rivals, and based in Kansas City. You can imagine the ribbing he’s taken. One hundred and forty-fifth?

“Obviously, if I thought he’d be this good this quick, I’d have had him higher,” Bossi said. “But I thought we did good to have him as high as we did. He’s not only ahead of schedule, but better than expected. Maybe that’s a horrific mistake on my part, but I thought he was being recruited appropriately — mid-majors, with some majors sniffing around.”

Kansas caught on late in Agbaji’s senior year at Oak Park, with assistant Norm Roberts following a tip. Agbaji is the rare major D1 recruit, then, who made his reputation in high school ball and not AAU.

That this happened in Kansas City, not a hotbed of talent, only makes the story more improbable.

“We probably could have, should have, gotten to this quicker,” Neff said. “But at the same time, maybe everything happened on time.”

So, this explains why Agbaji wasn’t more heavily recruited. He was a part-time soccer player, mostly uninvolved at the highest levels of AAU. But, still. Kansas signed Agbaji, watched him practice, and still redshirted him.

How did Self not see this?

Kansas Jayhawks freshman guard Ochai Agbaji of Kansas City, shines in Jayhawk debut. With his redshirt lifted, Agbaji scored 7 points, pulled down 4 rebounds and had 2 steals in the Jayhawks' win over TCU on Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019.

About that redshirt ...

Start with the numbers. Kansas had Devon Dotson and Quentin Grimes, two top recruits. Lagerald Vick started on a Final Four team. Marcus Garrett played on that team, and improved. Charlie Moore and K.J. Lawson had started for their previous programs and were eligible off transfer.

That’s six guards, and remember this is back when Self thought the bigs were his program’s strength. That meant he’d play only three guards at a time, with five in the rotation.

Agbaji was No. 7. He was terrific in some summer practices, but a stress fracture sidelined him for a chunk of the preseason. Self knew his team would need outside shooting, but Agbaji wasn’t hitting much in practice.

“I wish I’d done it from the beginning,” Self said of playing Agbaji. “But I thought we had pretty logical reasons why not to.”

It’s worth remembering that Agbaji would still be redshirting if not for a string of events completely out of his control. KU’s Udoka Azubuike suffered a season-ending injury, and Silvio De Sousa was suspended by the NCAA.

That meant KU would play more with four guards, and with Vick, Moore and K.J. Lawson varying degrees of underwhelming, Self pulled Agbaji’s redshirt.

A desperate move for a desperate time.

“Anything,” Self said when asked what he hoped for from Agbaji. “Our energy wasn’t as good, our chemistry wasn’t as good. We needed an influx of juice to help us. He was all that and more.”

Agbaji’s role has only grown. Garrett hasn’t played since Jan. 29 with an injury, and Vick left the team to focus on some personal issues. Grimes has been inconsistent. In that vacuum, there have been moments and halves and even games when Agbaji is KU’s best player.

On the whole, since his debut against TCU on Jan. 9 — KU’s 15th game — Agbaji is probably the Jayhawks third-best player, behind Dedric Lawson and Dotson. He scored 24 at Texas (where his sister plays volleyball), went for 10 points and 10 rebounds in a win over Texas Tech, and scored 20 points with 11 rebounds in 41 minutes during an overtime win over TCU.

Since becoming a starter, Agbaji is averaging 15.5 points and 6.8 rebounds while shooting 55 percent (41 on three-pointers)and playing good defense. Only Lawson and Dotson have scored more over that stretch, and only Lawson has rebounded more.

“He belongs, but he looks like he really believes he belongs,” Self said. “That’s so great to see for somebody who hadn’t had the same experiences as some of the other guys we recruit. Plus, he’s cool. You wanna hang with him. He’s cool, smart.”

Two days before the Kansas Jayhawks take on the Texas Tech Red Raiders on Feb. 23, 2019, KU basketball coach Bill Self spoke highly of freshman guard Ochai Agbaji, who he expected to put in the starting lineup again.

So, this explains why Agbaji began as a redshirt. He came in as the seventh guard, with Self hesitant because of the pedigree. A preseason injury and shooting slump kept him from pushing through.

Now Agbaji faces an entirely different future.

He is now an NBA prospect, years before he dreamed it could be possible.

Anonymous no more

They’re calling. Scouts, executives, the NBA. They haven’t called Agbaji, but they’re calling those around him. Most of it is usual diligence — does he work hard? Has he been in trouble? Is he coachable?

While most are thinking ahead a year or more, at least one team is researching for the upcoming draft. It’s a question that’s perhaps never before been seriously asked of a guy who began the season as a redshirt — are you sure you’ll return to school?

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Agbaji said. “I’ll definitely come back. I’m just not ... It’s not that I’m not ready, but I just don’t think this is the time. I don’t think me or my family, that we’re ready to take that step.”

Agbaji’s answer was refreshing. The calls from the NBA have created the question. You could sense he’d been asked about it by friends but wasn’t quite ready to hear it from a reporter. He was caught off-guard, but he knows it’s something he will hear again.

He talked about wanting another year to improve but quickly walked that back, not wanting it to sound like he was planning on leaving next year.

He could use some polish on the answer. It hasn’t caught up with his game quite yet.

“Whenever it comes,” he said. “The future.”

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Sam Mellinger is a sports columnist for the Kansas City Star, where he’s worked since 2000. He has won numerous national and regional awards for coverage of the Chiefs, Royals, colleges, and other sports both national and local.