Sophomore center Francis Okoro’s stats won’t blow you away. With 3.1 points per game, 3.2 rebounds, more fouls per game than assists, steals and blocks put together, they’re certainly not eye-popping.
To truly respect Okoro’s impact, you have to look past the stat sheet. It requires a much deeper dive to understand why Okoro was widely considered, by his coaches and teammates, one of the most important players on last year’s Sweet 16 team.
For Okoro, it’s all about the little things: setting strong screens, boxing out well and making a timely defensive rotation to affect an opponent’s shot at the rim.
As a freshman, hard work and a vocal presence helped him carve a role for himself. While playing time in the first half of the season was few and far between — primarily due to his foul-prone play on the defensive end and his raw offensive skill set — by season’s end, Okoro was a critical piece of the Ducks’ most effective lineup.
After a summer of intensive roster turnover, Okoro, along with teammates Payton Pritchard and Will Richardson, are the program’s only returnees and will be tasked with key roles on the 2019-20 team.
When five-star center N’Faly Dante was ruled ineligible to play for the Ducks until December, Okoro’s role grew even larger. Given Dante’s pedigree and skill set, the two figured to be battling for the starting center spot. Now, without a doubt, that will belong to Okoro.
“I think everything has slowed down for me [this year],” Okoro said. “Especially understanding my role and things I need to do to win games. … Year two [my goal is] just to be more vocal, talk in practice, try to push myself, push other players. Paying more attention to detail, understanding that every play matters, every game matters and at the end of the day, all we need to do is win a championship.”
Aside from leadership and rebounding, Okoro will be tasked with becoming the defensive anchor down low, something the Ducks are missing with the loss of Kenny Wooten’s prolific shot-blocking ability.
“Guys have to find their niche,” Pritchard said. “I think for Francis, obviously being a big-time rebounder, it’s going to get him a lot of playing time.”
Okoro knows his role. He knows where he excels and which areas need work. His ability to fit in will be crucial as head coach Dana Altman and the Ducks are forced to adapt to and fit in a collection of new players.
“Last year I didn’t really know what was going on,” Okoro said. “It was hard for me. This year we have a lot of people trying to help. I think we have a really good chance at having great chemistry this year.”
Much of that lies on Okoro. While at least one, if not a few other, newcomers may settle into leadership roles, he and his returning teammates must set the culture and work ethic. For the 2019-20 Ducks — a group picked to win the Pac-12 for the second consecutive year — the culture and chemistry will need to be rock solid if they hope to reach similar heights to that of last year's team.
“I can see it in every player’s eyes,” Okoro said. “We know we should be [in the national championship].”