Four-star 2019 center Francis Okoro has had a wild journey that has led him to Normal West -- making him the state's top prospect in the class.
He's seen more than almost any high school sophomore. He's seen more than some people twice his age.
Okoro came over to the United States from Nigeria in 2014. He was a soccer player back in his homeland, and a big one at that -- standing now at 6-foot-9, 225 pounds. Three years ago, he had never stepped foot on a basketball court.
What most people see now is one of the biggest upsides for a young big man in the country. They see a freak of an athlete who can run, jump and dunk his way into being just one spot on the outside of Scout.com's top 25 for the 2019 class. And he's still learning how to play the game.
What most people don't see is that he changed hands like currency once he arrived from Nigeria. He was an asset. To some people, he was investment. A way to make money down the road.
Okoro has lived with a handful of different people. Some that he didn't even know. He went from Mississippi to Las Vegas to Nashville. Now, he is in Bloomington-Normal living with his aunt and uncle. His aunt is a professor at Illinois State.
Okoro enrolled at Normal West for the second semester last year, but he had to sit out for the basketball season. Now, he's less than a month away from playing his first high school game.
"It's going to be a pretty good year for me. It's going to be my first full season. I've never played a full basketball season. I've always been living with people and trying to find the right place to live," Okoro said. "It's been tough. But I'm really excited to be living with my family and playing good basketball with a good coach. I think we're going to be really good."
That coach is Brian Cupples, who is entering his 15th season at Normal West. Cupples said he first heard about the possibility of getting Okoro two years ago, and he was surprised to learn a week before the start of second semester last winter that he was being enrolled.
Obviously, Cupples was thrilled about what Okoro could add to his program.
"He's really athletic. He brings an element of athleticism, length and size that you don't see very often. And he works at it," Cupples said. "He wants to work and he wants to win. We've had a good culture, but that elevates it when you can add someone like that to your program."
And the benefit of Okoro being in Normal certainly is not one-sided.
"I don't think there's anything better than living with your family. I think it's special. I was living with other people ever since I've been here and I always felt like I owed people something," Okoro said. "But living with my family really shows how much I love basketball because I'm not playing it to give anybody anything. Everyone I'm around is for me and it's not about anybody else."
Tapping into potential
Pure athleticism and strength has enabled Okoro to make a big impact on the court to this point, and it will allow him to accomplish quite a bit at the high school level as well.
But there is so much more he can learn and refine with his game.
"To me, I don't think he's even tapped into what he can be. He can run. He can jump. He can dunk. But I think he's pretty raw still," Cupples said. "Offensively, I don't think he has a go-to move yet. When I watch him, I see a lot of footwork he needs to work on pre-catch of the ball."
"That's going to be one of the main things I work on with him this year, and his jump shot too. He has to be able to hit a 15-foot jumper, especially when he heads to the next level."
Next level is the goal. Actually, the next level after that. Okoro has been working tirelessly on his game.
"I've been working on everything. I think people see me as a guy that rebounds, blocks shots and just dunks. I'm not just that guy. People haven't really seen my full game," he said. "I've been working a lot on my footwork, my shot and my dribbling."
Okoro put in work with St. Louis Eagles head coach Corey Frazier over the summer, and he will play for him on the 17U circuit next summer.
"He's different. He is a winner. He wants to win all the time. He's going to do whatever you ask him to do," Frazier said. "I'm excited about all the guys coming in next year, but that kid is special. He's put together well. He's aggressive. He's strong. He's right in the conversation of being a top-10 kid before it's over with."
That's high praise from the Eagles head man, but playing on the 16U circuit humbled Okoro as well.
"I learned a lot this summer. I saw my weaknesses," Okoro said. "Playing with talented guys shows you what you need to work on."
So what does that mean for this season on the high school scene?
"I know everybody is hoping that we when a championship and win our region. But it's too early to tell. We've got a lot of young guys," Okoro said. "We've really got to learn how to work together this year. It's all about the chemistry this year. Hopefully, something great comes from this year. I'm going to give everything I've got."
Can Illinois capitalize?
Illini fans will ask this question with Okoro sitting within arm's reach of Champaign.
Illinois offered Okoro a scholarship back in July. Illini assistant coach Paris Parham went and saw Okoro at Normal West in the spring, and Illinois coaches watched him plenty on the AAU circuit.
Is this move to downstate Illinois an opportunity for them?
"It's an opportunity -- just as it is for anybody," Cupples said. "If he develops, he'd be a great pickup for them."
Okoro isn't focused on his recruitment right now. In fact, he is avoiding it at the recommendation of his family. At their request, Normal West has closed their open gyms to college coaches this fall.
"There is a lot of interest," Cupples said. "But the family is keeping people away from open gyms this fall. It's really been nice just to keep the normalcy around here with Francis and our team."
They all know this will be a firestorm sooner rather than later.
"I've not really been looking at colleges right now," Okoro said. "I'm not playing basketball to get more scholarships. I'm playing for my future."
"I'm looking to go to a college that's going to fit me. I want to go to a college that has a good coach that's going to make me better. I'm not going to a school just because they have a big name."
That process won't really start until next year, according to Okoro. He said he wants to go check out Illinois when the time comes.
"I'm trying to go see the school probably next year," he said. "They're a good school - a Big Ten school. They're close to me. I'm just going to wait until next year and see what God is going to bring to me."
The basketball eyes in this state and elsewhere will be anxious to see what Okoro brings to the court between that time frame, and long after.