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‘For a guy like Axel, the sky’s the limit’

Axel Okongo’s path from France passed through a mining town in Canada and a quiet corner of Wyoming. His next stop: Columbia. The scout who spied the big man thinks the Tigers might have unearthed a steal.

Don Cogger/Powell Tribune

Brandon Goble calls the sensation the “warm tingles,” which jangle the scout’s nerves when he lays eyes on an undiscovered prospect. Over the past year, he’s experienced the feeling twice. The first time was last May, when Neemias Queta, 6-foot-11 big man with a 7-5 wingspan, set foot on the hardwood in Portugal.

After watching the lean rim protector go to work, he turned and grinned at Utah State assistant coach Eric Petersen, one of the few souls sitting in the bleachers with him. “You just go, ‘Oh, you’re different,’” Goble recalled. “You know something cool is about to happen.”

Sure enough, Petersen courted Queta to make a transatlantic trek to become the Aggies’ imposing presence around the paint, one that helped them claim a share of the Mountain West title and earn a trip to the NCAA tournament.

This April, the tingling cropped again. Watching from the sideline at the Evan Turner Showcase in Chicago, Goble, who oversees JUCOAdvocate, laid eyes on Axel Okongo — all of 7-feet, 240 pounds — bounded from rim to rim. He quickly pulled out his phone to notify a potential suitor about his find: Missouri assistant coach Michael Porter Sr.

Unlike Queta, who chose USU over Saint Mary’s, Texas Tech and Creighton, high-major programs weren’t clamoring for Okongo’s services. Pitt and LSU expressed mild interest in the post’s wares but never seriously engaged. Until MU entered the picture, Okongo’s journey from the village of Saacy-sur-Marne in France to Northwest College in Wyoming had hit a roadblock.

Now, three months later, Okongo’s filled the Tigers scholarship slot, committed on Monday after quietly slipping into Columbia for an official visit last weekend.

At Northwest, he was a role player for the Trappers, posting 1.5 points and 2.2 rebounds in 10.5 minutes per game. Now, he’s the final scholarship player on the 2019-2020 roster. Ideally, he’ll bolster depth in the post behind junior Jeremiah Tilmon and senior Reed Nikko. The addition also comes as MU expanded its recruiting board to pursue prep targets in Davion Bradford, John Hugley, and Ryan Kalkbrenner.

Those ramifications remain to be seen but bringing Okongo aboard amounts to a low-risk move for coach Cuonzo Martin. To figure out what the JUCO product brings to the table, I rang up Goble on Monday evening and chatted with him for 20 minutes about Okongo’s skill set, development, and his route to Mizzou.

Note: These responses have edited for length and clarity.

Matthew Harris: Let’s start with Axel’s physical dimensions and conditioning. On tape, he looks physically developed, but his frame appears to have room to carry some more weight. His length stands out, too. At a place like Northwest College, though, what have they been able to do with him, and what stands out to you about him?

Brandon Goble: Junior college is a place that they do the best they can. But at the end of the day, the resources just aren’t there a lot of times, especially for somebody like that where he’s 7-foot, 240 pounds at his fighting weight. Even when he came on his visit to Mizzou, he’d lost weight, because the cafeteria hasn’t been open for a month. And he’s just staying with somebody else right now because they don’t have summer school at the junior college.

So working out and things like that are not really something that you can do at a very high level right now. And even then, still on his visit to Mizzou, he was physically fairly imposing. So, he’s not even as close to as physical as he’s going to be by November. When Mizzou gets a strength-and-conditioning guy on him, look out.

MH: His tool kit on the offensive end appears to be straightforward: rim runs, rolling to the basket, weak-side dump-offs and occasionally ducking in to the lane. What makes up Axel’s game right now?

BG: What you’re going to kind of see out of him is a realistically modern version of basketball. You see the NBA going two different ways. You’re either going Kevin Durant’s direction, or you’re going Clint Capela’s direction. And the in-between is starting to kind of get a little fuzzy and disappear.

He’s not going to be Kevin Durant. He’s going to be screen-and-roll. He’s got soft hands, so he can catch if he’s moving towards the rim. He’s going to play this back to the basket a little bit, but that’s never going to be the thing that you ask him to do the most. You’re asking him to break out in transition, because he can outrun everybody else on the court at seven feet tall, catch in motion and finish.

Offensively, he’s probably never going to put up a ton of points. He’s going to be your shot blocker, rebounder, and a tough dude. But if he gets out into space going towards the rim, he absolutely can catch and finish with a lot of dexterity.

MH: What’s easy to see is his ability as a rim protector and good timing when he rotates over to contest shots. But if he’s going to fit today’s game, he needs to have some comfort coming out and defending in space. Where does his development stand at that end of the floor?

BG: He’s altering things all over the place because of that length. Where he will develop quickly is in recognition on his shot blocking, because he’s going to be coached up so much more. There’s going to be a lot more time spent on that defensive mindset of when to and when not to move and jump. That will cut down on just some of the silly little mistakes that get made by bigs like that.

He’s a very, very vocal presence on the court. They mentioned that in his visit that the current players were talking about, “This guy’s like calling stuff out.” And he just showed up on an SEC visit, and the players loved what she was able to bring to the table.

MH: All we have to go on three minutes of film. That’s hardly a representative sample. How often have you seen Axel live compared to scouting solely off of tape? There are obviously nuances you can pick up in living color.

BG: Well, the funny thing is, is when I saw him live during the season, he wasn’t playing a lot. You know, it was, it was quick in, quick out. JUCOs are tough for bigs anyway, right? There are very few big that put up big numbers, that play lots of minutes, just because junior college ends up being a lot of up-and-down and things like that.

When I really got to see him for who he truly is, which is when we called Cuonzo, was in Chicago at the Evan Turner Showcase, which is a charity event that we help put on up there. He came and played in the junior-college section and really got to cut loose and show everybody who he is. And that’s when he will win a foot race. Like he’s the fastest guy on the court, which is ridiculous at that size.

So he would wall up on somebody, and the guy would miss, the guard would catch, and then he would take off and outrun everybody. The guard is throwing the three-quarter court pass to him, and he’s just catching and finishing before anybody else can even catch him.

MH: What about his perimeter game? His jumper — or what I saw of it — looked adequate, but how comfortable is Axel facing up, especially in situations like pick-and-pops?

BG: He has the coordination to do it, unlike like a lot of guys that are that big. It’s kind of interesting, I go to Africa twice a year to scout, and I spend a lot of time around players that are kind of naturally that big. Not always that big. But over here, if you’ve got a guy that’s seven-feet tall, it’s kind of an aberration, right? It’s not as much of an aberration over in Africa, where Axel’s family background is and stuff.

From a coordination standpoint, he’s a little more naturally accustomed to being that size. He’s able to do a lot more with it than necessarily a lot of people that are typically that height. We always just kind of joke like, “Well, if you’re seven-feet tall, and you can walk and chew gum, you’re probably going to be a pretty good basketball player.” He can do a whole lot more than walk and chew gum.

MH: What else stood out to you after his performance in Chicago?

BG: Just how hard he plays. The guy just goes, goes, goes. And in that environment, it’s taxing when you’re doing five in, five out, 10 minutes at a time. They’re playing three games in one day. For a guy that size, he’s not supposed to be able to keep up with them. It just is what it is. But Axel’s fine. He’s ready just to play hard non-stop and doesn’t let up.

MH: You mentioned his family’s roots are in Africa, but he’s immigrated to France and now to a rural town of 6,000 people in Wyoming. Can you trace his path for me?

BG: [Coach] Ibrahim Appiah is a guy who was up at Thetford Academy in Canada, and that’s where Axel originally played. A lot of times, kids are going to Canada now because going through the embassy and getting a visa is a lot easier. The prep system up there is also excellent. It’s way more organized than down here in the U.S.

So he went over to Canada, and there were some issues with some visa stuff or whatever that held him up getting over to Northwest. But there was a relationship there with Ibrahim and Northwest College. I could be wrong on this, and you’d have to call [Northwest College athletic director Brian] Erickson and check, but I want to say it was through [former Oregon star] Chris Boucher because he went to Northwest College.

MH: You’re also a middle man of sorts, so how did Axel wind up on Missouri’s radar? What got them interested in making him a late addition to the roster?

BG: Well, [assistant] coach [Michael] Porter and I have a relationship. So when I saw Axel in Chicago, I called coach Porter right away. He started looking into it, watching film, asking questions and, and talking to Axel and, you know, doing all the due diligence that you should have. And what I really, I think I appreciated it, and I know Axel and his prep coach, Ibrahim, and even Brian Erickson, who was his coach last year at Northwest, was there was never this, this feeling that you were really trying to hard-sell something to Mizzou.

You know, they were honestly open to the idea and interested because they, they could kind of see some of what I saw and what we knew was there just by watching some tape, and you know, saying, “Gosh, you know, you don’t usually see guys that size being able to do these things.”

Of course, they say, “Well, now we have to ask is it lack of stats or lack of playing time? What’s the story there?” Brian Erickson, who is a wonderful person and a fantastic coach, was able to articulate to them, “Look, here’s, here’s some of the things that are difficult to overcome in the junior-college environment. You know, the kid’s on his second coach in two years, because I moved over to be the AD. If I had stayed the coach, I think this was kind of the path he would have taken.” There probably would have been a lot more people that knew about him.

MH: In what way did that coaching change impact him?

BG: Dawud Abdur-Rahkman ran a very different system, had a different style of coaching [and] a different style of player he prefers. You know, he’s not there anymore. He’s now at Spire Academy. For a big guy like that, who is also still learning the American game — over in Europe, it’s very different — it was just that lack of consistency. He had gotten hurt his freshman year, had some family issue things as well, that also kind of held him back a little bit.

Brian will tell you that he was planning on going into the second year with Axel being a huge part of what he does. When he became the AD and Rahkman came in, that just kind of upset the apple cart as far as Axel being able to really have that consistency that you need to kind of learn.

He kind of powered through it this year. And in Chicago, where we had coaches trying to have them do some specific things, he’s, he’s gotten so much better than just picking things up quickly. He’ll pick that stuff up through the summer and at Mizzou quite fast.

MH: Obviously, the JUCO realm is vastly different from the recruiting most fans are accustomed to. Aside from the College of Southern Idaho, I’m not even all that familiar with the landscape out west — at least compared to programs in Florida or Texas. Where does Northwest College fit into the picture?

BG: They’re probably in line with 90 percent of junior-college programs, where you have this tiny group at the top — the CSIs of the world, Indian Hills, Northwest Florida, and things like that. There’s just this small group of schools that are consistently producing, you know, six, seven, eight, nine Division I guys every year.

Everybody else is underneath that, and Northwest is in that group. They could have five Division I guys, or they could have zero Division I guys. It’s really just kind of dependent from year to year. But they do a good job up there. Brian Erickson did a great job, and he’s going to continue to do an excellent job as the AD. The new coach that’s coming in and is really motivated and going to try and kind of bring back some of that excitement that they had there when Boucher was smacking guys. But it’s always going to kind of be less consistent. It’s just a resource thing. They don’t have the types of resources that an Indian Hills has.

MH: Finally, based on your conversations with the MU staff and what you know about Axel, how predictable is his trajectory over the next two years? And where could it lead?

BH: It’s interesting. A lot of times with guards or wings or even certain five-men — depending on their physical characteristics and stuff — you have your head kind wrapped around what a guy’s going to be able to do.

Like, you know, you are what you are, but then you develop on that, build on it. Axel is interesting because, because of his speed, because of his hands, because of his God-given size and strength. He’s going to end up being 250 pounds of chiseled muscle by November and BE one of the fastest guys on the floor. Like that’s different. That’s special. Realistically he could be a 10-minute-a-night guy this year, because he’s still learning and figuring out a lot of things and just how he fits into the system. But for a guy like Axel, the sky’s the limit. It’s all up to him.