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Esperanza's Kezie Okpala is the Register's Orange County boys basketball player of the year. (Photo by Kyusung Gong/Orange County Register/SCNG)

Esperanza's Kezie Okpala is the Register's boys basketball player of the year

STAFF WRITER

Kezie Okpala knew he had played well.

How well? Okpala was unsure of that.

“I thought I’d probably scored around 30,” he said.

What he had done on the evening of March 14 was score 46 points for Esperanza in a 64-51 win over Crossroads of Santa Monica. By doing that he led Esperanza to the CIF Southern California Regionals Division II championship game.

What Okpala also had done was break the Esperanza single-game scoring record.

The player who held the previous record was OK with that. Okpala set the record a few weeks earlier when he scored 45 in a win over Foothill.

Esperanza would go on to win the SoCal Regional Division II final and then the CIF State Championship game.

ALL-COUNTY BOYS BASKETBALL

For his record-setting and championship-leading efforts, Okpala is the Register's Orange County boys basketball player of the year.

Okpala is a long-armed, 6-foot-8 senior. Not only does Okpala physically resemble NBA star Kevin Durant, like Durant, there does not seem to be a set, specific position for Okpala. He was a post player on some plays, a shooting guard on others and even brought the ball up the floor frequently like a point guard.

He averaged a county-leading 30 points a game. His 974 points this season is among the higher totals in county basketball history.

Okpala also averaged 11 rebounds and two blocked shots a game. His shooting percentage of 49 is remarkable for a high school player who averaged 19 shots a game.

There were several nights of domination and a few evenings of breaking his own records. Okpala scored 45 points to set the school single-game record on Jan. 24 against Foothill. Then came the 46 points against Crossroads.

He continued to fill the basket in the Aztecs’ next two games. Okpala scored 28 points in the regional finals win over Pasadena. He scored 22 against Moreau Catholic of Hayward in the CIF State final at Sacramento.

And he continued to impress Esperanza coach Mark Hill.

“With Kezie, it’s about desire more than anything,’ Hill said “That’s what separates him from everybody else.”

Okpala signed with Stanford.

“I picked Stanford because it’s the best of both worlds,” Okpala said. “It’s great to be playing in the Pac-12, and Stanford is one of the best academic schools in the nation.”

Okpala was just a little taller than 5-8 at the beginning of his freshman year. He grew quickly, as did his reputation as a player and his contributions to Esperanza.

A glimpse of what was to come happened his sophomore year in a CIF-Southern Section quarterfinals playoff game against Servite. Okpala made a winning 3-pointer in the final seconds.

Okpala as a junior averaged 23 points a game and was Crestview League player of the year. He received league player of the year honors again this season.

Okapala, whose parents were born in Nigeria and moved to Orange County before Okpala was born, weighs around 190 pounds. He is going to have to put on weight to excel in college basketball. He knows it and Hill knows it.

Then there are some improvements to his game that must come.

“Getting better at perimeter shooting has to be No. 1 for Kezie,” Hill said. “He was a little bit down on his free-throw shooting percentage from last year (76 percent) to this year (74 percent) and he should be better there.”

Okpala started playing basketball in the second grade. He also played football and baseball, and was good in both, but he knew basketball was his game by the time he was 11 years old.

“I think I started getting really good my sophomore year,” Okpala said.

His senior year started with a big challenge. The Aztecs traveled to Chicago for a season-opening tournament. In the tournament’s second game, Esperanza played Spartanburg Day of South Carolina and its star player, 6-8 Zion Williamson who is rated as one of the top juniors in the nation.

“I told Kezie, ‘Everybody’s here to see Zion, not you,’” Hill said. “That kind of fired him up.”

Williamson scored 22 points. Okpala scored 41 as the Aztecs won, 76-59.

That win launched a 22-game winning streak for Esperanza. It also let everybody know just how good Okpala would be this season, even though Okpala was unaware of that himself, sometimes.

Contact the writer: sfryer@scng.com


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