COLUMBIA, MO. — There are two things Cuonzo Martin won’t have to teach the Missouri basketball team’s latest addition, Axel Okongo.
The Frenchman by way of a Wyoming junior college will be Mizzou’s first 7-footer since a certain set of twins from the 1990s.
2. Work ethic.
To help pay his way at Northwest College in Powell, Wyo., Okongo started work at 5:30 a.m. every weekday as a school custodian as part of his work-study program. When he’s not on campus for class or work, he makes the 20-minute commute to the team’s basketball facility, where he trains for hours to polish his raw, rarely tested offensive game.
“He has worked as hard as he could to survive every day,” said Northwest athletics director Brian Erickson, who was the school’s head coach when Okongo arrived there two years ago from Quebec.
Next stop, Mizzou.
After quietly visiting Columbia last week, Okongo announced his verbal commitment to the Tigers on Monday. On Tuesday, he signed his scholarship paperwork, Erickson confirmed. He’s expected to become MU’s 13th and final scholarship player for the 2019-20 season.
He won’t come with conventional credentials for a high-major recruit. Okongo came off the bench for Northwest last year and averaged just 2.5 points and 1.5 rebounds in about 7 minutes per game. He had only five games where he played more than nine minutes. He scored in double figures just twice, both times finishing with 10 points. He blocked six shots in 24 games and never pulled down more than six rebounds. He attempted all of five free throws.
Those numbers, Erickson said, can be misleading.
“He’s a guy who needs to be down on the block,” said Erickson, who coached Okongo his freshman year in 2017-18, when he was slowed by an ankle injury. “He probably didn’t fit the system very well. He would have fit playing a little faster and his back to the basket. We had four bigs who could play with their back to the basket and the coach who came in didn’t really utilize that. The offense was just different.
“His numbers on offense weren’t unbelievable, but the guy can change a game on the defensive end. He can change shots. He’ll block shots. He’s going to hedge hard. No matter what way the ball is going he’s going to run hard.
"He’s already gotten a ton better offensively but needs work. He’ll fit what they need. He’ll set screens and roll to the basket and he’ll be a guy you can drive in and dump it off for a dunk."
Since the end of this past season, Okongo has been living with the family of teammate Mysen McArthur and making the 20-minute ride back to campus for drill work with Erickson and Camden Levett, the coach of the Northwest women’s program. Okongo has to find his own way to campus — and will have to do the same in Columbia.
“We don’t trust him behind the wheel,” Erickson said. “We trust him with everything else.”
Okongo, a native of Saacy-sur-Marne, France, came to Wyoming from Thetford Academy, a prep school in Quebec, where the coaching staff has a history with the Northwest staff, thanks to Toronto Raptors forward Chris Boucher. Before starring at Oregon, Boucher played at a prep academy in Quebec — his coaches would later move to Thetford — then became the national junior college player of the year at Northwest. A network between Thetford and Northwest was born, eventually leading Okongo to Wyoming.
How then did Okongo land a scholarship to Mizzou? In April he took part in Evan Turner’s Prospect Showcase in Chicago, where he was spotted by Brandon Goble, a scout and founder of Juco Advocate, an organization that connects prospects with college programs. Goble, Erickson said, told Mizzou assistant Michael Porter Sr. about the 7-foot Frenchman. From there, Okongo worked out for coaches at another showcase in Texas — he had to borrow money from a relative for both trips, Erickson said — and began to draw interest from a wide range of Division I programs. He visited Morgan State and Mizzou and also heard from Arizona State, Oregon State and LSU, among others.
“He was doing anything and everything to be seen,” Erickson said. “I think he’s going to thrive at a high-level Division I program.”
Once he comes to campus and joins the Missouri program, he’ll join a small but large company in the annals of Tigers history. Going back to the 1940s, Mizzou rosters have featured only five players who stood 7 feet tall. Okongo, listed last season at 7-foot, 240 pounds, will become No. 6. His predecessors in the 84-inch club were well known for their stature, some more than their stats. Here they are, in chronological order:
Booker Brown (1966-67)
Brown, from Kansas City Central High School, measured 7 foot and 215 pounds and appeared in just 14 games for the Tigers in his lone season on campus. He averaged 6 points and 8.2 rebounds per game for MU before transferring to Middle Tennessee State, where he averaged a double-double over two seasons.
Tom Dore (1977-80)
Officially the tallest player in Mizzou history, the 7-foot-2, 235-pound Dore from Northlake, Ill., averaged 2.9 points and 2 rebounds during his three-year career, and blocked 32 shots for Norm Stewart’s teams. He went on to a career in broadcasting and called games for Texas, SMU, his own Missouri Tigers and later enjoyed a long stint with the Chicago Bulls.
Gary Leonard (1985-89)
Without a doubt the most productive of Mizzou’s 7-Foot Club, the Belleville native was initially listed at 7-foot, 248 pounds as a freshman but grew an inch to 7-1 by his junior year and by his senior season was listed at 264 pounds. For his career he averaged 6.4 points and 4 rebounds but enjoyed his most productive season as a senior, giving the Tigers 10.4 points, 5.5 rebounds and 42 blocks. Leonard was a second-round NBA draft pick by Minnesota and played in 31 games over three seasons with the Timberwolves and Hawks.
Sammie Haley (1994-96)
One half of the Slim and Slam Haley twins, who came to Mizzou via Connors State junior college in Oklahoma and Myrtle Beach, S.C., Sammie was the more offensively productive player. The 7-1, 235-pounder averaged 7.5 points in his two seasons, plus 4.5 rebounds while shooting 52.3 percent. He also blocked 69 shots and logged 35 assists.
Simeon Haley (1994-96)
Little brother Simeon — he was an inch shorter at 7-foot — averaged 6.2 points and 4.5 rebounds in two seasons with 51 blocks and 37 assists. Remarkably, in their two seasons at Mizzou, only one rebound separated the two: 271 for Simeon and 270 for Sammie.
Just missing the club by an inch is a set of 6-11 former Mizzou players, some more infamous than famous, including Steve Stipanovich, Gail Wolf, Monte Hardge, Tate Decker, Pat Schumacher, Stefan Jankovic, Keanau Post and Jontay Porter.