When a brilliant 14-year-old steps onto a basketball court to play for the first time, anything can happen. She could quit after one day or she could start a rise to the top of the college basketball universe in a mere four years.
Freshman Onome Akinbode-James wound up the latter.
Now, her Ivy League-caliber mind and her ACC-level athleticism are succeeding on and off the Cameron Indoor Stadium floor.
Finding a sport
Soccer was the most popular sport in Abeokuta, Nigeria, where Akinbode-James grew up. But she didn’t pick up that sport, or any other for that matter. Education, not athletics, reigned supreme in her household.
After a significant growth spurt during the summer after seventh grade, Akinbode-James’ life changed. With a newfound height advantage over her classmates, she was encouraged to try basketball, an up-and-coming sport in Nigeria.
“I literally picked it up because I was taller than everyone and they were like, ‘Do something with your height,’” Akinbode-James said.
It didn’t start well.
“The first day I actually left because I was really upset,” Akinbode-James said. “‘I’m never going back. It’s horrible.’ But my mom was like, ‘No, you’re not quitting the first day, so I went back and here I am.'”
Akinbode-James quickly moved up the Nigerian youth basketball ranks. A phone call accelerated that climb as she earned a place representing Nigeria on the under-16—and later the under-17—team.
“A lot of times, we’ve gotten really lucky…. A lot of people had to go to tryouts [in Ogun State, where she lived,]” Akinbode-James said. “It was… my home. Someone called my mom and said, ‘Your kid just got invited up to the camp.’”
The camp of 25 players shrunk to 12, and the player who bypassed all of the tryouts sessions somehow made the team. But in time, Akinbode-James’ options for playing basketball at home were limited.
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Akinbode-James explained that her guardian runs a basketball camp in Nigeria every other year for 60 players. After the event, a few proven or developing stars are chosen and her guardian uses academic and athletic connections to help the players find spots in American schools.
At first, Akinbode-James’ mother, Tina Oghuvwu, a school principal, was not ready for her 16-year-old daughter to move to the other side of the world to pursue basketball. The Nigerian basketball star had never stepped foot in the United States before.
“She was like, ‘You’re so young. If something went wrong, I’m not just going to be able to come over. It’s a whole different country,’” Akinbode-James said.
But her daughter had an answer: “Wait. Think about it this way. When I go there…I’m going to get a great education. Can’t complain about that,” Akinbode-James told her mother.
That logic let Akinbode-James to take the journey across the Atlantic Ocean to enroll at Blair Academy in New Jersey.
‘Who was that?’
After she stepped foot on the college-like campus in Blairstown, N.J., a separate conversation brought the Blue Devils into the picture.
Blair Academy head coach Quint Clarke alerted Hernando Planells, Duke’s associate head coach and recruiting coordinator, to a few players on his team including one newcomer.
“She was very raw, moved okay,” Planells said of his December visit. “We were not sold on her right away. I told Q, ‘I’ll come watch you guys later on. Just let me know how she progresses.’”
When Planells went back a few months later, he saw a different player, one he didn’t recognize immediately, whose game was transcendent.
“‘Who was that?’ Then I looked at the roster and it was Onome,” Planells said. “‘Wow. She has really catapulted herself into a tremendous player.’”
After that trip, Planells recommended Duke head coach Joanne P. McCallie to see Akinbode-James play. Her reaction was similar.
“In terms of me seeing her and wanting her to be at Duke, it was instant. Not to mention her academic prowess,” McCallie said. “Her aggression, her passion, how hard she plays. Not a hard decision.”
Suddenly, McCallie and Planells both wanted to land the eventual top-100 recruit.
‘The Broken Perception’
How do you capture Akinbode-James’ talents on and off the court?
Consider this: With her self-proclaimed nature to “swamp [herself] with work,” Akinbode-James took on the challenge of presenting a TEDx Talk during her demanding senior year of high school.
‘Africa, Country or Continent: The Broken Perception’ began with Akinbode-James describing an encounter she had with her American friend and her family at dinner. The friend’s mother asked how far of Akinbode-James had to walk from her “village” to school.
“I was so thrown aback by it because here I am at dinner, thinking we’re just having a good time, and she just pulls that out,” said Akinbode-James, who did not dwell in a village and rode a bus to school. “As much as it is shocking and I’ve gone along and had these experiences, I’ve just realized instead of getting mad about it or angry about it, it’s easier to just try to educate people on it. The more people know the better.”
In her talk, she also says a “single-story notion” concept of African countries produces a distorted view of a homogenous continent instead of one with 54 different countries encompassing more than 1.2 billion people speaking 2,000 languages. The media have reinforced that story by focusing on only a few things in African nations, including poverty and disease.
While she understands that her lifestyle is not newsworthy, Akinbode-James believes it is “not non-existent.”
“It is imperative that we do not rely on just narratives but rather on the complete story to make an informed judgment,” she said.
‘One of the bravest’
When it came time to decide where she’d play and learn after high school, access to an excellent education was a priority.
“She cut out a lot of schools super quick because academically, they didn’t hold for her. And that made her a lot of fun to recruit,” McCallie said.
In other words, Akinbode-James is an example of the student-athlete that an ambitious basketball program at a highly selective university like Duke likes to pursue.
“Onome is an old soul and has been on her own for a long time. She’s one of the bravest people I know relative to leaving home, being at Blair and raising herself,” said McCallie, who also spoke with the recruit’s mother in Nigeria. “She was very much the decision maker.”
But that doesn’t mean the commitment came quickly; many other schools came into the recruiting picture late. After narrowing her list down to only two schools, Akinbode-James committed to Duke in early November of her senior season.
In this match, Duke won. Harvard lost.
“It just came down to, ‘If I was there if something were to go wrong with basketball, would I want to be there?’” Akinbode-James said.
Akinbode-James has played important minutes for Duke from day one this season. If that wasn’t enough, she’s also studying engineering—something no other player in McCallie’s 12-year tenure at Duke has done.
“Before I started playing basketball, I found my identity by education and being successful in school…. When I picked up basketball, it was something to add onto,” Akinbode-James said. “I’ve always been interested in engineering.”
That interest solidified during her senior year at Blair Academy.
“I took a robotics class my senior year…. It really pushed me to say this is really what I want,” Akinbode-James said.
The class entailed building robots for the FIRST Robotics competition. Her classmates would compete against each other in class, but the after-school robotics team competed in tournaments. With her basketball commitment, Akinbode-James could not compete on both teams.
McCallie said Akinbode-James’ engineering path combined with her place on the basketball team can be challenging. But she said that her player is balancing both to set herself up for a career in both basketball and engineering.
‘Sky is the limit’
In the recruiting process, Planells saw a player who could step in and contribute.
“We were very convinced that she could come in and add some great rebounding strength, great toughness on the inside and the ability to score in the paint,” Planells said. “We needed her to do it right away and right now she’s doing it.”
At times, foul trouble has plagued the freshman. She committed two fouls in the opening three minutes against an undersized Marist team last month.
“Here’s the good side. Sometimes posts aren’t aggressive enough in first year and they don’t get into foul trouble,” McCallie said. “We’re saying, ‘Onome, don’t go over a person’s back, get around.’ We have to turn her down in terms of that. That’s so much more fun to coach than trying to turn somebody up to be aggressive.”
When she’s clear of foul trouble, Akinbode-James has the potential to contribute like she did against Wisconsin at the end of November, where she registered 14 points and 14 rebounds. In terms of a presence in the post, McCallie compares Akinbode-James to a former player of hers whose jersey hangs in the rafters of Cameron Indoor Stadium.
“You look at someone like an Elizabeth Williams, who just was obviously a cut above. But what I’ll say is that she has tendencies. She’s not as big. She’s not going to block as many shots,” McCallie said. “Having presence like an Elizabeth will be very helpful.”
In the Wisconsin contest, the freshman also showed off her midrange jumper.
“We’d like her to start shooting threes, not this year, but that’s the development,” McCallie said. “I don’t know if she could do it as a sophomore, but definitely by junior, senior year, we want Onome to have that high post, short corner and that 3-ball.”
With a 3-pointer in her repertoire down the road, Akinbode-James’ will likely be able to play in the pros after graduation, McCallie said.
And if her rebounding output like the one in Madison, Wisc., becomes a constant, Akinbode-James could be on her way to catapult into the program’s rebounding records in four years.
“She could leave here the all-time leading rebounder in program history. It’s just learning the defensive rotations, becoming better at that, becoming vocal,” Planells said. “The sky is the limit for her.”