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KZ Okpala could make rare decision to leave Stanford early for NBA

The projected first-round pick is getting the ‘best of both worlds’ in college

STANFORD, Calif. — Stanford University’s athletics department takes pride in its motto: “Stanford … not a four-year decision. But a lifetime decision.” But for Stanford sophomore forward KZ Okpala, it could be the rare two-year decision on his way to the NBA.

Okpala said his Nigerian immigrant parents were ecstatic their son was attending Stanford, primarily for the education. But the 6-foot-9-inch forward is also pursuing his NBA dream.

“It’s the best of both worlds coming into Stanford,” Okpala told The Undefeated. “I love playing at a high level, but my parents love academics. Just to please them, and I love school, but I still wanted to play at a high level. It’s the Pac-12 and in the West Coast where I come from.”

Okpala committed to Stanford before his senior year of high school after growing to 6 feet, 8 inches from his freshman height of 5 feet, 10 inches. He had a 4.4 GPA at Anaheim Esperanza High, according to the Los Angeles Times, and led Esperanza to its first California Interscholastic Federation Division II title (and also a win over Duke star Zion Williamson’s high school team). ESPN ranked him the 42nd-best player in the Class of 2017.

Now a college sophomore, Okpala has excelled in basketball while managing the academic challenge during his two years at Stanford. He is averaging a team-high 18 points as well as 5.8 rebounds and two assists per game this season. He is also shooting 36.9 percent from the 3-point line and was named a finalist for the Julius Erving Small Forward of the Year Award.

But soon Okpala will have to decide if it’s time to put his education on hold. The 19-year-old is a projected first-round pick in this year’s NBA draft.

Only two Stanford players have left for the NBA before their junior seasons: the 7-foot twin brothers Brook and Robin Lopez, who were the 10th and 15th picks overall, respectively, in the 2010 draft after each playing two seasons for the Cardinal.

NBA scouts told The Undefeated that they expect Okpala to be a top-20 pick.

“He’s a really good player who can be really good in the future,” one NBA scout said. “He has all the measurables: height, wingspan, athleticism. He can shoot, pass and dribble. He can defend multiple positions, whether it’s a point guard or a forward. Once he gets his shot ready out to 3, he is more valuable on this level.”

Said another NBA scout: “He will be an NBA starter or key reserve one day if he keeps working.”

Another NBA scout saw Okpala as a late first- or early second-round prospect but thought he should return for his junior season.

“He has positional height and length and has the look of an NBA player,” the scout said. “He needs to develop his game to go with his look. Someone may take a flier on him because of his height and length. He’s not an amazing athlete, but he’s 6-9, can play small forward and is very long.”

Okpala credits his offseason workouts for his success this season after averaging 10 points per game as a freshman.

“I made a commitment to myself around this time last year that I was going to go all-in and put my eggs in one basket,” Okpala said. “Every day working out three times a day. Eating right. Lifting weights. Doing all the little things. Getting sleep. Drinking water. All the little things.

“I didn’t think I put in a lot of attention my freshman year, and I still got a little bit of attention. I was like, ‘What if I really go all-in here?’ ”

Stanford has produced 30 NBA players, including four current players: Milwaukee Bucks center Brook Lopez, Chicago Bulls center Robin Lopez, Dallas Mavericks forward Dwight Powell and Washington Wizards guard Chasson Randle.

Former NBA guard Brevin Knight, who played four years at Stanford, believes no Stanford player should depart early unless he is a projected top-10 pick or his family is in financial need. (Okpala’s family wouldn’t fit that mold, as his father is an engineer and his mother is a lawyer, a source said.)

Stanford Cardinal forward KZ Okpala (right) drives to the basket while being defended by Washington Huskies guard Matisse Thybulle (left) during a game at Stanford’s Maples Pavilion.

Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

“If you’re able to get into Stanford, academics was important to you or a necessary evil to an end,” Knight said. “A lot of kids who get a chance to go there, basketball is a love of yours but you have something else going. The NBA is something that is attainable from Stanford. But what if you get your degree at Stanford and go to the NBA? It’s the best of both worlds: You can play with the best players in the world and be amongst the movers and shakers of the world.

“I went to Stanford to make connections. I didn’t go there to make the NBA. It just so happened I ended up making it to the NBA.”

Okpala said the NBA has been a dream of his since he was 7 years old. If he tests the waters by entering June’s NBA draft, an NBA scout said he would very likely get an invitation to the pre-draft camp in May in Chicago, where he could interview and work out for teams. How Okpala fares in the pre-draft camp could ultimately influence his decision to return to Stanford or not.

A source close to Okpala said he is currently undecided but the source wouldn’t be surprised if Okpala ultimately enters the draft and keeps his name in it. Okpala, however, is focusing on finishing the season strong.

“Whatever happens after the season with whatever I decide, I don’t think about it right now. Right now, I am just focusing on my teammates,” Okpala said.

Okpala is holding out hope that the Cardinal (15-15) can win the Pac-12 tournament to earn an NCAA tournament bid. Stanford plays in the first round of the Pac-12 tournament against UCLA on Wednesday.

“There has never been a game where you’re like, ‘Oh, we are about to get smacked,’ ” Okpala said of dealing with losing this season. “That’s one thing. Every game I know there is a chance. I know there is a good chance.”

The odds might be stacked against Stanford making it to the Big Dance, but don’t bet against Okpala’s future.

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.