Ovie Soko - Next man up
LONDON (Diccon Lloyd-Smeath's Champions League Insider) - Ovie Soko is flying! Metaphorically and at times, literally.
The 2.03m (6’8”) GB International and perpetual highlight-machine, is in the middle of his best season as a professional and appears - by all intents and purposes - to be grabbing every opportunity that falls within his grasp, with both hands. After injury halted his 2016/17 season with UCAM Murcia, it took the start of this campaign for Soko to rediscover his rhythm.
Although Soko is now averaging 14.4 points, 8 rebounds and 1.6 assists in 29.4 Minutes in the Basketball Champions League and looking dominant on both ends of the floor, this season hadn’t started as smoothly for club or player. Between late October and November, UCAM Murcia lost 4 straight in the Basketball Champions League and their hopes of reaching the Play-Offs started to fade. However, something seems to have clicked and since Gameday 8 in December, Murcia are 4-1.
During that period, Soko is averaging 20.7 points and 9.4 rebounds, as close as you can get to averaging a 20 Point double-double! A period that also included a pivotal road win at Dinamo Sassari in Sardinia and an ill-tempered home win against EWE Baskets Oldenburg, in a raucous Palacio de los Deportes. In both cases UCAM Murcia wrestled back the head-to-head and have now sealed their place in the Play-Offs. Soko was pivotal in both games, especially the physically dominant performance against EWE Baskets that not only won him the round 11 MVP but catapulted him into being a late-runner for the overall MVP race.
Soko is certainly starting to look like a man on a mission and a man with not only the desire but also the ability, to continue grasping the opportunities presented to him.
“My older brother was really the architect of my early basketball career. I was into Football but he played and I just wanted to be like him.”
When you take a closer look at the mountain path that has led Soko to this point, the ability and willingness to take opportunities when they present themselves, is a consistent theme. Although the player you see now, is a versatile forward that guards the paint and the perimeter, scores, rebounds and creates for his teammates at Murcia - and with the Great Britain National Team - MVP nominations and a career among Europe’s elite wasn’t always on the cards.
In many ways, the route that led Ovie Soko to this point, is a perfect representation of the power that Basketball has, to positively impact the lives of young people. Growing up in Tottenham, North London, it was the passion of his older brother that introduced him to the sport and the patience of his parents and club coaches that helped to make sure a talented, passionate and at times aggressive, young basketball player stayed the course.
Soko followed his brother and at the age of 10, joined Barnet Bulldogs Basketball Club in North West London, - the same club that also gave a start to Britain’s only NBA champion to date – Temi Fagbenle (2017 WNBA Champion with the Minnesota Lynx). On first look, his coaches could instantly see the attributes that are still contributing to his success to this day.
"A very aggressive and often unruly Ovie Soko joined us when he was around 10 years old," said Ted Polson from the Barnet Bulldogs. "His passion, strength and desire stood him out from the others immediately. His fundamental skills were poor but our coaches worked hard with him and soon he was playing in groups 3 years above his age".
"When we are younger, we think we are working hard but in fact we are underestimating ourselves and setting our own limits with our work ethic. Coach Davis really taught me that nothing I wanted was in my comfort zones."
It would be easy to imagine, that with the passion and physical talent that the young Ovie Soko possessed, the path was laid out from there but the club still had an important part to play.
"At around 14 years of age my wife and I received a call from Ovie’s parents saying they were concerned about the path he was taking, he had been excluded from school on a number of occasions and was constantly in trouble, his parents said he was only interested in basketball and could we help," said Polson. "All Ovie was focusing on was getting a scholarship to America or Spain. We agreed to try and help him to achieve his dream, but only on the condition that he got back into school and improved his grades."
Through the help of the club, his family and his own determination, Soko committed to following the right path on and off-court. As a reward, a trip was organized to a camp with Estudiantes in Spain. Although an injury sustained on camp prevented a permanent move to the Club Estudiantes Youth Programme, a chance encounter with another Spanish Coach provided another push in the right direction.
“The following year, former Spanish player Juan Orenga, asked for our help watching a player who lived in Kent. While here Juan attended one of our training sessions and he was challenged by Ovie to play One-on-One. Ovie won!! Juan quickly suggested that America would be a better option.”
This suggestion became a reality when Soko was seen attending a camp in Oregon by a friend of a coach in Hampton Roads Academy - a private School in Virginia. Game tape was passed on and within the space of one whirlwind summer, Soko had left London for America and was a step closer to his ambition of achieving a college Scholarship. That ambition became a reality when Coach Mike Davis of the University of Alabama at Birmingham saw him playing on the AAU circuit. To this day Ovie Soko still credits Coach Davis as a huge factor in his career.
"I was starting to get recruited from several schools but Coach Davis drove all the way from Alabama to Florida to watch me play and he ended up being a huge influence on me," said Ovie Soko. "Not just in Basketball but in life. He taught me life lessons that at the time I didn’t understand but I think back on them all the time now".
In particular, Soko credits his time with Coach Davis at UAB, for teaching him how to remove his own limitations.
The next stop was a transfer in his senior year, from UAB to Duquesne. Again, the impact of his coach at Duquesne can still be felt when you watch Soko now. Only this time the learning curve was almost exclusively on-court. During his senior year, Soko started to show signs of becoming the player we are seeing now. He averaged 18 points and 8 rebounds and in Coach Jim Ferry, he’d found someone willing to embrace his swashbuckling raids in transition and ability to make plays from the perimeter as well as inside.
"With Coach Ferry, we had a much more up-tempo system," said Ovie Soko. "Closer to the modern way, where 4 or even 5 guys could bring the ball up the floor. I’d say I always had the ability to bring the ball up and make plays but Coach Ferry really taught me how to refine that ability and the timing of when to do it. When I could use it to speed up the game and when to give it to the guard."
The ability to catch a rebound and bust out in transition - in full freight train mode - is still a huge feature of the versatility that makes Ovie Soko such a difficult match-up for so many players at the 4 or even 5 in small line-ups.
Life in the Pro’s
Following an imposing senior year in college, Soko made the decision that most expected him to and turned pro. After going undrafted in 2014, the next destination was Boulazac Basket in the French Dordoigne region and a rookie season in Europe that opened doors and also, his own eyes.
"Coming to France was tough! Pro B is a very physical league. I’ve never really struggled physically but the first year in Europe really helps to shape a lot of guys. As a young player, everyone says they want to play for money but now it’s not fun and games, you are playing for your livelihood, against grown men with mortgages to pay. It’s not like college, where your coaches priority is to care about who you are. Now it’s first of all about getting the job done."
Fast forward to this season and all the lessons, on and off-court are coming to fruition. Yet the motivation to keep improving and the attributes that have been the driving force thus far, remain. Still the same chip on the shoulder, to justify his own, unshakeable self-belief and still the will to prove to a family that supported and sacrificed, every step of the way, they were right to do so.
"I’m always trying to improve. This year was about getting back into the groove," said Soko. "I have a lot to prove to myself. I have been doubted at every single level and I always want to prove that I’m right but it’s also my family and people that I care about that drive me. I’m very fortunate to be where I am and I owe it to them to keep pushing myself."
The desire to play the game for others and pay back those that have invested in him, also bears out in Soko’s attitude towards playing in Murcia.
"I’m very grateful to the GM (Alejandro Gomez)," said Ovie Soko. "He showed a lot of belief in me to bring me back after my injury last season and the fans have been incredible. The Champions League and the ACB have so much talent across the board in every game, you really need the fans. As a team we are still growing and we definitely haven’t found all the answers yet but sometimes when a team finds all the answers from the start, they can hit a wall but we are still growing and that’s important."
On the topic of his teammates, Soko appears more than happy to open the book.
"My teammates have been awesome," said Soko. "Brad (Oleson) is the guy. He’s played the game at the highest level and is also a great guy. He helps to make the game easy for everyone because 9/10 he makes the right play. You couldn’t ask more from a vet. Sadi (Sadiel Rojas) as well, he’s the captain and heart of the team. Sadi is all about winning and doing whatever it takes. He’s also one of the best rebounders I’ve ever played with, especially from the wing position. I could go on but I don’t want to give away the scout report…Kevin (Tumba), Kloof, Clevin (Hannah), I could go on down the list, we have a ton of very unselfish guys. Coach Navarro is excellent too, he always seems to find a way to make the adjustment."
When you speak to Soko’s teammates, the feeling seems to be mutual and that same aggression that once caused trouble, is now channeled and being noticed for the right reasons.
"Ovie is a really high-character guy, a little shy at first but once he gets to know you, he’d do anything for you. When he first arrived, he was a 3 and I was training against him every day. Instantly I loved the physicality, energy and aggression he brought. People say I’m a physical player and I really enjoy the competitiveness he brings every day."
The positional shift from the 3 to 4 after his injury last season, also seems to be paying off.
"Now that he’s recovered from the injury and he’s realised that the team has his back and we value the energy he brings, he’s moved to the 4 and for the past month or so he’s been unstoppable," said Rojas. "Truthfully, he’s a great guy and such a hard worker, he deserves everything he’s getting."
The opportunity to play for the National Team came late for Ovie Soko. As a young player in North London, he would travel around the city playing in as many different gyms as possible but wasn’t really on the radar until later.
"It’s always a blessing to represent your National Team. For me, I wasn’t really discovered until later. After my freshman year at UAB ,Tim Lewis and the GB U20’s was my first experience. I think we finished 6th, which at the time, was the highest any GB team had finished (U20 Div B European Championships)."
Last summer for Eurobasket, Soko was still recovering from injury. When the call came to represent Great Britain seniors, for the World Cup Qualifiers in November, in front of a home crowd, Soko was healthy, ready and grateful for the opportunity.
"Leicester was the first time I’d played in a competitive game in England and the GB fans were amazing," said Soko. "Being in the UK, there was a lot of Greek fans too. It was jumping in there (the Leicester Arena)."
Soko produced a standout performance vs Greece in that game. With a generation of leaders like Drew Sullivan and Kieran Archara looking to pass the torch and younger generations getting stronger and stronger, the Great Britain senior programme will need leaders and stars playing at the highest levels, to be the new faces of the National Team. The kind of season that Ovie Soko is putting together, he is certainly making a strong case to be the next man up!
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