For all that he’s accomplished thus far and all that lies before him, there’s one thing CJ Onyekwelu will never be able to do and that’s get lost in the crowd.
At 6 feet, 5 inches and possessing a silky-smooth glide to the basket, the Catholic High School senior stands out in the hallway and on the basketball court. That goes double at home, where the baby of the family towers over his four older siblings, 5-foot-11-inch father Emeka and 5-foot-3-inch mother Perpetua.
And if that’s still not enough to separate him from the million-head herd of Jimmys and Joes that play hoops from coast to coast, he can always dust off his full given name, Chukwujekwu Onyekwelu, a masterpiece of his Nigerian heritage.
“When I was born they named me Chukwujekwu, but they wanted something shorter for people in America,” he said. “Nobody could think of anything until my brother Bryan said, ‘Why don’t we just call him CJ because the first letter’s a C and the middle letter’s a J.”
By whatever formal handle you choose to call him, the superlatives of Onyekwelu as an athlete and a person are universal. Everywhere he’s been in life left a fan club in his wake from his teachers at Immaculate Conception School in North Little Rock to his AAU coaches to the brotherhood of Catholic High.
“He is a great kid,” said Todd Ezzi, Catholic High head basketball coach. “He and my son actually went to school together growing up, and his brothers played for me. I’ve known him since he was little bitty.
“The biggest thing I think he brought was steadiness. He was a kid that was always there. I could count on one hand how many days he missed in the course of high school, practices and everything. He was just a constant in our program and every day bringing a good attitude, being a great teammate and helping build the culture. He’s been fantastic in all those categories for sure.”
Onyekwelu’s first athletic love was soccer; in fact, he said if he’d stuck with it, he would have been even more highly regarded for it than he is for basketball. He’s also dabbled in track ever since middle school. But once he committed to basketball solely, Onyekwelu was tunnel-visioned in the best sense of the word.
“I study a lot of basketball, and I just do a lot of thinking on the court,” he said. “I work extremely hard, and I’ve had to learn to trust in the work that I’ve put in. What’s improved the most is definitely my defense; that’s something I hang my hat on, being a good defender.
“Defense is really not something you can say, ‘Oh, I just had a bad night.’ It’s something that just comes with effort. My defense is there every single night because I’ve put in a lot of hours to prepare.”
Onyekwelu’s stats bear out this defensive focus. In addition to 499 points, he ends his high school career with 375 rebounds, 109 blocks, 82 steals and most telling of all, 62 charges with 25 in his senior year alone.
“Defensively, he can guard a post, he’s able to contest shots and he was our quickest player, so most of the time he was guarding their best guard,” Ezzi said. “There were several kids that were four- or five-star guys coming into our game that he just absolutely shut down. And then to get, over the last two seasons, over 50 charges is a stat that speaks volumes about how unselfish a kid he is, sacrificing his body every night. His ability to guard made him really versatile for us.”
Onyekwelu also showed versatility on offense during his career, where his combination of skills landed him at every position besides point. On his AAU squad, he comfortably played the shooting guard while in high school, he primarily played a combination of the three and four slots, thanks to a hybrid of speed, size and quickness that applied equally to slashing to the bucket and backing down defenders. Numerous college scouts have been impressed and Onyekwelu is weighing his options.
“I’m still not decided if I want to play college basketball yet,” he said. “I do have an offer from ASU-Newport, and I have interest in Arkansas Tech. I took an unofficial visit a couple weeks ago. I’m going to take an unofficial visit to the University of St. Thomas in Houston, too.”
Like a lot of Catholic boys in central Arkansas, CJ was given the choice of any high school he wanted as long as it was CHS. But as he looks to savor the last couple of months of high school, the IC parishioner said he couldn’t have picked a better place to develop in the game he loves.
“I knew where I was going for high school; it wasn’t really a choice,” he said. “If I had the choice though, I don’t think I would have chosen anything different. Looking back on it now, Catholic has been four years of some of the most stressful times of my life, just because of the rigorous education and the athletics. It’s just not easy.
“Playing basketball could get a little lonely sometimes. You’re working really hard because a lot of people want you to work hard. Basketball was like a job in a way; if you’re feeling sick or you’re feeling bad, as the team captain you've got to be there for your guys, even if you’re not feeling like you want to be there or feel like your body’s not ready.
“When it got to be too much at times, at Catholic I knew I could always visit the chapel and pray and that always helped. So, if I could go back and change anything, I wouldn’t change a thing.”
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