THUNDER BAY – Michael Okafor returns to the Lakehead Thunderwolves with a championship pedigree and a strong desire to do it again.
The high-scoring guard was one of two Lakehead players to earn spots in the Canadian Elite Basketball League this summer, drafted in the second round by the Hamilton Honey Badgers, who went on to capture the title with a thrilling 90-88 win over the Scarborough Shooting Stars.
Okafor, who averaged 5.2 points a night as a rookie, saw plenty of action this summer, and while teammate Laoui Masambya was less of a factor on the court with the expansion Montreal Alliance, both players were brimming with confidence upon their return to Thunder Bay.
A summer in the CEBL was a crash course in basketball education, said the 6-foot-4 Okafor, named LU’s male athlete of the year and a second-team OUA West all-star.
“It was really fun. I learned a lot of stuff from the vets and the coaches, everyone in the Honey Badgers organization,” he said, moments after a dunk-filled scrimmage performance on Wednesday night at the C.J. Sanders Fieldhouse, leading his team to a six-point victory in an intrasquad contest, the team getting ready for the start of non-conference play against Winnipeg on the road on Oct. 7.
“We had our ups and we had our downs, but we pulled through in the summer and won a championship. I’m just grateful for the opportunity and grateful that I could be in that position because of Lakehead and what they’ve done for me.”
Okafor said his No. 1 takeaway was on the skills side, learning how to play without the ball.
“I think that was major this summer. And we had a lot of elite guys, like Christian Vital, Kaleb Agada and Kobe (McEwan), so I learned how to play off them and also off the court learning how they get ready for a game and get ready for practice,” Okafor said.
“And just learning to be a great person.”
Msambya, signed as an undrafted free agent by the Alliance, said it was a tough adjustment to the CEBL, but one that will have a marked impact on his performance with the Thunderwolves in 2022-23, his third with the team.
“The first week was hard, because it was fast and physical. But it was a nice experience because the way that they go hard every practice and game is different than in university,” the six-foot Quebec City guard said.
“They’re more physical, they’re faster and they make less mistakes during the games. I really learned from that.”
Msambya said his biggest lesson was in leadership.
“I really learned how to talk to talk to players, how to move with the ball, how to elevate everybody around me. It helped me a lot to be a better leader and to be a better playmaker.”
The duo weren’t the only LU affiliates upping their skill set in the CEBL. Coach Ryan Thomson spent the summer as an assistant with the Fraser Valley Bandits, and while everything he learned can’t be cut and pasted into the Thunderwolves playbook, it gave him a different perspective on how to get the best out of his players.
He’s already seen the difference in Okafor and Msambya, on and off the court.
“They came back with the right attitude. They’ve been all business. You can tell they were attentive to what the guys were doing at the pro level and how they did it,” Thomson said. “Whether it’s routines or a little bit more focus or stretching, or just getting their work in, they’re in early for practice, they’re staying late, they’re really disciplined this year.”