Miye Oni '20 Pursues the Pros
The once-overlooked Ivy League Player of the Year went from no looks to New Haven. Now, he might soon find himself in the NBA.
Miye Oni ’20 did not make the Viewpoint School’s varsity basketball team until his junior year of high school. A 5-foot-8-inch point guard on the junior varsity team his freshman year, Oni had sprouted into a 6-foot-4 center by the time his junior season began in November.
In March, Oni — now 6-foot-6 — hired an agent and declared for the 2019 NBA draft. After three seasons as Yale’s starting guard, he ranks tenth among the Elis’ all-time scoring leaders, with 1,308 points. Amid speculation that he might become the first Ivy League athlete selected to an NBA team since 1995, Oni’s 17.1 points, 6.3 rebounds and 3.6 assists a game helped guide Yale to March Madness, earned him this season’s Ivy League Player of the Year award and lured NBA scouts to Ivy League gyms throughout the Bulldogs’ 22-win campaign.
Most draft pundits project that Oni will be selected as a mid-to-late second-round pick. He now finds himself in a unique position for an Ivy League athlete: withdraw from the draft and return to Yale for his senior season or kickstart a professional career by remaining in it. The upswing has been dramatic, but his NBA dream — no matter his size, scoring average or how few considered it realistic — has always been the same.
Varsity Orchestra, JV Basketball
Oni’s father Oludotun (Dot), who immigrated to the United States from Nigeria, took an interest in basketball watching Nigerian American center Hakeem Olajuwon play for the Houston Rockets in the 1990s. When his son was 2 years old, Dot bought Miye and his older sister Oluwatoniloba (Toni) a toy hoop, and the Yale guard has been shooting ever since. But for much of Oni’s high school career — and especially before his post-sophomore year growth spurt — his community viewed him as more of a violist than a competitive basketball player. Oni began playing viola in fifth grade at Viewpoint, a Los Angeles–area independent school that runs from kindergarten to 12th grade.
Initially, Oni’s sister was the basketball star of the family. Coaches at nearby basketball powerhouse Sierra Canyon School recruited Toni, who stood at 6 feet in eighth grade, for her precocious performance on the court. Sixth-grade Miye followed his phenom sibling there. Oni’s family had moved to the Porter Ranch neighborhood of Los Angeles when Miye, whose full name is Olumiye, was born in 1997, and Oni had earlier enrolled at Viewpoint as a first grader. But, discouraged by the size and skill of his classmates at Sierra Canyon, he returned to Viewpoint in ninth grade for its academics and what he and his parents considered his only chance to play high school hoops.
Oni’s viola teacher, Kristin Herkstroeter, who is also Viewpoint’s music department chair, was happy to see him back. She considered him “someone who was focused on academics who also played the viola and then did some basketball” for years. “I knew he played basketball, but usually [if] kids do well, you hear about them, and his name really didn’t float to the top until senior year,” Herkstroeter said.
Even once he towered over the 5-foot-2 Herkstroeter and played a viola so big that she struggled to help him tune it, Oni enjoyed playing in Viewpoint’s orchestra — where he earned “varsity” affiliation long before he made the basketball team as a junior. Orchestra met during the school day as much as a math or science class, and Oni played at most concerts, including one at Disneyland, always combing his “already perfect” hair just before the curtain opened, Herkstroeter recalled.
In the offseason, he worked to gain lower-body strength with air resistance squats and box jumps at Dune Citi, a basketball facility near his house. Oni began his Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) season with the Basketball Training Institute (BTI) program soon after, but as practically its last man off the bench, he played inconsistently and lacked confidence. Starting the recruiting process with only a few games of varsity film and scattered play from his summer AAU was difficult. His strength program hadn’t come into full effect and he was still growing. But he did have one definite asset: academics.
“Basically once my sister got into Cornell, I knew that I wanted to go to an Ivy League school,” Oni said. “There was no question. … My mom wouldn’t even take me to the gym until I finished all of my assignments for the upcoming week.”
Oni sought a spot at a top academic program, expressing interest to Division III schools like UChicago, NYU and Washington University in St. Louis. Emphasizing strong test scores, burgeoning athleticism and versatility on the floor, he hoped, would catch some coaches’ attention. But his emails, which he also sent to all the Ivies and Patriot League schools, barely received responses. Yale’s associate head coach Matt Kingsley sent him one, Oni said, that basically wished him luck with the process. It wouldn’t be their final correspondence.
From no looks to New Haven
Underestimated for so long, Oni initially committed to Division III Williams College after Ephs coach Kevin App invited him on an unofficial visit to Massachusetts. Williams, which offered a historically strong basketball program alongside the small school’s academics, suited Oni well at the time.
Then everything changed.
“His five month upward trend [afterwards] was essentially one that I really haven’t seen before or since,” Viewpoint head coach JJ Prince said. “He went from a very good player to a great player very quickly.”
Oni exploded during senior year, finally able to realize the potential that had accumulated with his growth and strength training. Division I coaches were often at Viewpoint contests to recruit Oni’s fellow starter, best friend and current Harvard guard Christian Juzang, and they started to take note of Oni too.
Although Yale had already completed its recruitment of seniors — the Yale class of 2019 — Kingsley attended a game in December to watch Juzang and remembers being intrigued by Oni during warmups. Those in the know could glance at a box score — his average stat line that season, said Prince, was 20 points, 10 rebounds, four or five assists, a couple steals and a block a game — and sense Division I potential interest in the Viewpoint senior.
A few months after Kingsley’s visit to LA, once Oni had started dominating competition en route to a Gold Coast League MVP honor, Robert Icart — the founder and director of Oni’s BTI — clued the Yale coach in on Oni. Icart attached an updated highlight tape that Oni’s father, Dot, had prepared, and Prince sent Viewpoint game film. Yale’s Kingsley and head coach James Jones became the first of many impressed Division I coaches. Oni soon secured an offer from Jones a couple weeks before his graduation, becoming the first player whom Jones has offered without watching in person.
“I was just amazed at how well he passed the ball, at his court vision, at his size, and then his athleticism was really quite outstanding in the tape,” Jones said. “He ended up having a transition dunk in somebody’s face … and he’s an excellent student, really smart young man, and it was just kind of a no-brainer.”
Pursuing the Pros
Oni’s senior spring became some of the busiest months of his life, as he fielded phone calls from Division I coaches around the nation on his way out of class. His late commitment to Yale meant Oni would need to reclassify and spend a year at prep school, but he thought sacrificing one year while all his friends started college as opposed to playing at a local UC program — or playing DIII — was worth it if he could compete at an Ivy.
Even after he committed to Yale in late June, the offers flooded in. Yale coaches helped him land a postgraduate spot with coach Jeff Depelteau at Suffield Academy, a prep school in Connecticut, for the 2015–16 school year, and with his arrangements in order, the swingman could finally focus on basketball. Over the summer, Oni played so well with the BTI on AAU circuits — and especially at the Fab 48 tournament in Las Vegas — that the Bulldogs feared other coaches would lure him away from New Haven.
“It was unbelievable,” Yale coach Kingsley said. “Your heart’s like, ‘Oh my god, who’s at this game?’ You’re looking around.” Oni led underdog BTI to wins over sponsored programs like Canada Elite, who featured future Milwaukee Bucks pick Thon Maker and Phoenix Suns selection Josh Jackson. A coach on Kansas’ staff told Yale assistant Justin Simon he was going to have Jayhawks head coach Bill Self give Oni a call.
It became clear that Oni, just nine months removed from sending emails to DIII schools in vain, could play on nearly any college team in the country. And to anyone who watched sponsorless BTI take down AAU powerhouses backed by Nike, Adidas and Under Armour, it also became clear that Oni could compete with — and beat — soon-to-be lottery picks in the NBA draft. His confidence grew while his desire to attend Yale endured.
He arrived in Suffield as the team’s top option. “Supposedly I was the first person to coach him that ever told him that he could play in the NBA, and that stuck with him,” Depelteau said. “I said listen, ‘You have the athleticism that these guys have, and that’s usually what most people are missing. You can shoot the ball. You can finish at the rim … It’s everything in between that you’ve got to work on.”
Oni responded well, developing his play and dropping 52 points in one game against Kentucky commit Wenyen Gabriel and his Wilbraham Monson teammates. He acclimated to life on the East Coast, trained before dawn with former Suffield strength coach Harry Melendez and incorporated feedback from both Depelteau and the nearby Yale basketball staff on how to improve his game.
Oni discussed the Yale offense with Kingsley on the phone for about two hours one time and asked his future coaches to send along game film to pair with clips he found on YouTube.
“I didn’t want anything to hold me back basically from playing right away,” Oni said. “I didn’t want to be that freshman that didn’t know the plays, so I made sure I was on top of that stuff.”
Once he got to Yale, consistent improvement helped him impact virtually every facet of the team’s game. Oni averaged 12.9 points a game as a first year and scored 24 in his first game as an Eli, a season-opening win at Washington. There, NBA scouts watching future No. 1 overall pick Markelle Fultz likely first took note of Oni. He started 28 of 29 games as a first year, earning five Ivy League Rookie of the Week awards and an invitation to the Nike Skills Academy the summer before his sophomore season. Former professionals Rasheed Wallace and Robert Pack helped coach the camp, and Oni learned how several pros approached their basketball at the Nike Academy.
“This is what I want to do for hopefully the next 20 years, so I know I have to put the time in,” Oni said.
After the Nike camp and another successful season that saw Oni receive Yale’s MVP award and a unanimous selection to the All-Ivy First Team, his summer workout routine reached a new intensity. From 6:00 a.m. skill workouts in the San Fernando Valley to daily physical therapy at Live Athletics in Thousand Oaks, Oni was regimented, making sure to grab breakfast at Chick-fil-A most mornings in between. He focused on addressing specific weaknesses with each workout, making them shorter and more efficient. He’s seen NBA players like Jimmy Butler, whom Oni said starts his workouts with lifts at 4 a.m. and shooting at 5 a.m., and Victor Oladipo completing their own early summer workouts. “Seeing them finishing up a workout, that’s what you’re supposed to do.”
Oni transported his early-morning habit to Yale this past fall, occasionally driving from Benjamin Franklin College to John. J Lee Amphitheater for sunrise workouts in the offseason.
“He’s gentle. He’s kind. He’s a little shy. He’s a little reticent,” Franklin Dean Jessie Hill said of Oni’s off-court presence. “I think he really looks to the residential college as a place to be off-duty. He’s just like a big kid there, you know, with his bowls of cereal and kind of low profile. He’s never the center of attention when he’s in the college environment.”
Hill explained that Oni, who has played under bright stadium lights at arenas from Shanghai and Memphis to Jacksonville and Miami this season, may not have time to appear at most college events or teas, but he dutifully appears at any Chick-fil-A study break she sponsors.
Kingsley estimated at least two-thirds of the NBA’s 30 franchises sent personnel to watch Oni live at either practice or a game this season.
The Golden State Warriors dispatched scout Mike Dunleavy Jr. to sit courtside during Yale’s win over Columbia. Boston Celtics general manager Danny Ainge did the same when the Bulldogs visited Harvard, simultaneously watching his Celtics play the Knicks at Madison Square Garden with AirPods and a smartphone. More than 10 scouts took in that contest against the Crimson, and a little less than two dozen received credentials to attend the conference tournament Ivy Madness in mid-March.
Kevin Stacom, a Mavericks scout based in Rhode Island, said the NBA attention Oni has garnered is rare but not completely unprecedented for an Ivy League hooper. Despite going undrafted, Harvard’s Jeremy Lin, who remains the only active Ancient Eight alumnus in the NBA, generated some buzz during his senior year in 2010. Cornell guard Matt Morgan and Brown guard Desmond Cambridge drew scouts to some of their games this season. Recent Yale alumni, such as two-time Ivy League Player of the Year Justin Sears ’16, attracted similar interest, along with current forward Jordan Bruner ’20, but coaches said the attention on Oni has been more intense.
Guard Alex Copeland ’19 was proud to hear his teammate declare for the draft on a Friday morning in late March. “Obviously as basketball players, we all were five-year-old kids that would write in class … ‘I want to be an NBA basketball player, I want to be a pro.’”
If drafted, Oni would become the first Ivy League player chosen since the Minnesota Timberwolves selected former Penn shooting guard and current Boston Celtics assistant Jerome Allen with the 49th pick in 1995. NBA franchises have only ever drafted seven Yale alumni — most recently Chris Dudley ’87 and Butch Graves ’84 — and none since the league adapted its current two-round format in 1989.
In declaring, Oni emphasized that he had made arrangements to complete his degree if he did indeed decide to leave Yale and commit to the draft. Especially towards the end of the season, Jones — who said he, Miye and Oni’s father Dot discussed the draft throughout the year despite keeping the talk at a minimum — continually complimented Oni’s concentration on college basketball and Yale’s successful season.
By the time No. 3-seeded LSU had eliminated No. 14-seeded Yale from the NCAA tournament, Oni’s Ivy League Player of the Year season had practically made the decision for him. The star guard broke out for a career-high 29 points in a comeback December win over Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) squad Miami and scored 31 (and grabbed nine rebounds) in a big win at Dartmouth in February. And in Yale’s next game against Princeton, he did it again, scoring 35 points (plus 12 rebounds) to increase his own career best for the third time this season. After guiding Yale onto college basketball’s biggest stage, Oni declaring for the draft early in order to test his professional chances made sense.
In 2011, Jones said he suggested Greg Mangano ’12 declare early after the forward’s junior season before he removed his name before the deadline. Guard Makai Mason ’18 did the same after his sophomore year. Cornell’s Morgan declared as an early entrant the past two years before returning to the Big Red both times. Declaring early, coaches agreed, allows prospects to field professional interest, collect feedback from the NBA Undergraduate Advisory Committee on their projected draft position and increase their own name recognition.
Even though Oni has signed with sports agent Harrison Gaines of SLASH Sports, he could still return to Yale. New NCAA policies updated late last summer allow basketball players who sign agents to maintain their collegiate eligibility by requesting an evaluation from the Undergraduate Advisory Committee. If Oni is not satisfied with the prediction he receives, he can withdraw from the draft and return to Yale for his senior season up until May 29. The 2019 NBA draft occurs on Thursday, June 20 at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
Immediately after Oni declared, Jones told the News he would drive the wing to New York himself if NBA teams project taking him between one and 40. But “if he’s someone that they’re thinking is going to be from 45 to 60,” Jones said, “most of those young men end up in the G League, and it would probably be better for him to come back to Yale and graduate in his normal time.”
On the eve of the NCAA tournament, ESPN’s Mike Schmitz and Givony predicted Oni as 51st (of 60 total draft picks), and The Athletic ranked him as high as 39th. Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski, meanwhile, declared him a first-round pick — before complimenting Oni on his grades as the teams shook hands postgame — when Yale played at Cameron Indoor Stadium in December. In any case, scouts have already begun their research.
“These teams invest so much in their draft picks that they ask a million questions,” Simon said. “And what’s nice is that Miye is such a great kid that you can give them the straight truth. He’s phenomenal. He’s a worker. He’s a good practice guy, pushes his teammates.”
While some might assume playing in the Ivy League as opposed to facing lottery picks in the ACC detracts significantly from a prospect’s stock, many teams might actually see the maturity and off-court development Oni has amassed in the Ivy League as a positive. Oni, an August baby, was always young for his grade until he reclassified at Suffield, but he would enter the NBA draft as one of its oldest prospects among several “one-and-done” players that spend one season in college before playing professionally.
But no matter what he decides this spring, Jones, and many others at Yale, will be excited.
Benefitting from another season of production that ranked top 10 in nearly every Ivy League statistical category this past year? Fantastic.
And hearing Oni’s name called in June?
“It’s a wonderful thing for all of us,” Jones said. “Miye told me years ago that he wanted to try to get to the NBA as soon as he could, and my job is to try to help him get there as soon as he can. If you had a science student who had a cure for cancer, are you gonna hold them back? If you had a violinist or a dancer or an artist? No, you don’t hold true greatness back. You allow true greatness to flourish and move on and do whatever it is that they intend to do.”