When Joel Awich arrived at Cal Poly five years ago, Joe Callero and the Mustangs’ coaching staff knew they were taking a chance on a relatively unproven player with tremendous upside.
Rated as a two-star recruit coming out of Tartan High School in Oakdale, Minn. — about 10 miles east of St. Paul — the lanky forward with the kind of leaping ability that can’t be taught was overlooked by every major program outside of San Luis Obispo.
Awich accepted his only Division I scholarship offer the summer following his senior year at Tartan, thanks in part to a strong showing at an AAU tournament in Anaheim where former Cal Poly recruiting coordinator Omar Lowery was in attendance.
Though he didn’t begin playing organized basketball until the ninth grade, Awich developed into a difference maker during Tartan’s run to the Minnesota Class 4A section championship game as a senior. He was named the team’s most improved player three times, a trait that’s made him a pillar of Cal Poly’s recent success.
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In nine games this season, the 6-foot-7, 217-pound Awich is averaging a career-best 13.2 points and 6.1 rebounds per contest. He earned his first Big West Conference Player of the Week award in November, and was selected as the Maui Invitational Regional Round MVP the same week.
The 91 shots he’s blocked in 94 career games ranks third in school history, and Awich has led the team in that category four consecutive seasons.
“I think his consistency this year has helped our team so much,” junior point guard Ridge Shipley said. “I don’t think Joel cares much about whether he went off, had a double-double or he had 50 points or didn’t miss a shot. He’s not worried about anything.”
Awich has scored in double figures in seven of Cal Poly’s first nine games, including six straight times to start the year. His offensive production has nearly doubled each season, averaging 2.6 points as a freshman, 4.1 as a sophomore and 8.7 as a junior.
It’s the kind of upward trend Callero hoped to see when he offered the springy kid from the other side of the country a chance to compete in the Big West. Yet it wasn’t always clear how far Awich would be willing to push.
“I questioned whether he was ever really going to make it as a player, because I didn’t see the drive in him,” Callero said. “He and I had a great talk at the end of his freshman year. … It’s got to be something he wants. I can’t want him to be a great player.”
A different perspective
To fully understand Awich’s calm, even passive demeanor, perhaps it’s necessary to consider where he came from.
Awich was born in Nairobi, the capital city of Kenya and one of the 15 largest cities in Africa, with a population greater than 3.1 million. At 8 years old, he and his sister, Audrey, made the nearly 3,800-mile trip from Nairobi to Geneva, Switzerland, to live with their grandmother.
That meant leaving behind the country where Awich’s mother, Lynette, played basketball for the Kenyan national team, to live in Europe, where soccer was the sport of choice.
After spending four years in the Swiss educational system, the Awich family moved to the United States and set up roots in Minnesota as Lynette pursued a job opportunity in nursing. Awich entered the eighth grade at 5-foot-11 and, with his mother’s support, he started developing into a standout on the court.
“That first winter, that was rough,” Awich said. “My mom was like, ‘You’re going to want two, maybe three jackets.’ I thought she was just kidding. I went out there the first day and I was like, ‘What is going on?’ ”
Playing for the Minnesota Pump N Run on the AAU circuit, Awich got a taste of what life would eventually be like in college by traveling to elite tournaments across the country.
Described by former teammates and coaches as a “late bloomer,” Awich found a way to do one thing every year: get better.
“It’s been pretty amazing to watch,” former teammate Drew Preiner said in a 2011 interview with The Star Tribune. “He’s improved more than anybody I’ve ever seen. He takes everything in that you try and tell him and teach him, and he takes it to heart.”
Worth the wait
Asked what the biggest difference is between 18-year-old Joel Awich and the now 22-year-old version — besides the roughly 30 pounds of muscle that he’s packed on — Awich points to his aggression on the court.
“When I first came here, I was super quiet, super timid,” Awich said. “When I got the ball, I would be like a toss-back machine.”
Blocked shots and thunderous alley-oop dunks have become commonplace in Awich’s senior season. He benefits from the faster pace Cal Poly has instilled, and the Mustangs’ front court depth with Brian Bennett, Zach Gordon and Luke Meikle looks as productive as any unit in the Big West this winter.
Callero said the senior’s all-around commitment to becoming a better player has been five years in the making. The coaches “started seeing flashes his second year,” and as a redshirt sophomore he was matching up with former first-team all-conference forward Chris Eversley in practice on a daily basis.
Awich overcame a slow start as a junior to become one of the Mustangs’ most consistent performers in conference play, part of a mental shift that Cal Poly needed sooner rather than later.
“We need you to shoot. We need you to drive. We need you to rebound. We need you to act like a go-to guy,” Callero said. “And now he does it, for the most part, without thinking too much.”
Based on Awich’s short basketball history, it would come as no surprise to see him playing in a professional capacity after graduating with his degree in sociology. Callero told The Las Vegas Review-Journal the senior forward already has generated some interest with his size and athleticism.
“NBA scouts have asked about him. He’s certainly not a draft-pick guy,” Callero said. “But when he’s aggressive, he can play with anybody nationally.”
If Awich’s professional future is at all predicated on Cal Poly’s team success this season, he has plenty of reason to feel optimistic.
The Mustangs played two close games with perennial NCAA Tournament teams UCLA and UNLV in mid-November and picked up a signature nonconference victory over Fresno State on Dec. 5.
Cal Poly’s nonconference schedule still includes matchups against USC and Texas A&M before the start of Big West play in three weeks. That’s likely where Awich could cement his status as a professional prospect and help guide the Mustangs back to the NCAA Tournament.
“This year’s team, we have all the tools,” Awich said. “I think we can do something special.”