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Here to Work

CORAL GABLES, Fla. – From the time he was a child, Elijah Olaniyi’s parents taught him the value of hard work.

The newest member of the University of Miami men’s basketball program, Olaniyi is not only a first-generation American, but is the first of his siblings born in the United States.

His father, Festus, immigrated to America over three decades ago to begin working. A few years later, Elijah’s mother, Ruth, joined her husband and brought their three children.

The couple had four kids after coming to the United States, the first of whom, Elijah, was born Jan. 11, 1999, in Brooklyn, N.Y.

“My parents migrating to America has always been motivation for me . . . because you see how hard they work and I feel like that’s always the lesson you learn from being a first-generation [American],” Olaniyi shared. “Them working so hard to get themselves here and put their children in a better situation only makes you want to work harder. So, I feel, my dad now still works hard. He [is in his] late 50’s and sometimes I try to tell him, ‘Relax.’ It’s just the way he’s wired, is just to work hard.”

Olaniyi’s parents emphasized the value of academics and attaining good grades, but that same work ethic also carried over to him in other ventures.

Although one of his older brothers, Samson, played football, not all members of his family took up athletic competition and Elijah was the first to pursue basketball.

“It was like, if I’m going to play basketball then I’m going to play hard, I’m going to do it the right way,” Olaniyi said. “I’m going to put my best foot forward and that’s been instilled in me since I was kid.”

Years later, that work ethic and drive were evident to Miami head coach Jim Larrañaga when he evaluated Olaniyi—both on and off the court.

Of the several hundred players in the transfer portal this spring, the Hurricanes recruited just a handful. Olaniyi was one of those few, in part due to that mentality imparted to him by his parents.

“Absolutely, that [work ethic] was one thing that really stuck out. When we talked to Elijah, his whole focus was on improving his game well enough to get to the NBA,” Larrañaga shared. “And despite the fact that he had three very good years at Stony Brook and that he improved each year, from eight to 12 to 18 points a game, he still felt like he had another level that he could get to and that the best way for him to do that was to transfer to a high-major program like Miami of the ACC.”

The Hurricanes were one of many teams to show interest in the 6-foot-5, 205-pound guard and had to fend off several quality programs to land him. Arkansas, DePaul, Minnesota, Nevada, Western Kentucky and Xavier were all among the schools that contacted the 2019-20 First Team All-America East performer.

“When I say I was on Zoom calls and FaceTime calls and real calls for a week straight—like, my dad was asking me, ‘Who are you on the phone with?'” Olaniyi recalled with a laugh. “It’s literally like as soon as my name went in the portal, my phone started going crazy. So, I’d get off the phone or be in the middle of a conversation and another call would be coming in and I’d have to call back, end up being on the phone for 30, 40 minutes, just hearing everything the coach [has] got to say. While that conversation is going on, another call is coming.”

Although this recruiting process was unique since the COVID-19 pandemic prevented him from taking visits, Olaniyi felt comfortable handling it due to the experience he gained going through it while at Newark East Side (N.J.) High School.

In fact, another person Olaniyi spent time on the phone with was Uron Hawkins, one of his coaches with the Red Raiders.

“I knew what I was looking for in a school, I understand how college basketball works,” Olaniyi said. “So, I feel like that helped me when I was going into this process and I could see past some of the fluff some coaches were telling me and I knew the correct questions to ask to get what I wanted out of them. So, that helped me narrow my [list to make a] decision quickly.”

Ultimately, within a week of entering the transfer portal, Olaniyi’s choice came down to just two options: Miami and Xavier.

He felt drawn to those to programs, as their staffs were the only ones with all the coaches recruiting him together. The Hurricanes eventually won out and received a commitment from the prized transfer.

“The coaching staff and just the overall opportunity to get myself to where I eventually want to get to and that’s the NBA,” Olaniyi said of why he selected the Hurricanes. “So, that ended up really setting Miami apart from the other schools that recruited me, just what Coach Larrañaga has done in the past and the players he’s sent to the League. Players that have excelled in his system have been able to go to the League.”

Miami, meanwhile, was thrilled to land the two-time all-league honoree. Olanyi fit exactly what the Hurricanes were looking for in a transfer, both with his abilities on the court and in other areas.

“The first thing in recruiting is always identifying what your needs are and what we wanted—what we very specifically needed—was a veteran player who was willing sit out a year and then become available and eligible after he had already learned our system and could be a leader from day one,” Larrañaga said. “And the best thing for us would be to get a transfer who came in as a fourth-year senior, redshirted that year and then came back as a fifth-year senior to earn his Master’s degree and Elijah fell right into that category. Now, that’s what we were looking for.

“In addition to that, we were looking for someone who had already produced a high level of scoring production at his previous school and he fit both categories. He was interested in sitting out a year and learning a new system, he had one year of eligibility, which meant he was an upperclassman with a lot of experience and he had averaged 18 points a game at his previous school at a position that we’re going to graduate a number of guys.”

Two things the coaching staff really liked about Olaniyi were his athleticism and positional size, factors Larrañaga feels are the key aspects in determining whether a player can make a successful transition from a mid-major program to the Power Five level.

Olaniyi also brings to Coral Gables some previous success against high-profile teams. He scored 28 points at Providence, 14 at Seton Hall and 11 at Virginia as a junior. The prior season he tallied 16 in a victory at South Carolina and 13 at USF. Even as a freshman, in just the third game of his career, Olaniyi posted 16 points at Michigan State.

“I feel like I’ve never shied away from the moment and, at the end of the day, once you get on the court, it’s just, you got to play,” Olaniyi shared. “So, it does help knowing I’ve had prior success against high-major teams, but I know I’m stepping into a new challenge facing that kind of talent every night. And that’s why I just want to work my tail off this sit-out year and be able to really perform at a level I know I can when I step back on the court.”

Olaniyi plans to use the 2020-21 campaign to “work on all parts” of his game, noting he hopes to turn his weaknesses into strengths while also improving his strong points even more.

At the same time, Larrañaga knows Olaniyi will be able to aid the Hurricanes even while he is ineligible to play, just as his teammates will be able to assist him in getting better.

“The way he’ll help us this season is by learning our system and then challenging the players that we have that will compete this year and prepare them for games. The harder he practices, the better he practices, the better he’ll be preparing this year’s team to be successful,” Larrañaga said. “And then, the reverse of that is our players need to be pushing him and challenging him in the areas that he needs to improve.”

In terms of where he needs the most work, Olaniyi identifies his ability to make plays for others. Although he feels capable and considers himself a “willing passer,” that attribute is not one he has ever been asked to excel at and he hopes to show he is capable of doing so.

A 2019-20 NABC First Team All-District selection, Olaniyi labels himself as a Swiss Army Knife on the hardwood, citing his abilities to score, rebound, defend and distribute.

“As a player, I feel people should expect somebody that will literally do anything to win and has won in the past,” Olaniyi said. “[I do] know what it takes to win.”

While Olaniyi is unsure exactly when he will get to Coral Gables due to the pandemic, he will be ready to work from the moment he steps foot on campus.

After all, Olaniyi has been working hard since he was a little kid. His parents would not have it any other way.