“I couldn’t sleep. There were times I couldn’t stop thinking about it.”
“I got through it by playing basketball. Sometimes I would be in the gym at two in the morning. That would be my escape.”
Elijah Olaniyi is one of seven children and the first of his family to be a natural born citizen of the United States after his parents moved from Nigeria. He’s also a talented basketball player who earned Freshman of the Year honors in the America East last season, helping the Stony Brook Seawolves find its footing in year-two of the Jeff Boals era.
He’s beyond being defined as just a basketball player, though. He’s person capable of speaking both Spanish and French — to a varying degree of success, at his own admission. Olaniyi even has a few videos of himself on YouTube performing sign language for a class he’s taking at school.
It’s a two-part class. He has yet to take the second, but earned an A in the first half.
“I didn’t start playing organized basketball until eighth grade,” Elijah Olaniyi told CBB Today. “It wasn’t until my gym teacher noticed I was pretty good that I started playing. He pointed me in the direction of AAU basketball.”
Olaniyi wasn’t even a blip on the college basketball recruiting radar for most of his high school career. Barely playing as a freshman, college programs didn’t notice him until the summer live session his junior year. He could as easily be playing outside of Division I, but those who witnessed his growth last season clearly know he belongs.
“He’s a great young man who has grown up a lot in his one year at Stony Brook,” Jeff Boals told CBB Today. “He’s unique in a way of setting goals outside of academics and basketball. He never grew up around a pool and didn’t know how to swim, so he is getting lessons from our strength coach who is also a certified lifeguard.”
Eager and willing to learn, Olaniyi managed to grow from an unknown commodity into one of the AEC’s quickest rising talents. He’s shown it on the court, off it, and nearly everywhere else between. If there’s something he wants to do, whether it is with help or by way of his own tuition, he’ll figure out a way to get it done.
A 6-foot-4 combo-talent, Olaniyi’s freshman numbers don’t scream future superstar. Having finished the 2017-18 season averaging 7.8 points and 3.8 rebounds per game, it’s understandable if those who have not seen him play fail to appreciate what he brought to the Seawolves.
It would also be an opinion void of context.
“I lost my mother going into my freshman year,” Elijah Olaniyi, choking up, recalled. “She was with me through everything. She’d go to all my games, be with me for my recruiting, everything. My mother was everything to me.”
Olaniyi discussed how difficult it was, away from basketball, to make that transition to Stony Brook without the help of his mother. How, with basketball as his escape, taking the first huge step to adulthood, attempting to reach that next-level, was even harder for him.
He wasn’t talking about basketball. Olaniyi was discussing life.
“I didn’t know much about Stony Brook before being recruited,” Olaniyi said. “I knew about him [Jameel Warney], but it wasn’t until they made me a priority did I realize how good of a school it is and how much I could accomplish going there.”
“If [turning pro] never happens, I’d like to be involved in the game still. I major in business. I’d try to use that to stay close to the game.”
Olaniyi, a high energy player who is a pester on the defensive end, had his breakout game early last year against the Michigan State Spartans. His first three games as a freshman lacked any sign of promise, with the young man only combining for 12 points in 42 total minutes during that span of time.
“I started to doubt myself [after the first three games]. I started to wonder if I was cut out for this. And then, one of our assistants, Geno Ford, asked me if I was going to show up for that game. If I was going to play like they knew I could play.”
Against Tom Izzo’s famed Spartans he shined, finishing the game with 16 points, making all but one of his four shots from beyond the arc.
That wasn’t the end of his excellent freshman season, either.
Boals told CBB Today how he finished his inaugural campaign defending UMBC star Jairus Lyles, who is closing in on making the Utah Jazz’s roster, well — Stony Brook gave the Retrievers their last loss prior to making NCAA Tournament history by becoming the first 16-seed to upset a No. 1.
Lyles averaged over 20 points per game last season. While he still managed to put up 18 against the Seawolves, it took him 22 shots, making only six of those (1-for-7 from beyond the arc), to accomplish a task that usually came easy for him.
If you’re trying to summarize what makes Olaniyi special, on the court at least, it’s that. He’s a tenacious defender. An attribute that’s not lost on him.
“This season, I have a personal goal of making the All-Conference team, and being the Defensive Player of the Year,” a confident Elijah Olaniyi said of his goals. “We’re going to be young next season, but people don’t understand the guys we having coming back. I’m hoping to use my experience to help be a leader, but we have guys like Akwasi Yeboah who can go off.”
Sounds like a lot for a sophomore who is barely 12 months removed from being only a two-star recruit. There’s naturally going to be doubters. Then again, that wouldn’t be anything new for the Seawolves player.
“One day, he told me he was going to choose an instrument, which ended up being the trombone, and taught himself in 30 days how to play it,” Boals told me, describing Olaniyi’s undying thirst to learn and improve in every aspect of life.
Sign language. French and Spanish. Learning how to swim.
Starting out as an under-recruited high school prospect, but somehow turning into his league’s Freshman of the Year. Deciding to learn an instrument, choosing which one, getting that done in a month.
Coping with the loss of his mother during the most important part of his life, then still being able to excel.
If Elijah Olaniyi says he has a goal he wants to reach, no matter the scope in size or how daunting, he’s going to obtain it… everything else can merely be damned the moment he decides to take it on.
Joseph Nardone has been covering college basketball for nearly a decade for various outlets in a variety of ways. You can follow him on Twitter @JosephNardone.