Sophomore forward Elijah Olaniyi in a game against Maryland on Nov. 10, 2017. Last year Olaniyi won the America East Conference Rookie of the Year. ARACELY JIMENEZ/STATESMAN FILE

Sophomore forward Elijah Olaniyi has already proven himself as a floor general in his short Stony Brook Men’s Basketball career. Olaniyi stood out in his freshman season, finishing with 249 points in 713 minutes and eventually won the America East Conference Rookie of the Year. While he has excelled on the floor recently, Olaniyi has not always exerted himself.

Olaniyi struggled as a high school freshman to fit in at his charter school. There was no basketball team and he often ended up getting in trouble in class. His parents reached out to Bryant Garvin, the dean of restorative practices at Newark East Side High School in Newark, New Jersey, inquiring about transferring their son.

“His parents would say Elijah’s experience would be better in public school,” Garvin said. “The charter school was extremely strict. They would give him detention just for looking the wrong way and [they enforced] ridiculous life skills that would never happen in the real world.”

Elijah transferred to Newark East Side the following semester and joined the basketball team co-led by Garvin and coach Anthony Tavares. He picked up the game quickly, earning the reputation of being a fearless player who put his body in the line of fire to earn rebounds and score.

“The one thing that separated him was that he was a tremendous hard worker,” Tavares said. “He was not afraid of doing the things needed to get on the court as a sophomore, which was getting rebounds and scoring. As the years went along, he started to improve his skill set, he started to improve his jump shot and his ball handling, which allowed him to get [accepted to] Stony Brook University.”  

The Red Raiders turned to Olaniyi to lead at both ends as he recorded 928 points and grabbed 588 rebounds in 87 games during his tenure. He played an influential role in contributing to the team’s two county championships in 2014 and 2017 and a state title in 2015.

“He was a floor leader,” Garvin said. “He learned from the upperclassmen while he was there and became more of a general leader [both on and off the court]. I have nothing but a lot of respect for him — the sky’s the limit.”

Olaniyi entered Stony Brook with a championship background but quickly learned the difference between the high school and college victory mentality.

“Winning in high school is a lot different than winning in college,” Olaniyi said. “Some teams you knew you were going to win by 20 and just handle your business. In college, you can literally lose to anybody on any given night. Trying to build a championship culture here is the same principles [as Newark] of buying in and believing in your coach.”

Olaniyi smoothly transitioned to the collegiate basketball level early last season, most notably against the No. 2-ranked Michigan State Spartans. He was a key performer coming off the bench and led the team with 12 points along with a steal to keep the score close in the first half. Olaniyi led the Seawolves with 16 points and four rebounds in what would be a losing effort to the Spartans but impressed both coaches and his teammates.

“I think after his performance at [Michigan State University] last season we no longer looked at him as a rookie,” former teammate Tyrell Sturdivant said. “We looked at him as someone who could help us right away with his energy and effort. He brought that every night in so many ways last year and he overcame challenges and earned our trust.”

One of Olaniyi’s strengths is his enduring ability to get open and knock down shots around the court. The forward’s swiftness in evading defenders resulted in him shooting 45.5 percent from the field last year. He won four America East Rookie of the Week awards before ultimately being named the conference Rookie of the Year. While humbled by the accolades, the sophomore has remained determined to reach his utmost potential for the team’s benefits.

“I try not to look at [the] accolades,” Olaniyi said. “If I can lead the team and get us to the championship, the accolades will come after.”

That championship drive only motivated Olaniyi to progress faster over the offseason. He improved on shooting and gained muscle to become a more imposing figure defensively on the hardwood.

“Elijah has gained 20 pounds of muscle since last year,” head coach Jeff Boals said. “He is a different player physically, which gives him confidence. He really worked hard on his shot and defensively he was phenomenal last year.”

The hard work has already paid off, as shown in the 2018-19 season opener against George Washington. His 15-point second half woke up a sluggish Seawolves team that began the contest down 22-0 in the first. Olaniyi knocked down two clutch free throws with 0.5 seconds left to bring the score to 63-61 before redshirt-junior guard/forward Akwasi Yeboah tied the game at the end of regulation. Stony Brook went on to pick up the upset victory, 77-74.  

“Going into the half, I told the team ‘let’s cut this to five,’” Olaniyi said. “I knew it was far fetched but we cut it gradually, but then we cut it to five and I said ‘let’s cut this to two.’ A part of that was everybody just listening and buying in.”

Olaniyi exemplifies the traits needed to lead the growing team to a championship, something that the coaches from his novice years have preached.

“Corral everyone and put everyone on your shoulders like [Michael] Jordan would and your biggest accomplishment will be winning the tournament,” Garvin said.  

Olaniyi’s transition into leadership comes at a time when the Seawolves are rebuilding their lineup with a focus on younger players. Ten freshmen and sophomores make up the majority of the team, but their ability to buy into the system exudes confidence in a successful season.