Alex Oriakhi, left, and Jamal Coombs-McDaniel comprise UConn's entire 2009 recruiting class.
Teammates Oriakhi, Coombs-McDaniel Have Taken Different Routes To Stardom
By Ryan Canner-O'Mealy
It's 7 a.m. on a cold winter morning and two of New England's best basketball players are getting ready for another long day.
For the next 16 hours, seniors Alex Oriakhi and Jamal Coombs-McDaniel, Massachusetts natives playing at New Hampshire's Tilton School, will go through a rigorous schedule planned nearly to the minute.
From the time school starts at 8 a.m. until lights out at 11 p.m., the day is filled with classes, practice, weightlifting and mandatory study hall. When they get a free minute, these roommates and best friends will fight over PS3 or get a glimpse of their future by watching college ball on TV.
"They're like brothers," fourth-year Tilton coach Marcus O'Neil says.
The 6-foot-9, 240-pound Oriakhi is rated the nation's No. 19 recruit in the ESPNU 100, while the 6-foot-7, 215-pound Coombs-McDaniel checks in at No. 32. They've been committed to UConn for nearly three years, since before they first joined forces at Winchendon while still playing in Massachusetts.
Both players had bounced from school to school before finding a home at Tilton as juniors. Already known as two of the region's premier players, they flourished last year, leading Tilton to the NEPSAC Class B title.
Oriakhi averaged 18 points, 12 rebounds and four blocks per game, while Coombs-McDaniel went for 24 points, nine boards and three dimes per contest.
Inseparable for the last three years, they each have their own style of play -- the defensive-minded Oriakhi dominating down low, the versatile Coombs-McDaniel aggressively driving to the basket -- and distinct paths brought them together.
When Coombs-McDaniel was living in Roxbury as an eighth-grader, his cousin's older brother, who lived just a floor below him, was murdered.
"That was the turning point for myself and his mother when we said, 'We've gotta get out of here,'" Jamal's father, Pernell McDaniel, says.
The family moved to Dorchester, but that wasn't much safer. So when AAU coaches broached the idea of a prep school, Pernell and his wife, Sonya Coombs, were ready to listen. Once they realized scholarships and financial aid could take care of the hefty tuition (north of $40,000 these days), Coombs-McDaniel was off. He spent a year at Lawrence Academy, then went to Winchendon as a sophomore before ending up at Tilton.
Pernell and Sonya haven't regretted the decision for a minute.
"When he's at school and not home, I can sleep well at night," Pernell says.
Oriakhi doesn't have quite as dramatic a tale. The Lowell native went the prep school route because his AAU coach thought it would help him get ready for college -- both academically and athletically. With his parents on board, Oriakhi spent his freshman year at Brooks, then met up with Coombs-McDaniel at Winchendon and hasn't looked back.
Before the dynamic duo stepped foot on Tilton's campus, O'Neil knew he was getting a couple of superstars. He had seen Oriakhi in various local tournaments and had faced Coombs-McDaniel in NEPSAC play two years prior, so he realized a pair of program-changing athletes was on the way.
"Alex looked like a monster in the making," O'Neil says. "And Jamal was a take-charge kind of guy. He's the type of kid who willed your team to victory."
With a couple years of prep school experience behind them, there was none of the culture shock that often accompanies a move from the city to middle-of-nowhere New Hampshire.
"They were comfortable with everything that was expected of them and were able to hit the ground running," O'Neil says.
And as always, they motivated each other. They're both fierce competitors, and the thought of falling behind the other kept each in the gym and weight room when they might have preferred to be sleeping or playing video games.
Their pick-up battles became legendary for their intensity.
"There's probably not one possession where we don't foul each other," Coombs-McDaniel says.
Oriakhi has a more one-sided take on that: "He fouls the hell out of me every time I get the ball down low," the big man says.
Once the games end, the fighting stops. But lessons have been learned. Oriakhi, a power forward, has become quicker and a better outside shooter thanks to all the time spent on the perimeter guarding his teammate. And Coombs-McDaniel, a small forward, has become tougher and stronger as a result of banging in the paint with Oriakhi.
Then they turn the competitive fire they display against each on their opponents. It doesn't matter if you're facing them at an elite national showcase like the LeBron James Skills Academy or a preseason scrimmage: When the ball goes up, Oriakhi and Coombs-McDaniel are coming to get you.
That was never more evident than in last year's matchup against Winchendon. Feeling they should have gotten more playing time at their former school as sophomores, Oriakhi and Coombs-McDaniel played as if they had something to prove.
Four quarters and 64 points later, their point was made.
Coombs-McDaniel scored a game-high 33 points to go along with eight rebounds, while Oriakhi added 31 points, 12 boards and four blocks in an 82-76 triumph. "The thing that separates them is that they live for those games," O'Neil says.
Even though their high school careers are winding down, the journey is just beginning. Next year, Oriakhi and Coombs-McDaniel will stay in New England and play at UConn. They raised some eyebrows when they committed before starting their sophomore years -- the youngest players in Jim Calhoun's tenure to do so -- but their pledges have stayed firm.
With the long-awaited trip to Storrs rapidly approaching, Oriakhi and Coombs-McDaniel are looking to the future. As they sit in their room and talk between games of NBA Live or ESPN doubleheaders, they dream about starring for the Huskies and possibly collecting NBA paychecks after that.
Pretty soon the PS3 and TV will be shut off and the lights will go out. Because 7 a.m. is right around the corner and another full day of work awaits.
Ryan Canner-O'Mealy writes for ESPN RISE magazine and ESPNRISE.com.