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GAITHERSBURG – He may be just a sophomore, but guard Jao Ituka has changed the game for the Gaithersburg High School’s boys’ basketball team and Montgomery County’s public high school hoops scene. Which is why he is the Montgomery County Sentinel’s Player of the Year.
The role Ituka played in Gaithersburg’s last two successful seasons cannot be understated. Ituka has scored over 1,000 points so far, reaching the milestone in an 81-70 win against Wootton High School in the second leg of the state playoffs this season. The game also saw Ituka post a game-high 36 points, above his 24.6 points per game average.
“It means a lot,” said Ituka about reaching the 1,000-point milestone after the win on March 4. “It means hard work and dedication paid off. In two seasons, I was able to put the ball in the basket a lot.”
Ituka forced teams to be versatile when defending him and to factor his jack-of-all-trades playing style. He is as capable of shooting 3-pointers from the perimeter just as much as he is willing to drive to the rim and dunk the ball. A quick Google search for Ituka’s basketball mixtapes will result in gratuitous shots of Ituka’s signature breakaways, leaving hapless defenses in the dust as he prepares to throw down another dunk.
“He’s one of the best players I’ve ever seen,” said Damascu sophomore Chris Shaw, Ituka’s former teammate. “Great athlete. He’s going to do big things.”
Ituka alone is a threat for most teams but combined with teammate and fellow sophomore guard Jordan Hawkins, the duo becomes trouble for many teams. Gaithersburg Head Coach Jeffrey Holda said that Ituka intimidates his opponents, and other teams have to plan ahead when facing Ituka and Hawkins.
Both players combined for 40 points against Damascus on Dec. 17, 2018. In that game, Ituka made 24 points and Hawkins scored 16.
Holda pointed out that Ituka is more than his offense. In his freshman year, he led the team in rebounds while standing little over six feet tall. He may not be as tall as some of Montgomery County’s big men, but he’s certainly not the shortest.
It’s not all flamboyant displays for the camera though: with Ituka’s performance came a leadership role he was ready to embrace.
“Once his freshman year was up, he became the leader of the team,” said Holda. “He is always trying to get better.”
According to Holda, Ituka’s work ethic was well rewarded with his season’s performance. He would watch his own film, game film and the films of players he emulates, like star point guard Russell Westbrook of the Oklahoma City Thunder. Holda says his discipline has kept him out of foul trouble and as a result, Ituka has only fouled out once in his two years of high school basketball.
“Every time I see a lane, I take it,” said Ituka.“I’m pretty explosive off the dribble. I don’t think anyone can stop me one-on-one, so when I’m heading off to the basket, I’m pretty much going to score 50-percent of the time.”
Gaithersburg ended their season in heartbreaking fashion as an overtime loss to Richard Montgomery ended their hopes of capturing the 4A West Regional title. Ituka will have another chance to lead the Trojans to championship glory next year.