Duke’s Jahlil Okafor takes his place among ACC giants

Duke’s Jahlil Okafor ready to take his place among ACC giants.
Duke’s Jahlil Okafor ready to take his place among ACC giants. cliddy@newsobserver.com

Less than a mile from the home of the Chicago Bulls, on the Near West Side of the city, sits Whitney M. Young Magnet High, Jahlil Okafor’s alma mater. His name is on a wall in the gym, on one of 10 banners representing each of the school’s high school All-Americans. A banner for his Illinois Mr. Basketball award – with a blue background and a cut-out of the state of Illinois in orange – was temporarily down this winter to correct an error.

Not far from that empty spot is another one that has been earmarked for another potential Okafor banner: one celebrating his No. 1 overall selection in the NBA draft.

Tyrone Slaughter, the coach at Whitney Young, expects to place that order. He has seen Okafor dominate at every level since he first met him 6 inches and six years ago, when Okafor was in seventh grade. Slaughter has seen that trend continue at Duke, and he sees no reason to believe anything will be different in the NBA.

“Yeah, the players are faster, they run faster, they jump higher – he’ll get it,” Slaughter said before setting up and destroying a series of straw men.

“He did it in high school. He shot almost 70 percent in high school. OK, they were young they weren’t as strong, OK, all right. So he is going to go to the ACC – oh, I’m sorry, he’s doing it again. I heard some of the commentators early in the year, right before they started conference play that, oh, these games are going to get tougher, the competition is going to get stiffer, and his numbers are going to potentially drop – they haven’t.

“I know what he has done, I know what he can do, and if a good basketball guy out there is making a decision on the future of his program, why would you not want to engage yourself with a guy who continues to do it at every level?”

Game’s giants helped create Jah

In his one season at Duke, Okafor, thanks to a plethora of post moves borrowed from the game’s best players, became the first freshman to win ACC Player of the Year in the conference’s 61-year history.

This from a league in which five big men have been drafted No. 1 overall: Virginia’s Ralph Sampson (1983), North Carolina’s Brad Daugherty (1986), Maryland’s Joe Smith (1995), Wake Forest’s Tim Duncan (1997) and Duke’s Elton Brand (1999).

Okafor is projected to become the sixth.

Okafor is averaging 17.7 points and 9.0 rebounds while shooting 66.7 percent. Only Smith scored more as a freshman, and nobody shot better.

“I think people would be crazy not to take him No. 1,” Duke assistant coach Jeff Capel. “I don’t care who gets the pick, I don’t care who you have. It’s not a knock against anyone else. This guy is different.”

Okafor has massive hands that palm the ball with ease, allowing him to use his other arm to create space through double teams or around single coverage in the post. His passing vision is well beyond his years, and he can finish with either hand, playing off two feet to spin around defenders or just go over them. It’s the combination of his size, basketball IQ, hands, footwork and touch around the basket that make him such an appealing prospect.

Okafor said he has modeled his low-post game after Duncan, Hakeem Olajuwon and Shaquille O’Neal, and it’s easy to see glimpses of each. The passing vision and soft touch of Duncan. The footwork and baseline spin moves of Olajuwon and, when the situation demands, the sheer brute force of O’Neal.

The comparison Capel and many others have made this year is Okafor to Duncan, the longtime San Antonio Spurs big man who won two ACC player of the year awards and was the 1997 National Player of the Year during his four-year career in Winston-Salem.

That brought a smile to Okafor’s face.

“I love Tim Duncan,” he said.

Capel played against Duncan in college and said Okafor reminds him more of an older Duncan, not so much Duncan at Okafor’s age. Looking at them freshman-to-freshman is a bit different.

“Tim, if you look at them both as freshman, offensively, there is not a comparison,” Capel said. “Jah is more advanced offensively. Tim was more advanced defensively.

“His personality, I think, is similar. Tim has great touch. Jah has great touch. Tim developed really good footwork. Very fundamentally sound. Jah has that and is going to continue to get better.”

Dave Odom, the longtime Wake Forest coach, agrees.

“It’s a natural comparison,” he said. “When you look at it at this stage of their two careers, comparing freshman to freshman, Jahlil Okafor was and is further along than was Tim Duncan. Wake Forest people are going to raise their eyebrows at me, but one would have to remember when you’re thinking about them, Jahlil Okafor has been playing basketball most of his young adult life.

“Jahlil right now is harder to guard, because he is always on the move. With and without the basketball, he is always on the move. As a matter of fact, I would say he is just as effective without the ball because he runs at the board with a vengeance. He is always attacking the offensive boards. He is equally as effective without the ball as he is with the ball. Tim, on the other hand, was much more effective with the ball than without it at this stage.”

‘Only going to get better’

Okafor had his first scholarship offer in eighth grade – Duncan didn’t even begin playing basketball until he was in high school. Slaughter, Okafor’s high school coach, believed Okafor would be a pro the first time he saw him play in seventh grade and had him pegged as the No. 1 pick before he arrived at Duke.

“The kid is so gifted,” Capel said. “And he is only going to get better and better. I still think his ceiling is very, very high.”

Others agree.

“He’ll be the No. 1 pick in the draft,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said matter-of-factly after Duke beat the Orange 80-72 in Syracuse and Okafor scored 23 points on 10-of-15 shooting. “He has got the best footwork of any big guy I have ever seen. They did a great job of finding him against the zone down there, and he is a great finisher around the basket.”

In that game, Syracuse – like many other ACC teams – used its post players to set screens on the perimeter to draw Okafor away from the basket. That’s something Duncan didn’t have to deal with at Wake Forest – Odom set up the defense so he could stay closer to the rim, and ball screens weren’t as popular as they are now.

The differences in eras makes any comparison of Okafor to his ACC predecessors more suited to be a bar game than a matter of serious study. With that caveat in mind …

“I’ll tell you who you should involve in this conversation,” Odom said. “I was assistant at Virginia when Ralph Sampson was there. He is the most talented guy of all. That’s the guy.

“Talent-wise, whew. That guy was unbelievable. 7-foot-4!”

Sampson was 7-4, and, according to then-Virginia coach Terry Holland, he weighed 188 pounds when he showed up in Charlottesville in 1979 after traveling and practicing with Bob Knight’s Pan-Am Games team in Puerto Rico.

Okafor arrived at Duke weighing 270.

“Today’s year-round training and playing opportunities allow first-year players like Okafor to play dominant roles against top-flight collegiate competition, although they may still have a rough spot or two that needs work (like Okafor’s free throw shooting),” Holland wrote in an email.

“Back in the day though, skinny freshmen had to prove themselves against experienced four-year players (like Duke’s Mike Gminski) night after night, so it is difficult to truly compare players from those eras.”

High school coach saw it coming

The ACC has changed dramatically even since the most recent No. 1 big men played. Brand was dominant at Duke for two seasons before going No. 1 overall in 1999, and Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski first compared the two after Duke’s third game this season, an 81-71 win over Michigan State. Okafor scored 17 points on 8-of-10 shooting.

“He is probably more skilled than Elton was. Elton was probably more aggressive,” Capel said. “Elton has really good touch, because he was so big and so physical, as far as wide. He had long arms, like Jah. Elton had big hands, too.”

Okafor’s hands are noticeably large – “When he shook my hand the first time, I was like, ‘What in the hell is that?’ It was like a hand extender,” Slaughter said. They measure 10.25 inches from palm to middle finger, and are nearly a foot wide, 11.25 inches from thumb to pinky finger.

With hands that big, palming a basketball is easy. Okafor plucks it out of the air like a Skittle, and holding it with one hand allows him to create more space for himself when facing a double-team, as he has often seen this year.

“A typical big guy, you have your man banging you and trying to push you out by the 3-point line, and another player coming at you,” said Duke assistant Nate James. “(Okafor), somehow, is able to split it and either find someone or make a finger roll or a dunk or something. I have yet to see a big guy do that.

“I have yet to really see a big man with his feel for the game, his touch. His ability to combine strength with finesse. I have yet to see that in anyone, particularly a freshman. I’ve heard Coach (Krzyzewski) say that Jah is probably the most talented player he has ever coached, at this point. He’s very unique.

“He’s Jah.”

That’s what Slaughter has been saying in Chicago for years.

“To have seen him do this, and to have those people that not only doubted him but that tried to negate the fact that he is as good as he is – it’s like sweet vindication,” Slaughter said. “And not for me, per say, but just for the principle of what it is.

“He is that good. And he was that good.”

Keeley: 919-829-4556;

Twitter: @laurakeeley

Measuring up

How Duke’s Jahlil Okafor compares with the five ACC big men who went No. 1 overall in the NBA draft.

Ralph Sampson

Fr. year (1979-80)

14.9 ppg

11.2 rpg

4.6 bpg

.547 FG %

Sr. year (1982-83)

19.1 ppg

11.7 rpg

3.1 bpg

.604 FG %

Brad Daugherty

Fr. year (1982-83)

8.2 ppg

5.2 rpg

1.0 bpg

.558 FG %

Sr. year (1985-86)

20.2 ppg

9.0 rpg

1.1 bpg

.648 FG %

Joe Smith

Fr. year (1993-94)

19.4 ppg

10.7 rpg

3.1 bpg

.522 FG %

So. year (1994-95)

20.8 ppg

10.6 rpg

2.9 bpg

.578 FG %

Tim Duncan

Fr. year (1993-94)

9.8 ppg

9.6 rpg

3.8 bpg

.545 FG %

Sr. year (1996-97)

20.8 ppg

14.7 rpg

3.3 bpg

.608 FG %

Elton Brand

Fr. year (1997-98)

13.4 ppg

7.3 rpg

1.3 bpg

.592 FG %

So. year (1998-99)

17.7 ppg

9.8 rpg

2.2 bpg

.620 FG %

Jahlil Okafor

Fr. year (2014-15)

17.7 ppg

9.0 rpg

1.4 bpg

.669 FG %

Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer