When asked to assess the Duke’s one-and-done crop ahead of Thursday night’s NBA draft, assistant coach Jeff Capel repeated a refrain he had been saying for months.
“I know I’m probably biased,” he said. “If somebody doesn’t take Jah No. 1, I think they’re going to regret it. As good as he was here — and he was very good — he’s going to be better. He is going to be better with space.”
Okafor, 6-11, 270, is projected to be the second pick of the draft, which would send him West to the Los Angeles Lakers. By all accounts, Los Angeles is his preferred destination, as he is more than willing to exchange the prestige associated with the No. 1 pick for getting to go to one of the NBA’s premiere franchises, one rich in center history with Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Shaquille O’Neal all winning championships.
Still, it has been awhile since anyone doubted Okafor’s ability to be the top player — it probably hasn’t happened since his freshman year in high school, in fact, at Chicago’s Whitney Young High.
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Back then, Okafor was still 6-foot-9 and not in the shape he’s in now. But he already had a scholarship offer from DePaul before he entered high school, so he wasn’t an unknown. But Whitney Young coach Tyrone Slaughter opted to go with a then-sophomore, Tommy Hamilton, over Okafor as his primary big.
“I tell people, when I look back at the decisions that I made, that could have very well been the best decision for Jahlil but the worst decision for our team,” Slaughter said last winter. “Everyone I tell the story to, Jahlil was visibly disappointed and upset about not being on varsity and playing more. And he was right. It was not some great coaching decision that led me to do it — I was trying to give one guy a little room and then him, to give him a little cover from all of the expectations and not knowing if he could handle it.”
As it turned out, Okafor could handle it just fine. And Hamilton, who will be a junior at DePaul this fall, will probably be the last player ever to play in front of Okafor.
“His best basketball is ahead of him,” Capel said of Okafor. “And there is so much that he can do, even that he didn’t show here.”
The context of Okafor makes what Capel said about his former teammate, Justise Winslow, especially notable: “Justise has as much upside as anyone in this draft.
“Justise has always been a guy, more so than the other two, that plays with a chip on his shoulder,” Capel said. “I think a big part of it is that he always has felt like he is not appreciated. People don’t understand how good he is, and I think that is going to serve him very well in the NBA.”
Winslow isn’t the biggest wing — he is 6-foot-6 with shoes, 222 pounds — but he’s strong and enjoys contact. He will surely be off the board before the number of picks reaches double digits.
“Jah and Justise have a chance to be stars, really," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski told reporters Tuesday. "They really do."
And for Tyus Jones, a 6-1, 190-pound point guard who was named the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four, Capel had similarly high praise.
“Tyus is a guy that has always had to prove doubters,” Capel said. “That’s what he’s facing — the questions of athleticism and size, or lack thereof. And the thing that I’ve told every NBA team that has talked to me about him is that he has a trait that you can’t teach. As long as I can remember, point guards have been judged by winning. And at every level he has won.
“I’ve seen him against bigger guys, more athletic guys, guys with better size, and he figures out how to beat them. Guys love playing with him, and whoever takes him will be very lucky.”
Duke is expected to have three first-round picks in Thursday’s NBA draft. The Triangle record is four:
UNC;4;2012;Harrison Barnes (7), Kendall Marshall (13), John Henson (14), Tyler Zeller (17).
UNC;4;2005;Marvin Williams (2), Raymond Felton (5), Sean May (13), Rashad McCants (14).
Duke;4;1999;Elton Brand (1), Trajan Langdon (11), Corey Maggette (13), William Avery (14).