North Carolina

Duke’s Jahlil Okafor does what no ACC freshman ever had

Duke center Jahlil Okafor (15) directs players as he looks to pass as Wake Forest forward Devin Thomas (2) defends in the first half. Duke played Wake Forest University on Wednesday at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham.
Duke center Jahlil Okafor (15) directs players as he looks to pass as Wake Forest forward Devin Thomas (2) defends in the first half. Duke played Wake Forest University on Wednesday at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham.

We are the witnesses to some significant ACC history. A freshman had never received ACC Player of the Year honors in men’s basketball, but that changed Sunday, when 6-foot-11 Duke center Jahlil Okafor formally received the honor.

Informally, and unofficially, it became clear a while ago that Okafor, who’s averaging 17.6 points and 9.6 rebounds, would win the award. He was that good, and the competition for player of the year honors was that lacking.

Which isn’t to say there haven’t been some terrific individual seasons in the ACC. There have been.

Notre Dame’s Jerian Grant has had some great moments, as has Louisville’s Terry Rozier, as has Virginia’s Malcolm Brogdon. All three of them, along with Okafor, received first-team All-ACC honors, and both Okafor and Grant were unanimous selections.

This wasn’t like last season, though, when it was debatable whether N.C. State’s T.J. Warren or Duke’s Jabari Parker – or even North Carolina’s Marcus Paige – was the league’s best player. No, this has kind of been like those years in which there’s been no arguing the ACC’s best.

There was no debate in the mid-1990s when Tim Duncan won back-to-back ACC Player of the Year awards. Or in 1998 when UNC’s Antawn Jamison ran away with the honor.

UNC’s Tyler Hansbrough was the most recent player to win ACC Player of the Year honors unanimously. That was back in 2008.

Okafor didn’t do that – he received 44 of 64 votes, with Grant finishing second with 14 votes – but, his defensive deficiencies aside, Okafor has clearly been the most dominant player in the league.

The traditional measurements – points per game, rebounds per game, shooting percentage – are good enough on their own. Okafor has made 66.8 percent of his shots and has scored in double figures in all but one game.

More advanced metrics showcase Okafor’s value, too. Ken Pomeroy, the noted college basketball statistician, created a somewhat complicated formula that ranks Okafor sixth in the national player of the year race. He’s the highest ACC player listed.

Not to be lost in this is the historical significance of Okafor receiving ACC Player of the Year honors.

It has been relatively rare for a sophomore to win the award – that has happened just eight times, including the past two seasons when Warren won it last year and Miami’s Shane Larkin the season before – but a freshman had never won it.

Let that sink in for a moment: Okafor on Sunday became the most decorated freshman in ACC history.

He has a couple of inherent advantages. For one, Parker, who finished second in the ACC Player of the Year voting a season ago, left school. College basketball is more freshman-oriented than ever before. And second, Okafor is eligible, of course. That might sound silly, but David Thompson had to spend a year on a freshmen team when he arrived at N.C. State, and had he been eligible Thompson likely would have been considered the best player in the ACC from the day he stepped on campus.

I don’t have a vote in the ACC’s awards, but if I did here’s what my ballot would have looked like:

▪  Player of the Year: Okafor

▪  Rookie of the Year: Okafor

▪  First-team All-ACC: Brogdon, Syracuse C Rakeem Christmas, Grant, Okafor, Rozier.

▪  Second-team All-ACC: Virginia F Justin Anderson, Duke G Quinn Cook, Boston College G Olivier Hanlan, Louisville F Montrezl Harrell, Duke G Tyus Jones.

▪  Third-team All-ACC: Notre Dame F Pat Connaughton, Virginia F Anthony Gill, N.C. State G Trevor Lacey, North Carolina G Marcus Paige, Duke F Justise Winslow.

A note on the players: Four of the five places on first-team All-ACC were givens – Brogdon, Christmas, Grant and Okafor. The fifth spot was debatable. Hanlan had another strong statistical year for an awful team and Rozier faded, somewhat, down the stretch.

Rozier, though, possesses an extra gear that most other guards just don’t have. And if he’s not on first team, Cook is more deserving than Hanlan.

Paige entered the season as an All-American candidate but wasn’t the same player amid a host of injuries. The good news for him, and UNC: He says he’s feeling healthier than he has been all season.

Moving on to …

▪  Coach of the Year: Virginia’s Tony Bennett

That one’s easy. Bennett doesn’t lack for talent, but, let’s face it, there might not be a future NBA lottery pick on his team. Yet the Cavaliers dominated the league for the second consecutive season. Slow-tempo basketball isn’t always fun to watch, but Bennett’s teams have made it an art form.

And last but not least …

▪  Game of the Year: Duke 92, UNC 90, Feb. 18

The Tar Heels and Blue Devils needed overtime to settle their first regular-season meeting, and this game had everything: big runs – Duke held a significant lead early and UNC led by 10 with less than four minutes to play before the Blue Devils forced overtime – and memorable moments and late-game drama, all played out on the kind of stage only Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium can provide.

It was a reminder of what college basketball can be at its best.