Thursday, December 6, 2012
Okafor making push for nation's top player
By Scott Powers
CHICAGO -- UIC's home basketball court was occupied by some of the nation's best prep players from morning to night for the Chicago Elite Classic last week.
St. Vincent-St. Mary freshman Vincent King drew rave reviews. Illinois' future backcourt of Jaylon Tate and Kendrick Nunn played before their future coach John Groce. Recruits from BYU, Dayton, Minnesota, N.C. State, Ohio State, among other schools all showed off their skills.
Jahlil Okafor is the best player in Chicago while Jabari Parker recovers from injury, but some don't expect that pecking order to change.
Jabari Parker, the nation's No. 2 senior, even surprised everyone and played in his first game since fracturing his foot in July.
But when the day ended and the participants, high school and college coaches, media and fans departed the arena, there was only one player who nearly everyone was talking about -- Whitney Young junior 7-foot, 265-pound center Jahlil Okafor.
Even though Parker was nowhere near 100 percent and Andrew Wiggins (the nation's No. 1 senior) and Tyus Jones (the nation's No. 1 junior) weren't present, Okafor's performance against DeMatha (Md.) led many to believe he should be the No. 1 player not only in the state regardless of class, but also the country.
One high-major college coach who was in attendance left thinking there was no doubt Okafor is the best player in the nation after witnessing his 34-point, nine-rebound performance against N.C. State recruit BeeJay Anya, who had 11 points and five rebounds.
"I think he's the No. 1 player in the country no matter the grade," the coach said. "Just his offensive package, you don't see that from a center, especially a kid his age. Left hand, right hand, putting it on the floor, jab step, you name it, he's got it all, makes free throws. It's ridiculous."
City/Suburban Hoops Report publisher Joe Henricksen, an Illinois-based evaluator, agreed with the coach.
"I can't remember ever seeing a more dominating performance in a season-opening game," Henricksen said. "We -- and by we, I mean fans, media and analysts -- should be celebrating a Jahlil Okafor here in Chicago and in Illinois. He's that type of rare, eye-opening talent. Just an absolutely dominating figure. At his age, at his position and with his advanced skill at that size, he most certainly needs to be mentioned with any high school player in America regardless of class."
Whitney Young coach Tyrone Slaughter may be biased, but he backed up the same belief with an explanation.
"He's the best player in the country, in our opinion," Slaughter said after Saturday's game. "A lot of times, it gets diluted because we live in a city of great basketball, but when we look at it, when we ask ourselves and we ask other people, he's the one person no one can compare. So at the end of the day, that's what he is -- the best player."
Okafor's father Chukwudi Okafor does have a comparison. He sees Okafor's skill set being a mixture of Tim Duncan and Hakeem Olajuwon.
"He reminds me so much of Olajuwon in his prime, and he has the fundamentals of Tim Duncan," Chukwudi said. "Just his footwork, how he plays the game scientifically, not just with power."
Many people would say that just sounds like another father putting his son on a pedestal and raising expectations to an unrealistic level.
The thing is a lot of people have that similar thought. The fact is Okafor, who is just 16 years old, possesses the level of footwork and dominant inside and out offensive game that scouts rarely see during their lifetimes.
It may be early to call Okafor a future NBA superstar, but many believe he has that potential.
"Forget comparing him to high school, college or NBA players," Henricksen said. "How many true dominant 5-men are there in basketball, period? That's what I see from him. I see a natural center, not just a big-bodied center who can bang and do the little things. He's considered a legitimate 5-man. That's what impresses me and get me excited."
What's scary is Okafor has nearly two complete years of high school basketball ahead of him before he even enters college. If his skills are beyond his age now, what will they be when he graduates in 2014?
In Saturday's season opener, Okafor showed he had already enhanced a few skills during the offseason, which he often spent doing two-a-day workouts.
He had lost some of his baby fat over the offseason and looked more athletic, running the floor on both ends and being rewarded with a few fastbreak dunks. He also had more confidence in his mid-range game and drained a couple jumpers.
Of course, Okafor still went to his bread and butter and used his superior footwork to maneuver every which way around defenders and score.
"Okafor has size and back-to-the-basket post moves, which includes footwork, touch and body control in addition to his ability to score through contact," ESPN recruiting coordinator Reggie Rankin said. "He is next to impossible to defend without help on the high school level when he makes his mind up that he is going to score inside. ... The kid is a low-post monster."
Mac Irvin Fire club coach Mike Irvin began to see a change in Okafor during the summer. Okafor had always been one of the team's best players, but he often deferred to his teammate Jabari Parker. When Parker couldn't play in July because of his injury, Okafor transitioned into Parker's role.
"Man, as the summer went on, he started dominating everybody," Irvin said. "When Jabari went out, I thought he was the best player in the country. It forced him to grow up fast. He had to be a leader. He stepped up and was ready. He took it to a whole other level.
"I've been telling everybody, he's the first pick of the NBA draft when he comes out, point blank. I've never seen some so big with such footwork. He's like a ballerina. He can spin and turn. I haven't seen footwork like that in a long time."
Okafor has been receiving such praise since eighth grade when he shot up six inches to 6-9 and never lost his coordination, so he's become accustomed to it. He's even used to his father comparing him to NBA greats. Okafor views all of it as motivation.
"It's definitely an honor," Okafor said. "I don't feel it as pressure. I'm still a kid and have time to develop. It's motivating. It makes me work hard. I never take a day off."
College coaches have a similar mindset when it comes to recruiting him. Okafor has scholarship offers from every major school and has already made unofficial visits to Duke, Michigan State, North Carolina, Ohio State and UCLA.
Okafor doesn't have a list yet and says he's considering everyone. One unique aspect of his recruitment is he and Tyus Jones have pledged to play together. Jones is ranked No. 1 in the junior class and is a point guard.
"First of all, it's just our friendship, our brotherhood, we're just close," Okafor said. "It's fun to go to battle with someone you're so close with. He's a floor general."
Another person Okafor is close with is Parker: They've known each since they were kids and have played together on the Mac Irvin Fire throughout high school.
With all the focus on Parker's play and recruitment now, it's allowed Okafor to still enjoy high school somewhat like a regular teenager.
"If (Parker) wasn't there, I would be the one with all the publicity," Okafor said. "It's really helped me with that and him having all of the attention. That allows me to be a kid. He's like a big brother.
"Not that I wouldn't want (the attention). I would want it, of course."