Commentary

Future bright for Chicago prep stars

Cliff Alexander earns bragging rights over Jahlil Okafor in thrilling championship

Updated: February 22, 2014, 9:35 PM ET
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- The game was long over as Whitney Young coach Tyrone Slaughter lingered in the bowels of Chicago State's arena beckoning for his star player to hurry up. The bus was leaving. But Jahlil Okafor, the consensus top-ranked player in the country, couldn't tell reporters to beat it. Give him a few years to learn that trick.

The Duke-bound Okafor, the heir apparent to Jabari Parker's legacy as Chicago's nicest prep star, had the best seat in the house for one of Chicago's wildest high school basketball games in recent memory.

[+] EnlargeJahlil Okafor
AP Photo/The Sun News/Charles SlateFoul trouble forced Jahlil Okafor to be a spectator for much of his matchup with Cliff Alexander.
Saddled with foul trouble, Okafor played sparingly in the second half before fouling out late in the fourth quarter of Friday's Chicago Public League championship. The game was billed as Okafor vs. Curie's Cliff Alexander, but Okafor had to watch a record four overtimes before Young finally lost to top-ranked Curie 69-66 on a last-second corner 3 from senior guard Kamar Marshall.

But even in his disappointment, Okafor could appreciate the magnitude of a game that just wouldn't end.

"Huge," he said. "It was a legendary game. It was epic."

Hey, it didn't lead the late "SportsCenter" for nothing.

Okafor, a 6-foot-10 center, and Alexander, a 6-foot-9 athletic dynamo, have big things ahead of them -- and I'm not talking about the state playoffs. Next year, maybe they'll meet in the Final Four.

Alexander, the third-ranked recruit in the ESPN 100, is heading to Kansas for one season after declaring himself a "one-and-done" player at his signing day event. Okafor has No. 1 pick written all over him.

If Parker goes No. 1 in the draft this year and Okafor the next, they would make it four Chicago Public League products in eight years as the top overall pick, joining Derrick Rose (2008) and Anthony Davis (2012).

Almost certainly, neither Okafor nor Alexander will see his sophomore year in college. That's why this title game was supposed to be so special. It was billed as their heavyweight matchup, the rare confluence of two top-ranked big men in a city typically dominated by hard-driving guards. So, naturally, it didn't quite turn out that way.

There were few one-on-one moments and Okafor didn't play for much of the second half because of foul trouble, and Alexander plays on a team where the guards, though talented, seem to suffer from a rare form of half-court amnesia where they forget the most explosive player in the country is on their team.

Unrequited post-ups aside, Alexander played the entire game and had 20 points and 12 rebounds. More importantly, he was the guy with the cheap medal hanging around his neck after the game.

"Cliff played hard like he always does, but I wish I was in his shoes as a city champion," said Okafor, who finished with 16 points and eight rebounds against a 2-3 zone. He scored his final bucket on a nice baseline drive on Alexander.

[+] EnlargeCliff Alexander
Denny Medley/USA TODAY SportsCurie's Cliff Alexander will play one season at Kansas with a future matchup against Jahlil Okafor and Duke a possibility.
The two stars are friends, just like Okafor was buddies with former Simeon star Parker, who is now starring for Duke. But the big question around Chicago is who will be a better college and pro player, Alexander or Okafor?

When asked who's better, Alexander laughed and said, "I'll let you all answer that one."

He had the bragging rights, that's for sure.

The consensus seems to be that Okafor is better now, while Alexander has the higher ceiling.

Okafor, a true center, is more polished and efficient, from his footwork in the paint to his media interactions. He has slimmed down, but still looks heavy at times. Meanwhile, there is something magnetic about Alexander, who skies for one-handed snatch rebounds and transition dunks.

Okafor, used to competing with Parker for top dog status, is enjoying the competition with Alexander.

"It's a lot of fun for the fans, and he's playing great," Okafor said. "So he deserve to be in that conversation."

Both will gain immediate dividends from better teaching, conditioning and coaching in college. Alexander, in particular, will enjoy getting regular touches from guards instructed to feed him at all costs.

I believe Alexander is still calling for the ball in the low blocks, maybe even in his dreams. Before the fourth overtime, I snapped a picture of Alexander seemingly instructing one of the guards to get him the ball. He said it's frustrating at times, especially when Curie held the ball for long stretches during each overtime period, but he soldiered through.

While Alexander got a bum rap for jokingly grabbing an Illinois hat before putting on a Kansas one at his signing day event, he was thrilled to see his guard-laden team win this game.

"I wasn't really looking for no one-on-one," he said. "I just wanted to get the W."

The Jones Convocation Center was packed for the matchup, with more than 7,000 people in attendance, including Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Emanuel danced with glee when Young guard Miles Reynolds sent the game to overtime with a contested 3 at the end of the fourth quarter. That capped off a six-point run in the last 30 seconds of regulation, but still, I thought Emanuel only got that happy when he yelled at the president of the teachers union. I guess it helps that Emanuel was sitting next to the temporary hero's father, investment banker James Reynolds Jr., the 65th most powerful person in Chicago, according to Chicago Magazine.

It wasn't just the rich and powerful who were excited for this game. With two days of hype before the game, Okafor said he tuned everyone out, thanks to some good advice from his future head coach.

"I talked to Coach K, and that was one of the things he said, try to stay away from Twitter," said Okafor, who has 23,800 followers and change. "I didn't tweet, wasn't on Instagram. [Coach K] told me that a couple nights ago, just stay focused, but don't over-focus, just be with family."

With bright futures ahead of them, both Alexander and Okafor said they're just focused on the next big event of their young lives, the high school state tournament. These two teams could conceivably meet again in the sectional finals.

"I want that matchup again," Alexander said.

Okafor agreed.

If that happens, I'll be there. Call me Rahm, we'll share a limo. We won't want to miss it.

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.

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