Hailed as the best big man from Chicagoland since Eddy Curry, 6’11″ Jahlil Okafor, the Brobdingnagian sophomore center from Whitney Young, has lived up to the high expectations. Last September, Jahlil was the first player that Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski offered a scholarship to in the 2014 class. It was a particularly early offer from a program that historically has been conservative in both the sheer number and timing of its offers, but clearly the staff felt that Okafor was an exceptional person and player. Jahlil was coming off of a summer where he played a critical role, shooting a remarkably efficient 71.1% from the field and 82.6% from the charity stripe, in leading the United States to a gold medal at the FIBA Americas 16U Championship in Cancun, Mexico.
At Whitney Young, the Chicago academic magnet school that includes Michelle Obama as an alumna, Jahlil, a 3.4 GPA student, took on much more of a substantial role this season, while the team travelled all over the country playing challenging contests in California, the Carolinas, and St. Louis against nationally ranked teams like Bishop Gorman and Gonzaga as well as Chicago powers Simeon and Curie. After starting three games on a 20-10 team as a freshman for the Dolphins of Whitney Young, Okafor stepped up his game and made second-team All-State as a sophomore and MaxPreps named him to their Sophomore All-American team. Blessed with a 7’3″ wingspan, Jahlil averaged nearly thirteen rebounds, twenty-five points, five blocks, and four steals, while shooting nearly seventy percent from the field this high school season.
In early December, Jahlil, a pure low-post player who isn’t afraid to bang inside, visited the Triangle and took an unofficial visit to Duke University, touring the facilities and also watching the team practice. Twice this high school season, Coach K of Duke University returned the favor, coming to watch the sophomore big man play in person. In the initial viewing at the Beach Ball Classic in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, Coach K observed Jahlil score ten points and grab a dozen rebounds in a 46-44 buzzer-beating win over Prestonwood (TX) and 6’9″ force Julius Randle, one of the top players in the 2013 class and a Duke recruit. At the second viewing, Coach K watched Jahlil battle his Mac Irvin friend and fellow Duke recruit Jabari Parker, the Gatorade Player of the Year, in the state 4A Sectionals in Summit, Illinois. Although Jahlil had nine first-half points and helped the Dolphins take a 24-21 halftime lead, eventually the depth and experience of Simeon proved too much on that day, as the eventual state champion Wolverines won 52-42 ending Whitney Young’s season with a record of 16-10 against one of this year’s most challenging schedules in high school basketball.
After splitting his time between the Mac Irvin 17s and 16s last summer, the sociable center is anchoring the paint for the Mac Irvin Fire 17U team full-time this AAU season. This weekend in Dallas, the sophomore Okafor stepped up and had his best AAU weekend to date, leading the Fire to a 5-0 session and averaging over sixteen points, seven rebounds, and two blocks in twenty-one minutes at the third leg of Nike’s EYBL. This EYBL season, Jahlil, now 16, has been Mac Irvin’s leading overall scorer (165 points in 260 minutes) and has shot an eye-catching 71.7% from the field, helping the Fire to eleven wins in fourteen games. During the early live period, the Duke staff was a constant presence at his Mac Irvin games, including a memorable one at the Boo Williams Complex in Virginia, where the 275 lb strong young man tore down the rim.
After an EYBL game, the bass-voiced Jahlil spoke with me about Mac Irvin’s passing, his goals for this summer, and his relationship with Jabari Parker, amongst other topics.
Well, first of all congratulations on making all-state as a sophomore in Illinois.
It was an honor. It’s something I talked about setting as a goal with my Dad. It was great.
This year you made much more of an impact on the team than you did as a freshman. You had a really competitive schedule. How do you view your season overall?
Well, we had a couple of our key guys injured early in the season…
Yeah, Tommy Hamilton.
Yeah, Tommy Hamilton was hurt and Paul White as well. It put a lot of pressure on me and made me grow up a lot faster.
Speaking of that, it looks like you’ve lost some of your body fat. Have you been working a lot on your conditioning this year? I remember that it was something that you wanted to work on the last time I spoke with you.
Yeah, I was speaking with all of my coaches and the thing that they thought that would prevent me from getting to the highest level would be me being out of shape. I wanted to focus on that.
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