Tag Archives: Jahlil Okafor

Duke Basketball Recruiting Update – Key visits taking place


In our latest premium update for members, we have new information on Tyus Jones and more. Join today and get all the latest on the recruiting trail. Photo copyright Blue Devil Nation

As many of you know, the Duke Men’s Basketball staff has been on the road for official in-home visits with many key prospects. For our members only, BDN Premium recaps the latest happenings and previews what is to come (and there is a lot) in our latest team and recruiting update.

As a refresher, let’s start by recapping the visits that have already occurred.  The first was with Semi Ojeleye, who went against the grain by not inviting the full-on media onslaught that so often accompanies these things. Ojeleye is considered a perfect fit at Duke and he knew exactly where he wanted to go after Blue Devils Coach Mike Krzyzewski gave his final presentation.

In committing to Duke, Ojeleye, of course, joins shooting guard Matt Jones in the (current) two-man Class of 2013.  Jones committed to the Blue Devils long ago, but he still received a visit last week, which we’ll recap in a later update.

The Blue Devils then checked out the Tennessee home of Austin Nichols. Nichols is as close to a prototypical Duke frontcourt player as you can get, being a 6’11″ guy who can go inside/out. The worry from a few involved is that [private] Vanderbilt and Tennessee provide him an opportunity to play closer to home, and it is worth noting that his sister goes to Tennessee as well.  Many continue to mention Virginia as a player in this recruitment too, but the style of play employed in the Cavaliers’ system is a known turn-off. Nichols also raised some eyebrows when he decided not to participate with Team USA this past off-season, but that has not diminished Duke’s interest in him.  As mentioned in the last update, Duke gets an official visit with Nichols on October 6th, and the goal is to close the deal at that time or at least have a good indication of what will happen. One thing to look for is how he gets along with the players here. While Nichols is far from a sure thing, the staff does seem to feel good about him. Nichols was more of a priority for Duke than was Marcus Lee, the talented California frontcourt prospect who recently dropped the Blue Devils from his list.

Julius Randle likes Duke, but has 10 other schools currently listed as well and Kentucky making their play.

The Blue Devils also went into the home of Julius Randle, but minus the gimmicks and bling the other coaches used. This week, five more schools follow Duke, Kansas, Kentucky, and North Carolina with in-home visits, yet the puzzling thing is everybody with a pulse knows not one of these other five will make the final cut. A lot of people have been in Randle’s ear lately, and his recruitment is now the most hyped of his class. This one will go on for a long, long time, so strap yourself in for one stressful ride. I have been covering Duke recruiting for a long time, and I hoped to avoid the dog-and-pony show, but it never fails: one player changes his whole demeanor going into his senior year. It wasn’t that long ago that Randle gave four schools every indication that they would be announced as the finalists and then bam, we now have ten in-home visits? In any event, at the in-home they were straightforward with Julius as to what they have to offer and why Duke presents such a good opportunity for him, and Duke still feels they are in good shape with him.  The Blue Devils will be in it the day Randle chooses, but that day will not come until Spring.

But yes, Kentucky is in the mix in a big way and the Blue Devils cannot or will not match some of the things that Kentucky is about, offering a den of luxury and simpleton classes, easing the path for kids to coast to the League.  They are pushing the envelope to the edge with NCAA rules. They use the hip-hop culture, power personalities that show the bling and spoils of the life many only read about, and then they convince kids they’ll be in an environment that caters to their every whim. School? Really? Anyhow, Calipari and his assistant Orlando Antigua go to events like the Peach Jam, sit right in front of the NCAA Compliance people, and push the edges of the rules.  They know exactly where the boundaries are, and have found ways to use them to their advantage. Kentucky doesn’t hide the fact that they are a luxurious pit stop for prospects on their way to the NBA, and the lifestyle they offer is now swaying kids who valued education when growing up –  see Alex Poythress.  The school is at the forefront of overhyped dog-and-pony shows and in today’s culture, prospects who cannot see the bigger picture in life easily get caught up in it, making it a tough act for a school like Duke to go up against.  Until something is done and the charade is halted, Kentucky will be a regular thorn in the side of everyone involved in the recruiting process.

Justise Winslow is set to visit Duke during Countdown to Craziness. BDN Photo

Now, despite what I just said, I would not concede Julius Randle just yet. In no way do I feel BAD about Randle and Duke, but there was a time not long ago I thought the good guys were a prohibitive favorite. That in turn caused me to downplay Jabari Parker a bit, and I am not the only one who did so. The truth is Duke and other schools were asked to back off a bit on his recruitment awhile back, but they have been and will be in this one until the end as well. Despite what you have heard to date, let it go and start with a fresh take.  Duke’s in-home with the Parkers is on Friday, and it’s a big deal as Coach K will join Chris Collins to sell the Duke way and their vision for Jabari. Duke would of course take both Parker and Randle but realistically, that will not happen in the current landscape.  But they sure as heck would love to get one of them.  Expect Krzyzewski to go after both equally hard. In fact, he is doing so already.

As you know, the staff also goes to see prospects work out in open gyms. The most recent visits have been to see Trey Lyles, Justise Winslow, Karl Towns and Grayson Allen. They will continue to monitor each of them closely. Duke went to Memphis on Wednesday to watch Austin Nichols and Coach Krzyzewski will go to see Trey Lyles again today, because he wants a firsthand view.

Duke will visit Jahlil Okafor as well, now that the teachers strike in Chicago is coming under control. The Blue Devils have stayed strong with the big man and feel they’re in great shape at this time, but much work still needs to be done.

And let’s not forget the consummate winner, the outstanding point guard Tyus Jones. I got word last evening that Coach K will drop in on him today, which leads me to talk of the fast approaching Countdown to Craziness. Jones has confirmed he will visit for the affair, as will Justise Winslow, a key target in his own right.

Duke expects to get 2015 big man Karl Towns in Durham for CTC, as well as Theo Pinson, who is still on the mend from an injury. The injury to Pinson seems to have made his camp a bit more proactive, possibly out of fear of falling behind in the process. The Pinsons have taken their time with the process, but it’s getting to the point where they are starting to do some more serious looking, as well as watching more closely what other key players are doing in their recruitments.

That pretty much sums up the latest, and as always we ask that you keep the information here per contract agreement. A lot of times recruiting information is sensitive and does not belong in public forums, as those can give competitors unfair advantages. For me to continue to share information we all covet, it is important to adhere to set standards.

In closing, thanks for being a member of Blue Devil Nation Premium and supporting our efforts to bring you the best coverage available. Please let others know about us, and if you have further questions on hoops recruiting, Andrew or myself will do our best to answer them on the message board. [/private]

And Justise For All: The Justise Winslow Interview

6’6″ Duke Recruit Justise Winslow, Photo by Andrew Slater

In the well air-conditioned Durango High School gym in a city with the dry heat of a sauna, Las Vegas, 6’6″ Justise Winslow ended his summer in fitting fashion, with a championship trophy and an ankle wrap filled with enough ice to keep the Kennedy clan refreshed for a night in Palm Beach. Winslow’s AAU team, Houston Hoops, won the Las Vegas Classic 54-53 in overtime over the Mac Irvin Fire, a Chicago-based AAU program. Despite injuring his ankle in three games prior, Justise prevailed and defended all five positions, including fronting one of his best friends, 6’11″ Jahlil Okafor, in the title game of the Las Vegas Classic.

A year after not making the USA Basketball U-16 team in Colorado Springs, CO, the determined Houstonian Winslow not only made the United States Men’s World Championship U-17 squad, but played such an integral role on the squad that he made the All-World Championship U-17 team in Kaunas, Lithuania. Justise, a resilient young man, roomed with Jahlil Okafor of Chicago, Tyus Jones of Apple Valley, Minnesota, and BeeJay Anya of Gaithersburg, Maryland. Bringing efficient decision-making, defensive versatility, toughness, explosive athleticism, an on-court tenacity and maturity, Winslow started the last five games for the United States, registering four consecutive double-doubles at one stretch. In the championship game against Australia, the rising junior scored thirteen points, grabbed eleven rebounds, and generated four steals to help the team capture the coveted gold medal. Soon after, the gold medal-winning team was flown more than fifty-seven hundred miles away to Sin City, watching the United States Men’s team prepare for the Olympics. Justise was able to meet with the Olympic team members and observe Coach K run a practice and scrimmage against the USA Select team. Less than two weeks later, the four-time NCAA Champion head coach would offer Justise Winslow a full scholarship to Duke University.

The MVP of the World Championship and fellow Duke recruit Jahlil Okafor said of Justise, “Justise Winslow is an amazing player. He’s one of my best friends. He’s a freak athlete. He can shoot it, he can dribble, and he’s like 6’6.” He’s really strong and a tremendous defender. He’s an amazing player. He was my roommate and, so, we obviously hung out a lot. You know how we’re both really humble. We’re like-minded. We’re both very serious basketball players. We don’t listen to all the other stuff influence us. We have a lot in common. We’re both just very focused on basketball and improving.”

St. John’s School in Houston, an academically rigorous institution with an average SAT score more than 130 points higher than the incoming freshman class at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, had not won a basketball title in thirty-two years. In his first year of high school, Justise helped add a banner to the rafters by scoring a career-high forty-three points, grabbing fourteen rebounds, and making the game-winning assist to his older brother Josh in the waning seconds of the championship game against the Episcopal School of Dallas to win 69-67.

Following the loss of ten seniors from the first title-winning team in three decades, the Mavericks of St. John’s had some initial growing pains, including Justise receiving a controversial ejection from a December game after a crowd-electrifying dunk against Antonian Prep of San Antonio. Once again, however, Winslow, a now sixteen year-old with the physique of a young defensive end in football and the reserved demeanor of a fourteen-year veteran NBA player, willed St. John’s, alma mater of director Wes Anderson, to a second consecutive Southwest Preparatory Title, registering a near triple-double of twenty-five points, ten rebounds, and eight assists, against arch-rival Kincaid in the title game. For the season, the southpaw earned MaxPreps Sophomore All-American distinction, after averaging 22.5 points, 11.4 rebounds, and 3.2 assists en route to a second consecutive Southwest Preparatory Title.

Justise Winslow of Houston Hoops, Photo by Andrew Slater

The son of Rickie Winslow, a member of the University of Houston’s famed Phi Slamma Jamma, who played professionally in the NBA as well as in Europe, and fellow Cougar Robin Davis, Justise’s statistics belied the overall importance that he played on this year’s Houston Hoops team. The rising junior averaged 9.8 points, 4.6 rebounds, and 3.5 assists, while shooting 51.4% from the field in the Nike EYBL regular season, but, infused with the confidence of his success in Lithuania, took his game to another level  at the Peach Jam in North Augusta, SC, where he averaged sixteen points, over eight rebounds and three assists in five games against a superior level of EYBL competition.

His head coach with the Houston Hoops, which also produced McDonald’s All-American and incoming Duke freshman Rasheed Sulaimon, is Tim Schumacher. Coach Schumacher said of Justise, “He’s a phenomenal kid. He’s a phenomenal athlete, which is obvious, but he’s also a high IQ basketball player. When you put those things together, the great personality, the great work ethic, and the phenomenal athlete, I mean the sky is the limit for Justise. He’s really got the ingredients to be a very special player.”

Of Justise’s experience with both making and achieving a high level of success with USA Basketball, Coach Schumacher continued, “Well, I think it was great for Justise because he didn’t make the team for the sixteen-and-under and he was really disappointed about that. He really spent about a year with that as his goal and the fact that he achieved his goal and then, when he was there, he had so much success, it really gave him a lot of confidence and swagger, which I think he needed to get. He’s so unselfish and he makes all of the right decisions to such a point that, as a coach, I sometimes want him to be more selfish. Sometimes, I want him to be more aggressive with ball because he is so good. He’s a very efficient player. With his work ethic, the better that his jump shot gets, the higher that his game is going to go.”

Justise Winslow spoke with me in Las Vegas and Oakland about a wide array of topics, including his new offer from Duke University, his gold medal-winning experience with USA Basketball, what he’s looking for in a college program, his father’s advice, and his relationship with Jahlil Okafor.

 

Let’s start with the most recent championship run.

Well, coming from Peach Jam, we went four and one, but didn’t make it out of the pool. Here, we just played with a chip on our shoulder. It was a lot of fun to be able to play and win with some of these guys…some of them we’ll never play again with. We just got the job done.

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Now, in retrospect, talk about the strength of this team, the wings and its versatility.

Yeah, I mean we had a lot of versatile players playing with us. Some of them were playing with us for the first time like DeAndre and James, but, you know, we found a way to get it done. At the end of the day, that’s what it all comes down to.

Then, today, in this game specifically..

Yeah, I struggled a little bit with..

Well, you had that great play along the baseline…

Yeah, I had that dunk, but I struggled a little bit with Jahlil’s size down low. He’s a great shot-blocker. So, that’s why I need to go home and work on finishing at the basket, hitting that mid-range pull-up, and stuff like that so that, in these types of games, I can become more useful when I’m on the floor.

Well, you’re obviously quite useful, but what happened with your ankle?

It’s hurt. It actually hurts a lot.

Was that from before this game?

Yeah, it intensified in this game, but it really started about three games back. There’ll be plenty of time to rest it.

Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.

Yeah, yeah. Thanks.

What was your experience like both playing with USA Basketball and making the team this year?

That was a great experience being able to make that team and then being able to play alongside all of those high-major caliber players. It was a once in a lifetime experience..being able to be so young and be able to travel the country with so many great players.

You guys were rock stars.

Yeah, and, you know, when we won, I was just so happy and it was because everyone was going for the team. Everyone was playing for a common goal, which was to win the gold medal and so it was really a great experience generally. I’m really proud of that.

To a degree, it was really your coming out party internationally. You really set yourself apart through your physicality and versatility.

Well, when I went out there, the coaches told me that my role was just to play hard and to rebound. I just took that and ran with it. You know that I got a lot of opportunities through transition buckets by hustling and through our press. Also, I tried to help through not allowing the other team to get buckets. I really just tried to play my role and fortunately it turned out well for all of us. It was a blessing.

Who did you room with over there?

I roomed with Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones, and BeeJay Anya over there.

Jahlil had mentioned that. I asked him for a scouting report on you and he’s also very close with Tyus (Jones). What’s your relationship like with them?

Yeah, I mean we’re very close and, frankly, us three are looking at going to the same school together.

Is that fairly serious?

Yes, it’s serious. We’ve talked about what schools we like and stuff like that, but..

They’re good kids.

Yeah, and I really enjoy being around them. They’re some of my best friends and they’re not from my city or even state. I like them a lot.

Good taste. Now, the other major thing since we last spoke was that Duke offered you a scholarship.

When I got back from Lithuania, once I got to Vegas..

I was actually there that day and ran into Jahlil.

Oh, yeah.

It was crazy.

Yeah, yeah, definitely. So we saw Coach K that day, you know, working, but the day before I spoke with the assistant coach and he told me that they were going to be offering me pretty soon or, well, he actually texted me.

Coach Capel or Coach James?

Coach Capel..and so a couple of days later, Coach K called me once I got back home and offered me a scholarship.

And what was your initial reaction?

I mean I was ecstatic to be offered a scholarship from a high-major school like that with a lot of tradition and one of the greatest coaches ever. It was really a blessing.

What do you know about them?

I just know the tradition and how good of a coach that Coach K is and how many NBA players that they have produced. Also, it’s a great academic school.

I remember that you go to a great high school academically as well in St. John’s.

Yes, it is.

Do you have any visits planned?

On August tenth, I’ll visit UCLA.

Anything else?

No, not yet.

In terms of your overall timeline, do you view this as still early in the process? Middle? Late?

It’s transitioning to the middle. I’m trying to decide by Christmas of my senior year.

I know that you had an extensive list to start with. Are you planning on cutting that down to a more manageable number in the near future?

Yeah, I’m trying to narrow it down to ten by the early Fall.

Ten. Do you view this as the best basketball that you’ve played so far in your life?

I mean I think I can play better.

In the future, sure, but as of this point..

I think that my jump shot is better than I’ve shown. I just need to focus on improving..

Actually, efficiency, recognizing what is working in a given game, and playing within yourself are some strengths that you have that are usually developed through experience by older players. I think those are some of the distinguishing strengths of yours. What is your mindset?

I mean I just start off each game with the mindset that I need to score. If I’m not making jump shots, then I’m not going to take them unless I’m open. I’m going to try to either find an open shooter, drive for a closer shot, or look to finish around the basket.

I assume that your shooting is one of the main things that you’re trying to work on.

Yeah, I focus a lot on my jump shooting. The crazy thing is that back home, whenever I’m in school ball, I can make everything. I can make my jump shots consistently, but, for whatever reason, out here, I just can’t make them.

I’ve seen your crazy numbers and they clearly indicate that you’re capable of it.

Yeah, I just try to not let it get to my head and just think that the next one is going in.

Now, do you work with your brother? Your father?

Yeah, my brother, my father, and Coach John Lucas.

Oh, John Lucas. That’s quite a trio. What’s been your father’s advice? Obviously, he was successful in college and had a professional career.

Well, one of the main things that he keeps telling me is to just keep playing. Don’t focus necessarily on an individual play. Know that the next shot is going to go in.

Does he often guide you? I’m trying to figure out the relationship dynamics.

He guides me, but..

Does he take a backed-off approach?

Yeah, he sort of backs off because he’s been through it all. I would say that my mom is more involved with, for example, the recruitment right now.

What are their thoughts right now with what you accomplished with USA Basketball?

My mom is very proud of me. My dad is too. Well, my whole family really. She just wants me to stay humble, not get a big head, and keep working on my game.

Great advice. What are your goals for next season? You’ve had two successful runs. What are your goals, both collectively as a team and individually for the next high school season?

I mean we won our state championship for the last two years and so that is definitely our first goal. We’d like to win more games during the regular season as well too. As far as me, I’d just like to keep playing my game and then, hopefully, during my senior year, I’d really like to be a McDonald’s All-American. I just want to make my teammates better. I’d like be able to help showcase them and I’d like to be able to play in and compete in national tournaments.

I know that you had seven sophomores this year. Do you have a fairly loaded team next year?

No, not really.

Sorry about that. For the audience members that have never seen you play before, can you describe your overall game? You’re about 6’5″..

Yeah, I’m about 6’6″ 212 pounds. I’ve got pretty good size arms for a guard. I can play the point, well, really the one, two, three or four really. I can guard all of those positions. I’m athletic. I can handle the ball. I can knock down my jump shots. I can protect the rim and rebound.

Do you work on strength and conditioning as well?

Yeah, I do a bunch of drills..some simple conditioning drills like jumping over hurdles and things like that.

I think that there are so many young people that don’t focus on that aspect until it’s much later and wind up using up their first year of college to prepare themselves physically for the next level.

Yeah, exactly, I’m preparing now so that I’ll be prepared to contribute early. I’m definitely focusing on all aspects.

You’ve won two state titles already.

Yeah, it’s been cool. It definitely helped me grow as a player. It was just fun being able to do it with two different teams and to be able to win it with my friends.

On the first one, you were able to win it with your brother.

Yeah, that was really cool.

You had forty-three points, drove the lane at the end, and dished it down low to your older brother to make the game-winning bucket.

Yeah, that was great to be able to share it with him.

I read in one interview that you actually really liked football, but that it was obviously a necessary sacrifice.

Yeah, I mean I really like football and all that, but basketball is just a better sport for me.

You had also suffered a concussion earlier when you were going against some NBA guys.

Yeah, I did unfortunately. I mean they’re just bigger guys and one of them just knocked me around when I was younger.

Who was the guy that did it to you?

I think it was Gerald Green.

Your father went to the University of Houston and was part of that Phi Slamma Jamma. What would you say that you’ve gotten most from your father?

I would say my athleticism. That and he always says to remain humble.

Your high school, St. John’s, is regarded as one of the best in the country academically.

Yeah, it’s a challenge. It’s definitely a challenge to balance the academics and athletics, but it’s one that I can handle.

Has it been difficult to balance the two?

It’s definitely been necessary to learn how to balance the two. It’s difficult, but I like the challenge.

What’s your relationship like with your AAU roommate Justin Jackson?

We work out together on occasion, but we’re not too close. We’re getting along better.

Do you plan on visiting Duke?

I don’t know if we definitely have a visit planned, but I know that one of my coaches has been talking to them.

What are you looking for in a program, whenever you do decide?

The coach. I’d like a really coach and a comfortable environment.

Unselfishness is something that repeatedly comes up when I talk to others about you.

Yeah, I guess that I’m pretty unselfish. I mean it’s in my nature, but my coaches often’ll say that I need to be more selfish out there on the court. I don’t know. I guess it’s something that I need to work on or balance. It’s not something that I think about too much when I just play, but I guess I’m unselfish.

On the AAU circuit, part of it was out of necessity, but you’ve played a lot of point guard and created some mismatches for your opponents. How about playing the point guard position at the next level?

I think I’d need to work on my ball-handling a lot more.

What has been your primary role on this Houston Hoops team?

Leader

The leader?

Yes.

From your perspective, what went on the time that you were thrown out of the game after dunking the ball?

I dunked on this guy. The ref said that I looked upset at him. I didn’t say anything. Then, they gave me a tech. I said I didn’t say anything and then he ejected me.

Another adjective description that comes up with you is efficient.

Yeah, I try not to take bad shots. If a teammate has a better shot, I try to get it to them and they should take it. I try to make the shots  that I can and move the ball when I can’t. If I’m not feeling it in a given game, I’ll try to drive to the basket more.

What do you consider your strengths and weaknesses?

I would say that my strengths are probably my athleticism and my IQ and my weakness is probably my jump shooting.

What would you like the audience to know about you away from the court?

I’m a fun guy. I’m pretty serious on the court, but I like to have fun away from it.

Is there a player that you try to model your game after?

Probably James Harden

James Harden. Well, he’s a similar size.Were you a fan of any teams growing up? I thought I heard that you were.

Yeah, Florida and the University of Texas football teams.

That’s what I thought, but no basketball ones.

Yeah, no.

Who’s been the toughest guy that you’ve had to guard so far?

I’m not sure, probably Tyus Jones.

Tyus Jones. Well, thank you very much, Justise.

Sure thing, no problem.

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Duke Basketball Team and Recruiting Update – New names and Vegas

 

Semi Ojeleye

 As the AAU season winds down, here is yet another BDN Premium Duke Basketball Team and Recruiting Update for our members.  Are you ready for a few thousand words on the latest?  If so, keep reading and be sure to join to get all the freshest info.   In this edition I reveal some new names on the radar, give an in-depth recap of the Duke targets from the recent Nike Peach Jam, and more.  Know that this is the perfect time to join BDN Premium in that we have recruiting analyst Andrew Slater reporting from Las Vegas all weekend long.

Let’s start with a recap of Peach Jam happenings :
Semi Ojeleye - What you see is what you get, and that is consistent effort.  Ojeleye has a college-ready body, and he uses it to his advantage.  In Augusta, he struggled a bit from the outside, and never really found his rhythm, but nevertheless he is a versatile stat stuffer who guards multiple positions, and who plays team basketball, so what’s not to like?  Semi is a classy young man on the court and off, and is a perfect fit for the Blue Devils — and some of the Duke staff feel it is just a matter of time with Ojeleye.  I think he’s a real Duke-type kid, and a player I would love to see in a Duke uniform.
Julius Randle - After his first game in Augusta, I was ready to proclaim him the top player in his class.  He dominated that game, but in the rest of the tournament, though his overall numbers were strong, [private] I saw him miss an unusually large number of chippies.  Part of that may be because, while he’s a real physical specimen, he’s not a great leaper.  Also, he moved outside more than expected.  He plays for a Texas Titans team that runs a three guard lineup, so it seemed unnecessary for him to handle the ball on the perimeter as much as he did.  Randle is great with the ball in his hands, but he will not be used that way in college unless he goes to a team with little talent.  Which is highly unlikely.  When he takes it to the hole,  he finishes with authority and when he draws fouls, he is a decent free throw shooter.  When Randle does go down to the blocks, he dominates, and while I realize he is trying to broaden his game, in my opinion he needs to go down in the low post more often, as at this point on the AAU circuit he is a man among boys down there.  He is also an intimidating defender down low.
I will say, however, that when Randle went against better competition, he struggled a bit.  He has the propensity to be a little foul prone; he is like a bull in a china shop, almost inviting contact on every play, and when he’s out of control, it gets him in trouble.
The gym was packed for each Titans game.  Coach Capel missed only one, and in that instance Nate James was there in his stead.  The highlight was the matchup with CIA Bounce and stud forward Andrew Wiggins, in a game for the ages.  Wiggins got the better of Julius, but not by a wide margin.  Randle struggled getting his shot off when he went one-on-one versus the ultra-athletic (though smaller) Wiggins; Randle also was saddled with two early fouls, which did not allow him to remain aggressive down the stretch, and ultimately he fouled out.
While Randle may have fallen to #2 or #3 in the imaginary rankings, he can reclaim the top spot by simply taking his team far in Orlando over the next several days.  Make no mistake, Julius is a special talent, and is one of the four best players in high school basketball.  He’s going to be an immediate impact player at the college level.  Randle, quite simply, is as likely as anyone to have a one-and-done type of freshman season.
Julius Randle

Matt Jones - Matt has improved his game.  He is better off the dribble, he is a good (but occasionally streaky) shooter and he now loves to mix it up on put-backs and other plays underneath.  He has improved defensively as well; he checked Andrew Wiggins for much of their matchup and did a great job on him on the perimeter despite giving up some size.  In fact, most of Wiggins’s hoops came on angles and also off of steals and breakaways, meaning there were few times when he faced up Jones for a jump shot.  Jones tried to carry his team after Randle fouled out, but a dribble off the opponent’s foot derailed that.  It was clear that he was the go-to guy when Randle was out.  Matt erupted for a couple of 25+ point games during the event, and overall played very well.

Jahlil Okafor -  There is always a game in each tournament when he is just not impressive, but he always bounces back.  As I’ve mentioned before, Okafor continues to be plagued by the fact that his Mac Irvin teammates simply do not look for him in the blocks as they should.  The result is they get dusted.  It didn’t help that Jabari Parker did not play for Mac this past week due to his foot injury, and that certainly changed the team’s dynamic.  It took them awhile to adjust as a team, but when they finally started going inside to Okafor, he answered the bell, shooting an efficient 7 of 8 from the field and grabbing 13 boards.  In the team’s remaining games, his teammates continued to feed him, and Okafor really responded with solid numbers the rest of the way.  His body is still a work in progress — it is truly frightening to think what he may look like once all the baby fat is off.
Marcus Lee - Two words.  Foul prone.  In three of his games, he landed on the bench with five fouls, and his numbers were down due to the reduced minutes.  But when he did play, he was good, and he did save his best two games for late.   But overall, I was disappointed by his play and that of his team, as California Supreme layed an egg, winning (if I’m not mistaken) but a single game.  Lee is athletic and long, but tends to disappear for stretches.  Personally, I think he hurt himself here, and he is not what I consider to be a super elite player.   The staff watched some of his games, but to be honest, most of them were a bore.
Theo Pinson - Pinson is steady and he’s been that all summer long, and in the process he has solidified himself as one of the very best players in his class.  His jumper is ugly but it works for him, and his slashing ability is quite nice.  He’s getting better and is just starting to get a bit more serious in thinking about schools, which is good because he and his dad have been talking for a long time about having a lot of time to decide.  Make no mistake, the offer to Justise Winslow did not go unnoticed by the Pinson camp.  While there was some concern, the fact is that Pinson has visited Duke, played at Duke, been to games at Duke, and he stays in contact with Duke, so there are no real worries.  I have to admit, it upsets me that I cannot share more about this, but the reason is the unwarranted knee-jerk reaction from some on the board who state that there has been no TLC for Theo from the staff, when in reality, that is hardly the case.  Again, Pinson has just not been that serious about his recruitment.  So why should Duke be all over him if he hasn’t been that focused on it?  Duke has done its due diligence; Theo has an offer and has had an offer, but it simply got lost in translation.  Sure, he was excited by the UNC offer as well, but he and his dad know Duke features wings, so some members need to chill out a bit and try not to go into “sky is falling” mode when you really have only limited information on the details.  Pinson likes Duke and Duke likes Pinson, and thus the offer.  For now, enough said.
Justise Winslow

Justise Winslow - I love his game and I liked his demeanor during my interview, as he was respectful, he took his time with each response, and he said all the right things.  Justise is another kid who would be a great fit at Duke, as his education truly matters to him.  On the floor, in addition to a terrific skill set, he plays bigger than his size at times and he is ultra-athletic.  He is also a leader.  It’s no surprise that so many analysts are raving about him now and all the top coaches are at every one of his games.   It was truly ridiculous the lengths that some coaches went just to be seen by him.  Anyhow, the Winslow offer is exciting;  I would take him on the spot.  But then again, I would take Pinson too.  There is room for one of them, but not both, at Duke.

Tyus Jones -  He is the best PG in his class.  He is a winner.  He is a team player.  He is a scoring point, but an unselfish one, and can put his team on his back despite their lacking much of an inside presence.  While Jones is not super athletic, his feel for the game is a thing of beauty.  Tyus is also a young man of character and maturity, and he will make any school he attends an immediate Final Four contender.  Lastly, every coach in America wants him. Did I mention his feel for the game?  Give him the ball, surround him with talent, and take home a trophy.  I hope Duke lands him.
Damien Jones - One assistant told me he was a long shot, so I did not pursue him initially.  I sat with Johnny Dawkins and Mark Madsen for a game, and they love him — it’s not surprising that a good ballplayer and good student like Damien would draw interest from the likes of Duke and Stanford.  Now Duke is a little more interested, so I am setting up an interview.  He’s rising in the rankings, but it’s hard to rate his game because he plays on the Texas Titans with Matt Jones and Randle, and as one coach said, it’s hard to figure out just how good anybody is on the Titans because of Randle.  At this point Damien Jones is solid but not spectacular; he’s a bit slender and needs to put on some muscle.  But in a class with few quality bigs, he has suddenly become a hotter commodity.  He told me he liked Duke a lot and that he would be open to them if they came calling.  Duke is evaluating him and will take another look in Orlando.
Tyus Jones

Peach Jam tidbits - I had a pretty incredible seat in between Bill Self and Leonard Hamilton for the classic matchup between the Texas Titans and CIA Bounce.   I cannot begin to tell you how entertaining this back-and-forth game was, and how good Andrew Wiggins looked.  Several times he drew the “wow” from the coaches seated next to me.  I had a good conversation with both.  Self, of course, was checking out Julius Randle and joked several times about all the ACC guys on his trail, not forgetting that he lost Matt Jones to Duke.  We discussed recruiting a bit, and he said that one of the challenges at Kansas is the lack of much local high school talent.   Still, kind of hard to feel sorry for him.  Hamilton warmed up and talked about last season as well as the future, and he seems happy that Syracuse and Pitt are coming into the league. He also feels that football needs to be better in order for hoops to be.  Not sure I agree, but he’s a good guy and a heck of a coach, one who is getting a lot out of the pool of players he works with.  He  seemed to have a quiet confidence that the rebuilding job this season would be ahead of where most media and fans might think.  I sat with Coaches Capel and James as well.  While I try not to talk about that kind of thing too much, it is always cool to be near any of the Duke staff and just hang out and chat.  The gym was brutally cold and most coaches had on long sleeve shirts or jackets, including our guys who were both probably glad to get home and thaw out —  as was I.  Capel had a nasty bug and sure enough I caught it the last day as well, and it has slowed my reporting.  Thus the late update.

But the one thing that may tickle members is the musical chair show that Calipari and UK assistant Orlando Antigua played. Word is Kentucky covets a big-time PG.  So the two strategically scoped out and sat on the corner seats with the partition in between them in back to back seats while PG prospects Joel Berry and Tyus Jones were playing on opposite courts.  The two coaches would switch back and forth in an unapologetic fashion, literally pushing other coaches out of the way in an SRO crowd.  Antigua nudged a Western Kentucky assistant to the side without even a look, much less an apology.  They were by no means breaking any rules, but still.  Not cool.  Oh, and yes Virginia, Kentucky did start that rumor via Adam Zagoria, who sat beside me in the media area for most of the event.  If you missed it, they used Zagoria to put it out there that Duke leads for Jabari Parker, probably trying to sabotage it somehow.  As for Zagoria, he’s a nice enough guy, but if you are being lured in by his sensationalist blog, you are not getting an accurate picture of what is really happening, for he is simply going for hits and hits alone, accuracy be darned.  Coaches know which media members to go to when they want to propagandize, and Zagoria is but one of many.  Other coaches leak a kid’s secret on where he will go to school and ruin his big moment out of spite, even after the kid has the decency to make a courtesy call to show some respect to the coach who has lost out.  And some coaches even leak when a kid verbals to them in an effort to keep him from changing his mind.  You gotta love recruiting!

What happens in Vegas, goes on Twitter - Andrew is in Las Vegas and will be bouncing to various tournaments while following the nation’s elite prospects.  Be sure to follow our site updates and our Twitter feeds for the latest information.  I have turned up a few names of kids catching the Blue Devils’ eye, and one of those is Austin Grandstaff, a 2015 guard from Rowlett, Texas, whose father coaches his Team Texas AAU team.  He will be visiting Duke.  I originally kept that on the down low to avoid other local schools trying to get him on their campuses for an unofficial while he’s in the area.  Grandstaff’s teammate Elijah Thomas caught my attention too, and that of Coach Capel as well.  Thomas wasted no time retweeting our interview with him just moments ago.  Duke is evaluating a lot of young talent in an effort to lay early groundwork.  I will be checking in with Grayson Allen, who is a 2014 shooting guard that has contacted Duke and grew up rooting for the Blue Devils.  He carries a 4.0 GPA and played in the Peach State Classic down the road from the Augusta in Aiken, SC this past weekend.  He does not play for a  big-time AAU program, so like Robert Hubbs, he has flown under the radar.  I have two other names I need to keep on the down low until I can talk to them, but they will come out soon as well.  Once we put names out there, everybody jumps on them.
Orlando - I elected not to go due to the overall lack of #Duke prospects as well as the cost.  But Coach Capel is following the Texas Titans targets as well as a couple of other kids.  As Andrew has mentioned, Nate James is in Vegas.  We will surely be hearing a lot from the weekend as it’s a loaded event out there, and Andrew is sure to do his usual excellent job of reporting.
A lot going on - I thank all members for their patience as we have been beyond busy. More members means more content, so encourage others to join.  I am in the process of doing whatever it takes to make BDN better, and will leave no rock unturned as we move towards making the promised changes actually happen.
Pro Am - Tonight is apt to be the last night Duke kids play, so take note.  I will let you know if something changes.  Some have asked if Murphy will play.  I think he’ll be resting up after a long trip home, but we’ll see.
ESPN U - will carry some games from Orlando, so check the listings.
Please note: I recently had to remove some information because the reaction to it was basically negativity and excessive paranoia.  I have said it before and will again: do not read so much into every little thing you see and hear on the Internet, and don’t believe every little thing either.  After all, the reason you subscribe to BDN is to get accurate information that you can bank on.
Thanks to all of you who make up the Blue Devil Nation, and remember, Members, to check out Andrew Slater’s work all weekend long.  Let’s go Devils! [/private]

A Golden Present and Future: An Update With Jahlil Okafor

6’11″ Jahlil Okafor, MVP of the FIBA 17U World Championships, Photo by Andrew Slater

“Run your own race.”

-Coach Mike Krzyzewski

 

Big men sometimes have a reputation for reaching their full potential later than do players at other positions. But at sixteen, Jahlil Okafor may already be the next great American center. The grandson of Nigerian immigrants, the 6’11″ Okafor was born in Arkansas, but he’s been raised in the City of Big Shoulders, Chicago.  Recently, in Kaunas, Lithuania, the remarkably efficient center won the MVP at the FIBA U-17 World Championships, averaging 13.8 points and 8.3 rebounds in just over 19 minutes per contest, while shooting 59.5% from the floor.

This AAU season, he’s formed a potent duo for the Mac Irvin Fire with 6’8″ Jabari Parker, a Duke recruit who was recently featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated.  Okafor is scheduled to compete with the Chicago-based AAU program  in the Nike Peach Jam next week in North Augusta, SC.  During Nike’s EYBL season, Okafor, a MaxPreps Sophomore All-American and an All-City player at Whitney Young HS, averaged nearly twelve points and six rebounds, while shooting a blistering 69.2%, second highest of any player overall.

On Tuesday, USA Basketball flew the gold medal-winning U-17 team to Las Vegas to meet with this year’s United

As Bright As His Future, The Gold Medal of Jahlil Okafor. Photo by Andrew Slater

States Men’s National Team, which was training for the upcoming Olympics in London, England. Jahlil, an amiable and bright young man who is blessed with an infectious smile and a baritone voice, was able to watch the Olympic squad practice under Coach Mike Krzyzewski and scrimmage against the USA Select team, featuring Kyrie Irving. A rising junior in high school, Okafor took pictures with the NBA’s Most Valuable Player, LeBron James, and the NBA’s scoring leader, Kevin Durant, while watching his favorite Olympic team member, Kobe Bryant.

At the practice, Jahlil, the first player that Coach K offered a Duke scholarship to in the class of 2014, graciously offered to let me hold his newly-minted gold medal and then spoke with me about a variety of topics, including a USA Basketball teammate that he’s decided to play with in college.

 

 

 

What was the team experience like for you with USA Basketball? Obviously, you must’ve dominated them, in order to get the MVP. The word is that they may not let you back in Europe. 

(laughs) It was amazing. You remember we started the process almost two years ago, in October 2010. Around that time, the goal was to win a gold medal. It’s been a two-year process. To go down there and win, with everybody playing the way they did and, you know, everybody getting along, it was just a perfect experience.

This was a tight unit.

Yes, very tight. We’re all brothers. We all love each other. We all get along very well. We won every game by forty or more.

I know. The stats kept coming back and it just looked like a misprint or video game numbers.

Exactly, what we were able to do on the court was almost ridiculous. We all got along so well too. Now, when I’ll be away from these guys, I almost don’t know what I’ll do without them. It was amazing.

Now, you’re seeing Team USA right here. They flew you out to Vegas and we’re in the same gym as some of the greatest players who’ve ever stepped on a court.

(laughs) Yeah, it’s just ridiculous. We were just in a small room with LeBron, Melo, KD, Kobe, Blake Griffin, CP3, Deron Williams, you know, all of those guys.

It’s a little mind blowing.

Yeah, it definitely is. It’s incredible to watch them talk to each other and watch them talk with Coach K and watch them talk over the game plan. We were just on the side watching, but, yeah, like you said, it was mind blowing.

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Are you going to watch practice and the scrimmages?

Yeah, I’m definitely gonna watch practice. Well, some of us are going to have to leave a little early, but, luckily, I’ve got a later flight back home. I get to have an extra hour or two hanging around these guys. That’s like a bonus time. (laughs) I feel so blessed.

Who’s your favorite of all of these guys?

My favorite? That’s gotta be Kobe. Kobe is just always involved. He’s like the closest thing to MJ I’d have to say. It’s definitely Kobe. That’s the player that I was watching before anybody else.

Alright, now among your teammates, who was your favorite? Tyus (Jones) was your roommate, right?

Yeah, exactly , Tyus was my roommate.

What was he like as a roommate?

Well, I mean I already knew what he was like. He’s like a brother. You know we’re going to the same college.

He’s a nice kid.

Yeah, he is. We’re going to the same college.

Oh, you are?

Oh, yeah, we decided on that over there. We’re already planning on it.

Well, that’s big.

Yeah, that’s something new, but we just like being around each other so much. It made sense.

Well, fortunately for you guys, you’ve got great options…and that’ll be one lucky school. When do you get the medal and where will you keep it?

Oh, I’ve got it (pulls it out of his pocket). It’s right here. I’ve had it in my pocket for a long time.

Do you mind if I get a picture of it later? 

Oh, yeah, sure. You can hold it, if you’d like to.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to touch it. I don’t want to break it or drop it or anything.

(laughs) Oh, no, no, you can touch it, if you want. We worked hard for it and I’d like you to.

All right, then, it’d be my honor.

Here you go.

Oh, wow. Wow. It’s beautiful and heavy too.

Yeah, yeah, I can’t get over it. I love it. It’s amazing, man.

Yeah, it is. 

(laughs)

By the way, right over your shoulder is Tyson Chandler. What do you think of him? He’s around your size.

Oh, yeah, I love Tyson Chandler too. He’s a player that knows his role and plays it really well. He brings it on defense and he’s athletic too. He’s somebody that I look at a lot because we play the same position. 

What was it like playing with and even sometimes matching up with Dakari (Johnson, an athletic 6’11″ center)?

It was fun. Dakari Johnson is like one of those players that I have been playing with since I was in third grade.  We met up in camps and the Olympic Trials, obviously. We talk to each other every time. He’s one of my friends. 

He’s a good kid too. When you’re battling guys your own size, what’s it like for you?

Yeah, well, usually, I’m either double or triple-teamed, so I always hope for isos. Even when we match up in the EYBL, they were doing double-teams. 

When you’re in the low-box and you’ve got a guy of a similar size  or, perhaps, even bigger elbowing and fighting for position with you, does it feel substantially any different for you?

No, not really. In practice, I go against Tommy Hamilton. With my AAU guys, we have guys that I practice with that are of a similar size. It makes it interesting and fun.

What was the hardest part to get prepared for, in terms of USA Basketball?

Oh, definitely the altitude. It was something I was working on. 

Were you guaranteed a spot?

Oh, no. We weren’t guaranteed anything. 

What would you say was your role on the team?

Double-double. I had to give a double-double. I tried to help us bring a lot more rebounds and try to control the game on the defensive and offensive boards. Try to man the center spot.

Do you have any visits planned?

No, not yet. My mind’s been pretty focused on the USA team.

What was your reaction to the cover story with Jabari? Did you think it was fair?

It was definitely fair. He doesn’t think it was fair. He doesn’t believe it. He’s a great player. I don’t know if he’s definitely the best player since LeBron, but he deserves all of the attention he gets. He deserves all of the hype he gets. He’s just so humble though. He really deserves it.

What do you think the aftereffects are, in terms of expectations and pressure? As a quick example, I was in the stands and I heard people say, “Oh, he’s no LeBron.” Jabari told me that it’s kind of ridiculous that he’s being compared to the MVP of the whole league.

They can’t get mad at him. He didn’t say he was better than LeBron. Somebody else said it. I know there are some people out there who think he was the one who said it, but it’s totally wrong. You know him, he’s a humble kid. He’s just a kid. I don’t know why they take advantage of him or get people mad at him. He didn’t ask for it.

In terms of big match-ups, do you get more amped up or nauseous before the game?

I definitely get excited, but that really happens before every game. Especially when you know when you’re playing against one of the top players. 

So, there is a different mentality when you go up against players like that. I wondered about that with you.

Yeah, there definitely is. Like during the game, you can feel there’s more of a buzz in the air. You got a feel that more people are watching you.

By the way, I’ve never asked you. What is your favorite NBA team? Are you a Bulls fan?

Oh, I’m definitely a Bulls fan. I like the Lakers a little bit, you know, because of Kobe, but I’m definitely a Bulls fan.

What player or players, either past or present, do you look at and say “yeah, I’d definitely sign on for that guy’s career?”

It’s really two guys. Shaquille O’Neal and Hakeem Olajuwon. Yeah, I’d like to be a mix of those two players.

Well, Hakeem was certainly incredibly skilled and is of Nigerian descent like you, but he killed my Knicks.

(laughs) Yeah, absolutely, and Shaq was so dominant and a Hall-of-Famer.

 He was dominant and he’s got some personality like you.

Well, thank you (laughs).

I know you like to travel and you visited New York in the spring. What did you see and do there?

Oh, yeah, I went to visit a friend of mine and I went to the Five-Star Basketball offices. We went around Manhattan. We went to, like, the Spiderman show. 

I thought I heard from a source that you went to the Flight Club (a bi-coastal sneaker store, specializing in hard to obtain sneakers)? Are you a “sneakerhead”?

 Oh, yeah, I was there. I’m not sure if I’m  officially a “sneakerhead”…I have about seventy or eighty pairs. 

I think you qualify. Wow. 

(laughs) 

Do you still like to travel a lot?

Oh, yeah, I’ve been able to go all over. I mean, sometimes it can be a little too much, but when you’re with your family or your friends, it’s great to be able to share experiences like that and see new things. 

Does your family usually come when you travel?

Well, my dad usually comes. 

Give us a little preview for the Peach Jam. Do you think the team is gelling?

Oh, yeah, we’re definitely expecting to win the Peach Jam. We feel like we’ve got all of the pieces together on this team. As long as we keep rolling and playing together, I think we’ll have momentum and we can win it all. I think we’re going to be definitely the best overall team there. 

Thank you again, Jahlil. Congratulations. That’s a major accomplishment, big fella.

I appreciate that. Thanks. [/private]

Checking In With Marcus Lee

6’9″ Marcus Lee, Photo by Andrew Slater

 

There are certain moments in life where, based upon your actions, your life changes. For 6’9″ Marcus Lee of Antioch, California, his performances with his California Supreme team at the EYBL in Minnesota potentially changed the course of his life. After the event, scholarship offers flooded in from programs across the country.  His brother, Bryan, a former basketball standout at Grand Canyon University, and a recruiter for Google, has been the primary filter for Marcus’s calls. One of the schools that immediately contacted Marcus following the EYBL event was Duke University.

Seven weeks later, Marcus is now scheduled to travel to Charlottesville, Virginia to participate in the NBPA Top 100 Camp. As the sixth-leading shot-blocker in the EYBL, Lee was instrumental in forging California Supreme’s 16-4 record, which helped the team qualify for next month’s Peach Jam in South Carolina.

Duke Recruit Marcus Lee, Photo by Andrew SlaterRecently, I spoke with Marcus about, among other things, that life-changing weekend in Minnesota, about speaking with Coach Mike Krzyzewski, as well as Bryan’s reaction to the newfound interest in his younger brother.

 

 

 

 

What was your initial reaction when offers started coming in from all around the country?

I was pretty surprised. I thought I was just sort of settling in and then…

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Did it change your life, to a degree?

Yeah, it did. Yeah, it changed everything. It changed it to the point where after school I was having a lot of phone calls coming in and I just don’t have any more free time. (laughs)

 Do you like it?

Yeah, I love it! I mean I sometimes get headaches, but it’s all worth it. It’s been great.

 

What are you trying to gain or learn from your visits?

How they do stuff around each campus..I really want to talk to people. I feel that I’ve got a lot of questions for people. 

 

What does your brother think about all of this fuss? I remember that he was, in some ways, your guiding light.

Yeah, yeah, he’s just trying to keep everything away from me… so far. 

Does he handle everything, for the most part?

Yeah, he handles pretty much everything. He tries to be supportive.

 

What was it like in the match-up with Jahlil Okafor? He’s another recruit that I’ve spoken to a lot.

I thought it was great. He’s really one of the toughest kids I’ve gone against. He’s a really big kid, very fundamentally sound. It was a lot of fun.

 

One of the schools that has shown interest in you so far is UCLA. What do you know about them?

I want to find out more about them. I know a little bit about them because they’re roughly in my area. I think I’d like to take a look around. I mean, I’ve always had a good relationship with them. 

 

When they offered you, was it pretty exciting?

My brother called me and he said that they’re going to call you to probably offer you and then I got a call and it was just amazing.

 

You’re sort of known for your shot-blocking. Out of curiosity, who are the hardest guys for you to try to defend?

 Probably one of the bigger or, like, stronger types. Like guarding all these top big men in the EYBL is like, man, I mean, they get the ball, and I get pounded. I try to block their shots and defend them, but a lot of them are tough.

 

Can you talk a little bit about San Diego State? (other reporter)

San Diego State is always in my ear. They’re always really, like, a nice program. I just would like to learn more about them, but they’re really nice though.

 

Do you think it would be hard to leave the West Coast?

I’m not sure. I don’t think so. 

Have you thought about starting to pare it down?

I think about it a little bit, but I really feel that I should just stay open right now. So far, I have no idea what I’d like to narrow it down to..maybe a little later I will.

 

How do you feel you and your team are playing right now? Do you feel, in some ways, that this is, for lack of a better phrase, the best Marcus Lee that we have seen?

Yeah, this is probably the best Marcus. (laughs)

 Sorry to force you into the third person. I didn’t want you to become a diva wide receiver or a boxer just yet..

(laughs) Yeah, in terms of the team, I think we try to separate ourselves by being a very family-like setting. Other teams, they seem to want to compete against themselves and other teams. We try to help each other out..that’s our whole goal in this.

That’s unusual.

Yeah, yeah. I’m sure you noticed that.

 

How is it playing in front of your family? Is it a different dynamic?

 It’s probably the hardest thing. 

 Oh, really, it’s actually harder?

 Oh, yeah, much, much harder. I feel like I have to meet much higher expectations when they’re here. 

 I remember that you mentioned during a prior interview with me that your brother was your role model in basketball, not necessarily a current pro or college basketball player. I know that he was a Division II All-American. 

 Yeah, when he came into college, he was more of a scorer. He tried to focus on that.

 Was he generally a different type of player than you?

 Yeah, he’s exactly the same. He would always try to do the little things to help the team win, things that might not show up in a box score. He got a lot of joy out of basketball. 

 Well, you seem to get a lot of joy out of playing basketball and life. What would you say is your favorite part about playing basketball? It seems like you like to run and block shots.

 Yeah, I love to block shots. They get so happy thinking that they’re going to lay it in and I come by and just… swat! I just love doing the little things. I love winning and just being part of a team.

When I was talking to Jahlil, he was amazed at your speed. He had never seen you play before. He was amazed at your speed going up and down the court for a fellow big guy. That was his take on you. What was it like when you received the Duke offer? What was your reaction?

Well, my brother put Coach K’s number in my phone. I wasn’t sure if it was a joke, but then I got out of school and I was going through my phone and I saw Coach K’s number coming up and I was, like, whoa, and then I was just sitting there and there was just a voicemail from Coach K and I, like, had to call him right back.

What did he say when you finally spoke to him? 

Oh, he was extremely excited. He had a whole bunch of enthusiasm in his voice. 

For those in the audience who haven’t gone through that experience, what did he say?

He was just, like, well, he told me that I was, like, an amazing player. He was just, like, he wanted to, like, work me out and get me better.

 

What did he appreciate about you most?

He liked that I was so happy out there on the court and my energy.

They like high energy guys.

Yeah, I think that’s what they liked about me most.

Thanks a lot, Marcus.

Oh, sure thing, man.

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Center of Attention: A Jahlil Okafor Update

6'11" Jahlil Okafor, Photo by Andrew Slater

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.

 

6'11" Jahlil Okafor, Photo by Andrew Slater

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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You guys played a very tough schedule this year, traveling around the country at various showcases and tournaments. How does it help you now and into the future?

It helps. It just helps to play against other top players in the country, you know, and other top high schools. It was just a great experience. 

And you get to experience different places.

Yeah, yeah, definitely 

 

What’s your current size?

I’m like 6’11,” 275.

 

Let’s talk about visits. What about some of the visits you’ve taken?

Sure, I went to Nebraska recently. I’ve been up to Ohio State. I visited Duke. I went to North Carolina and Arizona as well. They’re all great campuses. 

Can you talk a little bit about each of them?

 Yeah, Duke speaks for itself. Meeting Coach K. it was just beautiful. It was great to talk to Coach K and look at their facilities. And North Carolina had a great team.

 Did you get to see any games in person this season?

When I went to Arizona, I went to a football game. I had a fun time there and the weather is always nice.

 

What were you looking for on those visits?

I’m looking to see how happy the players are on campus, how the players and coaches respond to each other, and then other students and how they interact with the team.

I remember that you said that you went to Whitney Young, not because of the basketball, but because it had the reputation for being the best school in Chicago. 

Yeah, absolutely, that’s right. 

 

You’re originally from Arkansas, can you talk a little bit about your background?

Yeah, I’m originally from Arkansas, but I moved to Chicago in the fourth grade.

I know you also have a Nigerian heritage. Was your father born in Nigeria or your grandfather?

No, my grandpa was born in Nigeria, but my father was actually born in Chicago.

 

In terms of roles, what was your role for Whitney Young and what do you feel your role is for this team? 

With Whitney Young, pretty much I had to do everything this year. I had to rebound, score inside, and block shots. On this team, I pretty much have one role: to be a dominant low-post man and rebound. I have a bunch of help on this team.

I was looking through my notes and saw that you wore your dad’s number. 

Oh, yeah, I wore #32, I didn’t even know it was my dad’s number, but, then, I wore #15 for my Olympic jersey, but I knew that was his number.

 

In terms of your recruiting timeline, how far along do you think you are? When do you think you’ll decide on a school?

I probably won’t decide on a school ’til my senior year.

 

Since you mentioned Tommy Hamilton before, what’s it like to play with him now that he’s healthy? Have you ever played with his father (7’2″ Thomas Hamilton)? He used to be a good player and a massive guy.

No, I’ve actually never met his father in my life, but Tommy and I complement each other perfectly well out there on the court. I like playing with him. 

 

Just out of curiosity, do you have a rivalry with Cliff Alexander (a 6’10″ fellow sophomore from Curie HS in Chicago)? They seem to talk up on in the Chicago papers from time to time. He’s about your size and age.

Yeah, Cliff’s a really great friend. And I have a rivalry with Jabari and Cliff, but we’re all great friends.

 

Can you talk about that last playoff game against Simeon? It was your second time seeing those guys (lost in December at the University of Illinois-Chicago Pavilion) and you lead at the half. For your sake, I was sorry.

Oh, yeah, that was a heartbreaker against Simeon. I walked away feeling like we should’ve won that game. There were a couple of plays here and there, but we’re really excited about the team that we’ll bring back next year.

You’ve got a good shot next year.

Yeah, I think so too.

 

(Interrupted by 6’10″ sophomore Dakari Johnson)

Now, he’s a rival.

Yeah, Dakari’s a rival (laughs)

 

This year, you’ll be playing against seventeens exclusively. What did you gain last year from facing players that were two age groups up in the EYBL?

Yeah, everybody’s got better ball skills at the seventeen level. They’re more developed physically. It’s a challenge, game in and game out in the EYBL. 

I spoke with you after you played in your first game and you had just faced Elijah Macon, who was shorter than you, but built like a bull. You said he was the toughest guy that you had guarded at that time.

Oh, yeah, I remember.

 

One of the unique things about your game is that you’re a back-to-the-basket player in an age where there are a lot of big guys that want to face up or play away from the basket.

Yeah, it’s just something that I’m real comfortable with. I’ve been doing it since I’ve been in seventh or eight grade. It’s helped and now I have a lot of confidence with my back to the basket.

 

I know that you read some of your articles. What goes through your head when you see some local scouts saying that you’re the best Chicagoland center or big man since Eddy Curry?

Oh, yeah, I’ve read that, but..

You just go about your business.

Yeah, I don’t feel like I’ve achieved anything yet. I’m hungry.

Well, that’s a good attitude. You’ve got those big, “soft” hands. How much of an advantage does that give you over your fellow bigs? Also, how do you account for having soft hands?

(Mac Irvin teammate throws a fake mouse)

Sorry about that. Yeah, everybody always talks about having great hands. I think it’s a pretty big  advantage. Well, at least, mentally, you know, knowing that you have them.

 

One dimension that you’ve worked on this year is your face-up game..

Yeah, my coaches are always telling that I’ve got to continue to perfect my low-post game, but I’ve also got to extend my range and expand my game.

I remember that was you wanted to add a jumper and be able to finish around the basket with either hand at the end of last summer.

Yeah, exactly, both of those things.

 

One things that helps you differentiate yourself from some of the softer big men is that you don’t mind contact at all.

Yeah, no, absolutely, it’s something that I actually enjoy. I love to get in there and mix it up. I love to be aggressive. 

And then you can knock down your free throws to help your team too.

Absolutely, you’ve got to take advantage of those free throw shots. You can win or lose sometimes by just a few shots, here and there.

 

You guys lost Mac Irvin over the offseason. He was obviously a major figure in Chicago basketball over the past few decades. He was always nice to me, but can you tell the audience your thoughts on Mac Irvin’s passing?

It was sad. You know this year we’re going to try to put our egos aside and just try to win the Peach Jam for him and in his memory. He was a very nice man.

 

Speaking of your Mac Irvin team, what’s your relationship like right now with Jabari (Parker)?

Oh, you know Jabari is just someone that I’ve known since seventh grade and he’s just somebody that I can always talk to.

He’s, sort of, going through some of the same things that you are, but just a year ahead.

Yeah, exactly, we’re experiencing a lot of the same things with the college coaches and the fans and everybody coming at you, but it’s just nice to have Jabari.

 

The next one I was going to ask you about, but, unfortunately, I couldn’t confirm if it was true. Someone said that before you visited there, that Coach K said something to the effect that you could’ve started or played for him this year. Did he actually say that to you or this just an urban legend?

Oh, wow, no, I didn’t hear that. If he said that, then it’s really humbling to hear, but I don’t believe that. I couldn’t have. It’s still good to hear.

You mentioned about five schools before that you had visited. Have you cut down or reduced your list at all?

No, I haven’t reduced my list just yet.

Who are some of the schools that you’re interested in?

Pretty much everybody. I’m hearing from Ohio State. I’m hearing from Duke. Who else? Illinois, Michigan State, DePaul, Arizona, and UConn.

 

In the Chicago papers, they’ve written a lot about that Illinois job and the hiring process. As I recall, you were a Sun-Times guy, but did you pay any attention to the various articles about potential coaches or Coach Groce?

I did a little bit. I spoke with the Illinois coach soon after he got the job.

Well, I’m sure that you’re a major target. He ought to be after you.

Yeah, well (laughs)

 

Lastly, let’s just close by talking about what you hope to accomplish this summer. 

Sure, well, first, I’d like to win a championship for Mac Irvin. That’s my top goal. Then, personally, I’d like to play hard for the majority of each game and keep my conditioning up. I’ve been trying to work on my conditioning and, hopefully, it can pay off.

 

I remember last year around this time you were focused on winning the gold medal. That was what you were targeting.

Yeah, well, we won the gold medal.

I was proud of you.

Thanks.

I saw that picture that you put up of you, Coach (Mike) Jones, and Tyus (Jones) in Mexico.

(laughs) Yeah, well, that was a great experience. Now, I just hope that I can make the team again.

Thanks for your time, Jahlil.

Oh, sure, no problem.

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