Jahlil Okafor's dazzling post moves are borrowed from the game's best
This story originally appeared in the March 23, 2015, issue of Sports Illustrated. You can subscribe to the magazine here.
Did you notice what was missing? Or did the way UConn defeated Kentucky in last year’s national championship game just seem normal? The victors in Arlington, Texas, scored 60 points, and not a single one came on a post-up. CBS made no mention of this fact in its broadcast, and it didn’t inspire any think pieces that night or the following day. There was no moment of silence for back-to-the-basket, low-block scoring because it didn’t perish all at once. It has been fading for years.
The last time a post-centric team won the national title was in 2009, when North Carolina relied on heavy doses of forwards Tyler Hansbrough and Deon Thompson. In the six seasons that Synergy Sports Technology has been widely tracking Division I games, the average team has gone from using 10.0% of its possessions on post-up scoring attempts (in ’09–10) to 8.2% through the end of the regular season, and film study confirms that back-to-the-basket play accounted for a much bigger portion of offense in the 1980s and ’90s than it has in this millennium. The game goes through phases, and in its current one centers and power forwards roam farther from the basket. In basketball’s original No-Post Era, before World War II, big men were viewed as little more than goonish impediments to a running sport. That changed with the emergence of George Mikan, a bespectacled, 6' 10" teenager who gave up plans to join the priesthood and began playing basketball at DePaul. The coach there, Ray Meyer, taught Mikan how to make unblockable hook shots with either hand, grooming him to become the 1945 and ’46 national player of the year and later the NBA’s original franchise center. The post movement began with Mikan, in Chicago, and if a revival takes place in this year’s NCAA final, a product of Chicago is likely to be responsible.
Before 6' 11" Jahlil Okafor arrived at Duke, spearheaded the country’s best post-centric offense and became a finalist for the Naismith and Wooden awards as a freshman, he was an eighth-grader who’d already drawn the attention of Mikan’s alma mater. In January 2010, Okafor went with his father, Chukwudi (Chucky, for short), to Allstate Arena, near O’Hare International Airport, for a Syracuse-DePaul game. The Okafors were there at the invitation of the Blue Demons’ coaches. It is within NCAA rules to recruit eighth-graders, and Okafor, a 14-year-old in nearby Rosemont (Ill.) Elementary School District 78, had obvious appeal. He had already been excelling at national AAU events for five years and was 6' 71⁄2" and 225 pounds. He was projected to reach 7' 2".
After the game Jahlil and Chucky met Tracy Webster, who was then DePaul’s interim coach, outside the locker room. He extended a verbal scholarship offer to Jahlil—and when word got out to a local recruiting website a few weeks later, and then stories appeared on ESPNChicago.com and in the Chicago Tribune, Okafor’s name was suddenly everywhere. The hype had arrived early, and it was not going to subside. The important thing, Chucky felt, was to ensure that when his son did appear in college, he would prove the hype was warranted.
Chucky was a 6' 5" wing in college who, for various reasons, was kicked off the teams at all three of his stops—Westark Community College in Fort Smith, Ark.; Carl Albert State in Poteau, Okla. (a junior college); and West Texas A&M in Canyon. From 2004 to ’12 he was a senior admissions adviser at American InterContinental University in suburban Chicago, and he would often train Jahlil in a gym near his office. Jahlil had put in enough work on his vertical that he was dunking by the sixth grade, but as an eighth-grader he was reliant on just one post move: “Face up, jab-step right, dribble left, and spin back right,” Jahlil says. “I just kept doing that no matter what the situation was.”
What Okafor needed was refinement. How he got it, says Chucky, “was just one of those things that was meant to be.” A coworker at AIU had recently gone to Rick Lewis, a trainer in Chesterton, Ind., for weight-loss workouts; because Lewis was also a basket-ball skill-development guru and the son of a famed high school coach in East St. Louis, Ill., the coworker recommended him to Chucky for Jahlil. When the Okafors drove to Indiana in February 2010 for a trial run, they found a trainer whose idea of what Okafor could become meshed with their own. Chucky, whose father was a Nigerian immigrant, had been showing Jahlil YouTube videos of Hakeem Olajuwon, and Lewis was also an admirer of classic big men: Olajuwon, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Ralph Sampson, Patrick Ewing and Tim Duncan. The plan for Jahlil was to draw on those influences to make him a complete, throwback center—and it started with his feet.
“People will say now on TV, Oh, my god, how does he have such great footwork for a big man?” the 55-year-old Lewis says. “It’s because he’s been doing these drills for five years. Jahlil is not by happenstance. He’s by design.”
The design began with cones on the floor of a YMCA gym in Chester-ton, and continued in gyms in Chicago, including at Whitney Young High, where Jahlil enrolled the following fall and both Chucky and Lewis became assistant coaches. The cones were guides that helped lengthen Okafor’s strides and trained him to use crossover (rather than shuffle) steps when he faced up and attacked diagonally off the bounce. They also established patterns for post moves that could be mirrored on either side of the basket and finished with either hand.
Jahlil might have been on a pro trajectory no matter what. He has the rare combination of height, wingspan (7' 5"), softball-glove-sized hands with great touch and, as Lewis puts it, a frame “that’s solid from his big toe to his forehead.” But Okafor’s preternatural ability to take what he learned in these drills and almost immediately use the moves in games took him to another level. He went from not being able to dunk with his left hand, to learning the proper steps with Lewis, to throwing down a lefty jam on a one-bounce attack from the left block in an eighth-grade tournament—all in a matter of days. With repetition and time Okafor’s game-usable options have become complex and polished enough to resemble some of Chucky and Lewis’s historic references. When you see Okafor now as a Duke freshman in the post, where he has scored 274 of his 567 points through the end of the ACC tournament, averaging 17.7 per game, don’t mistake his maneuvering as improv. What he’s doing is strategic sampling.
That move from a Dec. 3 win at Wisconsin, when Okafor caught the ball just off the left block against his prime competition for the national player of the year awards, 7-footer Frank Kaminsky, drove hard (left) along the baseline, sensed that Kaminsky was taking away the reverse, planted hard and pivoted 180 degrees back for a left-side layin? That was a slightly less graceful Olajuwon. When Okafor received a feed off either block against North Carolina or Virginia or almost all of the opponents who double-teamed him, and waited . . . and extended the ball out with one hand . . . and waited . . . to see if a second defender was going to commit, before making a decision to pass to an open shooter or attack? That’s Old Kareem, from the stage of his career when he was an adept distributor.
And when Okafor begins his favorite scoring progression, starting from the right block, turning his right shoulder in and dribbling with his left hand—and then either spins back right for a layup or hook, or powers directly through his defender’s body, or dribbles into the middle of the lane for a scoop shot? That’s Duncan, but not in the sense that it’s a mirror image of Duncan. It’s only in the sense that everyone knows what Okafor’s options are, yet no one defender can thwart him.
Jah, let’s do 10 Timmy D’s. This is the order Duke associate head coach Jeff Capel gives to Okafor after nearly every practice, and this Monday afternoon in March is no different. Okafor is taking bank shots from a spot between the left block and left wing while Capel critiques his mechanics: the bend in Okafor’s knees, the flick of his wrist, the arc on his release. Capel frequently instructs Okafor to make a prescribed number of Duncan’s signature shot—a face-up jumper off the glass—because it’s valuable against defenders who sag.
This is one of the few weapons Okafor did not have when he came to Durham but he added it to his arsenal in no time. He hit a Timmy D for his first post-up bucket at Duke, in the opener against Presbyterian, and made it a staple of his repertoire. When Spurs legend David Robinson visited Duke with his son, Justin, who’s joining the team as a walk-on next season, the Admiral told Okafor he reminded him of Duncan. This was meaningful to Okafor. Duncan is his lone influence who’s an active NBA player, and when Okafor immersed himself in basketball as an escape from the emotional toll of having his mother, Dacresha Benton, die from complications from bronchitis when he was nine, he would shoot alone on Chicago courts and pretend he was making post moves against Duncan. “The imaginary Duncan didn’t have anything on me,” Okafor says, “but the real one definitely does.”
The real one does now. But as a freshman post scorer in the ACC? No way. The 6' 11" Duncan was a redshirt candidate at Wake Forest in 1993–94 until high-profile frontcourt recruit Makhtar N’Diaye was ruled ineligible. Duncan scored no points in his college debut against Alaska--Anchorage and averaged 9.8 points that first season as an auxiliary option to star guard Randolph Childress. Capel, whose Duke playing career overlapped Duncan’s at Wake, says, “There’s no comparison at the same stage: [Okafor] is way more advanced offensively.” (Defense, where Okafor has struggled, is a different story—but that’s for a different story.)
Duke knew long before Okafor arrived that he could be an immediate offensive centerpiece. As a 17-year-old on the gold-medal-winning team at the 2013 FIBA U19 world championships in Prague, Okafor shot 77.2% from the field and was an all-tournament selection. “He was playing against guys two years older, with an NBA-sized lane, and he was still dominant in the post,” says Florida’s Billy Donovan, who coached the U19s. The last time the Blue Devils had a true superstar center was Elton Brand, and it wasn’t until his sophomore season (1998–99) that he could anchor a post-heavy offense. “Jah was accomplished right away in the post,” says Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski. “We knew we had the best player in the country coming in . . . and it was going to be fun coming up with a system where [feeding him] is the first option.”
Duke’s guards have been committed to providing for Jah. According to Synergy Sports Technology, he finishes 8.9 post-up possessions per game, more than any player in the NCAA tournament and more than any freshman big man who became a lottery pick in the past five drafts. Because the Blue Devils are the lone college team to install SportVU, the laser-tracking system that has revolutionized NBA statistics, they have richer analytics that reinforce Okafor’s value. According to a data set provided to SI by Duke’s basketball director of information technology, Kevin Cullen, covering 15 home games and four others in NBA arenas with SportVU, the team averaged 1.29 points on possessions in which Okafor gets a post touch and 1.18 points when he doesn’t. This is why Okafor has received the ball in the post an average of 18.3 times per 36 minutes; the post-up volume of the NBA’s leader in that department, the Hornets’ Al Jefferson, is 16.9 posts per 36 minutes. The SportVU data shows Okafor being functional from both blocks, too: 53.5% of his post-ups have been on the left side (with a team efficiency of 1.34 PPP) and 46.5% have been on the right (with an efficiency of 1.24 PPP).
Okafor’s most frequent supplier is freshman point guard Tyus Jones, whose passes have led to 30.2% of the big man’s points in the regular season. The first time Jones, who’s from Apple Valley, Minn., fed Okafor in the post was during the fall of their ninth-grade season, when they participated in a USA Basketball camp in Colorado Springs. They developed such a bond during national-team and AAU events over the next three years that they became the greatest package deal in recruiting history: the No. 1 center and No. 1 point guard committing to Duke in simultaneous press conferences held 344 miles apart on Nov. 15, 2013. One thing Jones loved about Okafor was that he knew who he was. If that sounds insignificant, you haven’t seen how many AAU games are marred by the perimeter delusions of oversized players.
“Jahlil is one of the few big guys nowadays who takes pride in being a low-post big man,” Jones says. “That’s what separates him: that he’s accepted what his best position is and is trying to perfect that craft.”
The low post, Okafor says, “is where I feel like I belong.”
Okafor’s growth didn’t come in spurts. He has been bigger than everyone else on the floor from the time he played on his first team, a second-grade club sponsored by baby-food manufacturer Gerber, in Fort Smith, Ark., where he lived with his mother. It’s always made sense to stay close to the basket. And as anyone who’s coached Okafor has realized, he’s not interested in volume shooting; he’s interested in shots he’s unlikely to miss.
“The kid is a perfectionist,” Chucky says. “I used to want him to step out because he’s so skilled, but he wants to do what’ll give him the best chance of going 100% in a game.” As a Duke freshman Okafor has hit 75.2% of his shots at the rim and 66.9% of his attempts overall, giving him the second-highest field goal percentage of any player in a major conference.
Okafor has a slow, baritone laugh befitting a much older giant. His idea of a joke, one that’s been running between him and the Duke coaches since he was in high school, is that his alter ego is Kyrie Okafor: That, if they would only loosen the reins, he could pull down defensive boards and run the point by himself, in the manner of former Blue Devil and current Cleveland Cavalier Kyrie Irving. But again, this is a joke. When Okafor studies other players on film, he prefers to watch not Irving or LeBron James but rather the post players to whom he was introduced by Chucky and Rick Lewis.
One morning earlier this month in the pressroom at Cameron, Okafor was reviewing old footage on a reporter’s laptop, laughing as college Duncan—the polished, upperclassman version—destroyed Duke with close-range moves. Timmy D tape, to Okafor, isn’t boring. “This is fun,” he says, taking multiple looks at Duncan executing a perfect, turnaround-fadeaway bank shot against Stanford. “This is relevant to me.” At the behest of Coach K and Capel, Okafor has been doing more of what they call “Shaq--posting”—using his physical advantage to bully defenders for easy points—but he prefers post craftsmanship to brute force.
When it came to artistry and natural feel, Olajuwon was the master, and as the reel transitions to clips of the former Rockets center, Okafor nods in silent -regard. After the Dream’s feign-middle, spin-baseline move on the left block leaves first the Celtics’ Kevin McHale, then the Suns’ Tom Chambers frozen and helpless, Okafor is asked what he’s focusing on. “[Olajuwon’s] inside foot,” he says. “Before he caught the ball, he felt the defender and already knew he was going to spin.” It takes a pause-and-rewind for the reporter to catch what Okafor saw right away: Olajuwon turning his right foot perpendicular to the baseline to set up each dunk. Okafor pulled off an approximation of this spin earlier in the season, but there are many other Dream combos he’s still trying to process. He exhales audibly after watching a five-parter in which Olajuwon drags Robinson out to the left corner, faces up, crosses him over, fakes a reverse, pivots back and adds another shot fake before scoring. “Unreal, how fluid that is,” Okafor says. “Can I see that again?”
As the clip plays a second time, Okafor is asked how old he was when it happened. The overlay graphic says Olajuwon made that move in the height of the NBA’s post era, during the Western Conference finals in 1995. “I wasn’t born until that December,” he says, “but I was on my way.”