Top recruits Okafor and Jones will be Duke's newest stars
CHICAGO -- Anyone who watched Kansas's 94-83 win over Duke Tuesday night in the second game of the Champions Classic doubleheader might have gotten the impression the Blue Devils are going to struggle against teams with elite frontcourts this season. That might be the case, but Duke won't have any problem finding a talented big man to anchor its frontline in 2014-15.
The nation's top-ranked recruit in 2014, center Jahlil Okafor, announced his verbal commitment to the Blue Devils Friday afternoon at Whitney Young High School in Chicago. Okafor and Rivals' No. 2-ranked point guard, Tyus Jones, made their pledges official by simultaneously slipping on Duke baseball caps during an ESPNU special that also aired the verbal commitments of top-ranked small forward Stanley Johnson (Arizona) and top-ranked power forward Cliff Alexander (Kansas). In securing commitments from Jones and Okafor, Duke landed what some are calling the most significant recruiting "package deal" since Mike Conley and Greg Oden committed to Ohio State in 2005.
"With Duke, I felt more comfortable going to play with the winningest coach in college basketball," Okafor said on ESPNU.
Okafor, who has been a recruiting priority for Duke ever since he received a scholarship offer during his sophomore year of high school, is expected to make a big impact during his freshman season. In fact, Okafor has already proven he can stand toe-to-toe with elite college players (as well as European professionals). The 6-foot-11, 270 pound center was one of only two high schoolers chosen for the Under-19 team selected to represent USA basketball at the FIBA World Championships in Prague this summer -- a group that included players such as Oklahoma State point guard Marcus Smart, Duke shooting guard Rasheed Sulaimon and Louisville forward Montrezl Harrell. Despite averaging just 14.2 minutes per game, Okafor ranked second on the team in scoring (10.8 points per game), third in rebounding (4.8) and was one of only two Americans named to the All-Tournament team.
It didn't take an international tournament overseas to recognize Okafor was special. DePaul offered Okafor a scholarship when he was in eighth grade, less than a year before he enrolled at Whitney Young, where he began his high school career with much fanfare. "He came in as a celebrity as a freshman," said Dr. Joyce D. Kenner, the principal of Whitney Young.
Okafor is one of a rare breed: the big man who enjoys back-to-the-basket post play. The Arkansas native is renowned for his physicality, his willingness to absorb contact and his refined post moves, qualities that have elicited comparisons to San Antonio Spurs legend Tim Duncan. Most scouts say Okafor -- who DraftExpress.com projects as the No. 1 pick in the 2015 draft -- has an innate feel for the center position that's rare in modern-day college basketball, where most big men prefer to step out and face the basket rather than play with their back to it.
Scout.com national recruiting analyst Evan Daniels is so impressed by Okafor, he thinks the highly-touted big man is a taller, more-athletic version of former two-time First Team All-American and current Boston Celtics forward Jared Sullinger. "With much higher upside," Daniels said. What's more, Daniels thinks Okafor is the best post scorer he has seen play in high school since DeMarcus Cousins, who starred at Kentucky for one season (2009-10) before developing into one of the NBA's most effective post scorers. "He can clear out space, he's got great hands, really good touch around the basket, a variety of post moves," Daniels said. The breadth of Okafor's post skills may be unique for a high school player, but he's also developed an effective mid-range jump shot, which makes guarding him a huge challenge for even the most versatile defenders. "Offensively, he's special," Daniels said.
Whitney Young senior forward Paul White, a Georgetown signee who has known Okafor since the eighth grade, said Okafor is one of the best players he has ever played against. "He's going to be one of the greats when it's all said and done," White said. "One of the most dominant players, and very well-educated. His basketball IQ is up there."
Okafor's commitment was great news for Duke fans unto itself. That it came in tandem with Jones' makes Friday one of the best days in recent Blue Devils recruiting history. The two players first met in the third grade, crossed paths at various AAU tournaments and bonded while attending a USA basketball mini-camp in October 2010. Okafor said the two players decided they wanted to attend the same school during their freshman years, after daily text and phone conversations strengthened an already close friendship and revealed similar preferences about college selection. Jones and Okafor hosted in-home visits with the same five schools (Michigan State, Kansas, Duke, Ohio State and Baylor) and took official visits together to Baylor, Kansas and Duke. On the court, the duo -- Jones the quintessential distributor at point guard, Okafor the dominant big man -- have the potential to become one of the best inside-out combinations in the country. "You put Jahlil Okafor and Tyus Jones on the same team," Daniels said. "That instantly makes them a title contender."
While Friday's announcements no doubt resonated with folks in Durham, the mood at Whitney Young high school might have been only slightly less celebratory. The bleachers on one side of the school's basketball gym, which Kenner estimates can seat between 800-900 people, were packed. Some students were forced to sit on the court in front of the bleachers, with at least 40 others relegated to a spot near a curtain draped in the middle of the gym, behind the cameras aimed at the table Okafor, his father and aunt sat at during the broadcast. After Kenner finally hushed the chatty students, she delivered a specific set of instructions. "Fix your hair ladies, put some lip gloss on," she said, knowing they might be captured on the camera.
As Okafor prepared to enter the gym, nearly 40 minutes after greeting his family at the school's main entrance, Kenner roused the students on hand. "We need the star of the show!" she exclaimed. Students responded with a drumroll and loud applause, which grew even louder when Okafor saluted them. "I don't think he expected this many people to show up," said White. "This is a lot of people." White said that Whitney Young students had been anticipating Okafor's announcement for days. When Okafor finally sat down to make his announcement, a semi-circle of media members, lined two rows thick and armed with cameras, recording devices or both, stood directly in front of him. After announcing his decision, Okafor was greeted by Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel. "I'm a little overwhelmed," he said. Okafor fought back tears while thanking his mother, who was taken by a fatal attack of Bronchitis when Okafor was nine. "I truly believe every day she's been my wings for me when I play on the court," he said.
Okafor said he was relieved to make his announcement, and looks forward to helping Whitney Young compete for a state championship. "I wanted to get this off my shoulders," he said. In one year's time, he will join a Duke team that has established itself as the early favorite to win the 2015 national championship. There is some speculation that Okafor, a close friend of Duke freshman Jabari Parker, a likely one-and-done player, might be able to convince Parker to return to Duke for his sophomore season. That might not happen, but Duke's 2014-15 roster could get another upgrade in the coming months if small forward Justise Winslow, the No. 9-ranked player in the class of 2014, who took his official visit to Durham with Jones and Okafor, commits to the Blue Devils.
Even if Winslow decides to commit elsewhere and Parker declares for the NBA draft, Duke should still have one of the most talented starting lineups in the country next season. Okafor figures to start at center and become an offensive focal point immediately, while Jones could thrive in a two-point guard alignment with current junior Quinn Cook. The Blue Devils' 2014 recruiting class, which is now ranked No. 1 overall by Scout.com, also includes four-star shooting guard Grayson Allen, another player who could make an impact during his freshman season.
Mere minutes away from the United Center court on which Kansas exposed what could become Duke's biggest problem this season, a solution -- one of the most dominant centers to enter the college ranks in years -- materialized. The only problem is Okafor can't play for Duke until next season.