Next in line: Freshman Jahlil Okafor ready to take mantle as Duke's star
DURHAM, N.C. – The class is called Decoding Disney. It is an introductory writing course at Duke, and it explores the values, messages and ideology in some of the company’s canonical films. In his first semester of college, Jahlil Okafor is lucky enough to like all of his classes. As a Disney fan, this is one of his favorites. He also says it is kind of ruining his childhood.
He did not imagine, for example, that the Seven Dwarfs are a motion picture studio’s way of making fun of people with disabilities. And then there’s Pocahontas. Okafor always assumed she was a heroine trying to bridge the gap between one culture and another, and not, say, representative of an over-emphasis on beauty. And all those fat and ugly villains? Do they teach children to dislike anyone who is overweight or unattractive? These are things Jahlil Okafor had not thought about. These are things he didn’t want to think about.
Also on the syllabus: “The Lion King.” That is his favorite movie. Apparently, it might be racist.
“I never knew that,” Okafor says softly.
He much prefers that everything is what it seems. The 6-foot-11, 270-pound center is the most talked-about freshman in college basketball, last season’s high school national player of the year and the presumptive top pick in next summer’s NBA draft. At 18, he has seen enough that he is not completely naïve. But Okafor generally likes to take the world at face value. It’s how he’d like the world to view him, anyway.
Until now, it has. Okafor, though, has yet to experience the spotlight he’ll feel at Duke, one of the nation’s most polarizing programs, which means people will now see him how they choose to, not how he really is.
For now he likes where he is because it reminds him of his time at Chicago’s high-achieving Whitney Young Magnet High. His peers have bigger things on their minds than judging him as he strolls through campus. He and roommate Tyus Jones, a fellow McDonald’s All-American, can walk to a field on East Campus, find a swatch of grass to sit on and watch “The Incredibles” on an outdoor big screen, unbothered. There, Okafor is just another bored freshman. He can be large but not larger than life. He likes this.
Because of how he carried himself and where he went to school, Okafor has always been able to blend in. He has been extraordinary but not exalted. Now he is expected to be one of the best players in the country and to lead Duke back to the Final Four. Blending in may be impossible. Most everyone will see him as the aggressive, intimidating force he is in the post, no matter how kind he remains off the court.
There are three other high school All-Americas to weave into a Blue Devils rotation with several veteran holdovers. That dynamic will define Duke’s season as it tries to move past an embarrassing loss to Mercer last March. Entering the season as SI’s No. 4 team, there’s little doubt the Blue Devils have the talent needed to get back to the Final Four. And there’s no doubt who will be in the middle of everything if they do.
It is Okafor, who averaged 24.1 points and 11.3 rebounds per game as a high school senior, the phenom with impeccable footwork and body control for a player his size, which complements a polished post game balancing finesse and touch with sheer force. He didn’t have to face up in high school, but he can. And he will for Duke, which sees value in being unpredictable with its prized freshman, especially because he’s a deft enough passer to allow the offense to flow through him.
“He can be dominant,” Duke associate head coach Jeff Capel says. “That’s what we expect.”
This may require Okafor to adjust how he sees himself, at least at times. He must become the centerpiece of the offense. And that much the Blue Devils’ players and staff will have to draw out of him.
If he was triple-teamed in high school, he implored teammates to find an open shooter, even if he was still the best option. Off the court, he’s equally as generous. Instead of ignoring the cleaning staff at Cameron Indoor Stadium, he makes small talk, asks them how they’re doing, offers a high five.
But don’t confuse kind with passive. He is highly competitive. His team’s loss to Currie High, led by now-Kansas freshman Cliff Alexander, in last year’s city 4A championship “still hurts,” he says. He is also highly driven. From his first day at Whitney Young, Okafor craved his own All-American banner in the gym. (“I always wanted to be there,” he says.)
Away from the game, he doesn’t seem to think of himself often. He is a prized college freshman who, after an open gym this offseason, asked Capel if a birthday party for his 2-year-old-son Elijah was still on for that afternoon. Then Okafor asked if he could come.
For the big day, Capel’s house was stuffed with family members, and a few Blue Devils players trickled in as well. When the first set arrived, Capel noticed a large absence. “Where’s Jah?” he asked. He was told Okafor stopped by the mall. Capel figured Okafor went to buy jeans or a belt. About a half-hour later, Okafor showed up. He wasn’t empty-handed.
He had bought a toy guitar. It was for Elijah.
“We were just blown away,” Capel says. “A guy who’s the No. 1 recruit coming in, people are saying all these things about him, potential No. 1 pick – I hate to say this, but a lot of times you don’t see those guys thinking about anyone else but them.”
How did a player so talented remain so humble throughout a burgeoning basketball career? He’s been working on it for a while.
When he was nine years old, Okafor was living with his mother, Dacresha Lanett Benton, in Moffett, Okla., a tiny town across the Arkansas River from Fort Smith. It was spring 2005 when she contracted bronchitis. On March 16, she began coughing violently at home. Okafor witnessed the episode and called the paramedics who tried to save his mother. She died within hours.
Jahill wore blue to the funeral – there would be no mournful colors for the children, the family decided – and he read a poem he wrote for his mother. Mom, you have a smile as bright as the sun, it began. When Okafor finished, he returned to his seat, put his head down and cried. He was a little boy who had no answers, so he escaped.
“It’s made me attack basketball harder than I would have,” Okafor says of his mother’s death. “When it first happened, the thing I relied on was basketball. I remember going outside, shooting all night, going back inside and crying right away. Every time I would go outside to shoot, I would just forget about everything. Ever since then, that’s been my breakaway, what I use if I’m thinking about too much stuff. Basketball was my thing I was always able to use to forget everything.”
After that, Okafor moved to Chicago, where his father, Chuck, lived. (His parents were never legally married.) How he grew into an uncomplicated star remains a bit of a mystery even to the man who raised him. Taking away basketball for bad grades or bad behavior was always an option. Chuck just never had to use it.
Having learned that he could be someone else, somewhere else with a ball in his hands, basketball gradually became less a refuge and more a path ahead. And Okafor began to hone an edgy obsessiveness about the game. When he was 10 or 11, Chuck recalls, he missed seven free throws during a loss in an AAU game. Furious, Jahlil returned home, marked a spot on a door to simulate a rim and shot balled-up socks at that spot for an hour or two. Because Jahlil wanted to dunk by the time he was in sixth grade, he wore special sneakers aimed to enhance his vertical leap and did exercises in a narrow hallway maybe 90-feet long near his Dad’s office at American Intercontinental University, where Chuck served as a senior admissions advisor. Often, when Chuck finished work around 9 p.m., he and Jahlil went to fitness centers or gyms instead of straight home for the night.
Okafor was in seventh grade when Tyrone Slaughter, his future coach at Whitney Young, first saw him: 6-5 and carrying some baby fat, yes, but also gifted with tennis racket-sized hands and footwork like a guard, displaying a craftiness around the rim that belied his years. “I was like, ‘This is not real,’” Slaughter says.
Despite those obvious attributes, by the time Okafor reached the varsity two years later, he was limited to a supporting role on a veteran team featuring stars such as future Ohio State forward Sam Thompson. Okafor averaged seven points over 30 games with just three starts that freshman season. “He was angry with me, and rightfully so,” Slaughter says. “Our outcome [a 20-10 record] would have been different had I committed to playing him [more]. But I didn’t. It was wrong.”
Says Okafor of that season: “I was so ticked off.” What peeved him most was that he felt he was working hard, putting in time outside of practice to get better, and still the minutes didn’t follow. It created a different sort of baseline: He would continue that level of diligence because he would not be a high-level player who took things for granted. It wasn’t about proving Slaughter wrong. It was about proving himself right.
Okafor blew up as a sophomore, averaging 24.8 points and 12.6 rebounds, then became a USA Today All-American as a junior even as his numbers dipped to 20.9 points and 8.8 rebounds. The summer before his senior season, Okafor was on the USA Basketball Under-19 team that won the 2013 FIBA World Championship in Prague. Florida’s Billy Donovan coached the team, and after the title game, Donovan offered Okafor one final piece of advice. “He said I was the best 17-year-old he’s seen in the post,” Okafor recalls, “and the one thing that would stop me is my conditioning.”
Okafor overhauled his diet, cutting out fried foods and for about three or four months drank nothing but water. “I was a big sweet tea guy,” he says. “Big sacrifice.” He continued using a personal strength coach but committed to extra running on top of basketball and the private workouts. Sometimes Slaughter would send a text message to Okafor after practice and it went unreturned for hours; Okafor eventually would reply, late at night, explaining that he had been in the midst of a workout session. “He was obsessed with wanting to be better,” Slaughter says. “Not wanting to be No. 1, No. 2, just to be better.”
What was left of that baby fat disappeared. Okafor remembers his legs feeling fresher in practice, and teammates telling him he was jumping more explosively than usual. “All those things made me want to keep doing what I was doing,” he says.
When Okafor was pulled from the blowouts that regularly occurred at the end of his high school career, he pouted on the bench. “Like a big baby,” Slaughter says. An assistant might ask what was wrong with Okafor. He’s mad at me again, Slaughter would reply. “He is probably one of the most fierce competitors, that’s that good, that I’ve ever been around,” Slaughter says. “Just relentless. His teammates -- they may not say this -- they were almost afraid to disappoint him in their play. Because he was relentless about getting it right to win.”
About a month and a half into Elizabeth Graf’s speech class at Whitney Young, the students had completed a few assignments. One soft-spoken senior in particular had talked, among other things, about lions and tigers, his connection with his mother and the impact his father had on his life. Graf thought the kid was just so pleasant, and one day she mentioned to a colleague that there was this really nice boy in her class named Jahlil. You mean Jahlil Okafor? the colleague replied. He’s the top-rated player in the country. Graf was baffled.
For what? she asked.
Graf makes no presumptions about her students. (Asked how she had no inkling of who a 6-11 student might be, she replies, “I gotta say, if you knew me better, you would know that it wouldn’t occur to me.”) But after that conversation with colleague, she Googled Okafor’s name. She read all about the basketball life he hadn’t mentioned in nearly two months. She saw Okafor later that day. “So,” she said, “you play basketball?”
“A little,” he told her.
To understand how this scenario is possible, you have to understand a bit about Whitney Young, an elite selective enrollment public school in Chicago’s West Loop neighborhood. It draws a student body that is sharp (the school says 350 of more than 3,000 ninth-grade applicants were admitted for 2014-15, and the graduation rate exceeds 90 percent) and diverse (in 2013, it was 30.1 percent white, 24.4 percent black, 23.7 percent Hispanic and 17.3 percent Asian).
Essentially, Whitney Young comprises more than 1,800 smart city kids that come from all over the city. What is captivating to some can seem standard to them. It was perfect for Jahlil Okafor, because it was one of the few places where he could appear to be something less astonishing than he was. “He just came into my classroom as another student,” Graf says. “And that’s the feeling I had of him, until one of my colleagues was like, ‘Man, that guy, he’s worth a lot of money.’ I’m like, ‘What are you talking about? It’s just Jahlil.’”
He spent his high school years hoping to make everyone think exactly that. “If I had to look over all my 20 years of being principal and assistant principal here,” says Dr. Joyce Kenner, the current principal, “I don’t think we’ve ever had an athlete who combined his athletic ability with his humanistic characteristics as [positively] as Jahlil.” When Okafor saw Kenner in the hallways, he hugged her. When he was late for Graf’s class, he always brought a hall pass, instead of relying on his celebrity to serve as one. He participated in the school’s open houses, designed to attract new students. He regularly attended soccer matches or girls basketball games to support his classmates.
“They just treated me like anybody else,” Okafor says. “Going to class, not being bothered [or] asked a million questions about where am I going to school, things like that. I was just like everybody else.”
In his senior year, he took an Honors TV Production course. When teacher Jay Rehak passed out sign-up sheets to determine what duties his students were interested in – producer, editor, writer, etc. – Okafor checked off “grunt man.” So, at times, his job was to stand in the hall and prevent interruptions to the shoot. But he did demonstrate some versatility. When he was on camera, Okafor made himself source material for a weekly 15-minute production that was the Whitney Young equivalent of Saturday Night Live.
One bit poked fun at his height: The camera showed Okafor dropping a quarter to the ground, then deciding it wasn’t worth bending down to retrieve it. He kept dropping currency of increasing value and thinking increasingly harder about going through the trouble of picking it up until, finally, $100 was enough to goad him into it. Another segment filmed the day before his college choice announcement was even more self-aware. Two news anchors introduce a “breaking news” clip, breathlessly tagged as “the moment we’ve all been waiting for.” The camera cuts to Okafor at a table with microphones before him. He talks about an extremely difficult decision, and how much of a relief it was to get it over with. Then he turns to his left.
“Jeremy,” Okafor says, “where are you going to school?”
In slides Jeremy, who is decidedly not a Division I basketball prospect. “It’s been a long run, man,” Jeremy says, “but I decided on Southern Texas State University. Sea Lions, woo woo!”
“Great choice,” Okafor deadpans.
“He was an eminently decent guy in the sense that he would do whatever he could do,” Rehak says. “He’s a good man, good heart, he’s a gentle guy. He, in the end, was a high school kid.”
It might explain why he was so uncomfortable with his own real-life announcement. ESPN wanted to simulcast the college commitments of Okafor and Jones Jones, who made his announcement at Apple Valley (Minn.) High School, the friends and top 10 recruits who decided to be a package deal. (They’d known each other since grade school via AAU and Team USA.) Okafor and his father met with Kenner and Slaughter to go over the logistics. The idea was to have the entire school in the gym behind Okafor as he made his choice public. The guest of honor didn’t like the plan.
“I felt uncomfortable having them miss their last part of the day of class to come see me announce what college I was going to,” Okafor says.
Ultimately he relented to the arguments of the adults in the room, announcing for Duke with Whitney Young basketball players lined up over his shoulder. Yes, Okafor concedes now, a televised announcement was pretty cool for him and his family. Still, given the choice, he’d do it differently. “It would have just been me in the gym, with Tyus on the other end [of the television earpiece],” Okafor says. “Nobody in there besides me.”
It was, of course, too late for that. He may have wanted to commit to the quiet way, to be a footnote on another school day. But when you’re a nearly 7-foot star heading to one of the best programs in college basketball, being just another a face in the crowd is no longer an option.
Long before Duke began preseason practices, the Blue Devils knew they had possibly the best player in the country on their side, and they also knew this player was eager to fulfill that promise. Quinn Cook, the team’s veteran guard, often ended his nightly summertime workouts at Cameron around 10 or 10:30 p.m. As he finished, Cook would see Okafor coming in to start his own session. Eventually Okafor got mad at Cook for heading to the gym without him, so the senior started to call the freshman in advance.
“He works,” Cook says. No, indifference is not a problem. Okafor works off the floor and on it. He is also capable of more than just playing hard. He can be unforgiving.
The goal is for Okafor to be this way all the time. To be “nasty,” as Capel puts it. During one of the last individual workouts before official practices began in early October, Okafor was getting sloppy around the basket, finishing poorly. “That’s soft,” Capel told him. Shortly thereafter, Okafor caught the ball near the baseline with the rim to his right. He faced up, started backing the defender down, then made a quick move to the middle and dunked with his left hand.
The next day, Capel watched the film of the sequence. He pulled out his phone and took a video of the video, then sent it to Okafor. This is what I’m talking about, he said in the accompanying message. Demanding the ball. Making strong moves. Being aggressive. “You can do this often,” Capel says, recounting the rest of this particular lesson. “It took you getting pissed. What this is going to do and the impact it has on your teammates, on the game, on your opponent – these are the types of things you can do. You have to get in the habit of doing them all the time.”
It’s not merely the Duke staff cajoling Okafor to view himself this way. The rest of the Blue Devils have given Okafor permission to destroy people. Asked what he expects of his vaunted young teammate, Cook says: “Just dominance.” During one of the team’s first workouts, Okafor recalls, junior Rasheed Sulaimon expressed a similar thought to him: If Okafor had the chance to score, to take over a game, he should do it. Don’t even think about it.
“It’s easy when the guys on your team are pushing you to be great,” Okafor says.
In the past five seasons, Duke has won a national championship and been to an Elite Eight. It also has two NCAA tournament of 64 exits, both occurring within the last three seasons: Losing to Lehigh as a No. 2 seed in 2012, then to Mercer as a No. 3 seed this past March.
A freshman from Chicago with great promise, Jabari Parker, wasn’t enough to prevent the latter loss last season before he left Duke for the NBA. Another first-year phenom from the Windy City has taken his place this season. The two are close friends. They have similar low-volume personalities and are averse to the spotlight, though Parker, who set multiple Duke freshman records including scoring average (19.1), total rebounds (306) and 20-point games (18), did instruct Okafor to beat all of his marks this winter.
And now the clock is ticking. “We know we’re not going to have him but for eight months or so,” Capel says of Okafor.
Mike Krzyzewski and his staff know all of this – “A kid like Okafor has a chance to be a star,” the Blue Devils’ head coach told reporters before a late October practice -- so they told Okafor how he could best help Duke. They used different words to say it, but they informed him that his days of blending in are just about gone.
“They emphasized me being the most dominant player in college basketball this year,” Okafor says. “So that’s something I expect of myself.”
Can he do it?
Before Duke’s Countdown to Craziness event on Oct. 25, Okafor was nervous. There would be a scrimmage, the first time he played in a Duke uniform before an audience. He also had his father and seven other friends and family members in attendance, because they wouldn’t dare miss this night. So Okafor didn’t want to disappoint anyone, because even though nothing counted, he was smart enough to know the crowd would be full of people hoping he was as great as they prayed he could be.
In two 12-minute periods, Okafor took 16 shots. He made 12 of them. He scored 27 points. In a pair of subsequent exhibitions preceding Friday’s season opener against Presbyterian, Okafor averaged 15 points, seven rebounds and 3.5 blocks playing barely more than half of each game.
“He’s a kid that wants to be normal,” Capel says. “He just happens to be 6-foot-11, 270, 7-foot-5, 7-foot-6 wingspan, huge hands and great touch and feet. Which is not normal.”
The day after his Countdown to Craziness debut, the kid who seems to be anything but normal was at the State Fair in Raleigh. Okafor and his family went from a basketball carnival to the regular kind, and everyone had a good time there, too. They went on rides, and Okafor tried to win a giant stuffed teddy bear at the basketball shot booth, the one with the bent rims meant to rig the game. He didn’t win the bear, which made him mad. He also tried the rope ladder game, which involves a sharply angled climb up a dozen or so wooden rungs that were about as unstable as the law allows. Okafor couldn’t make it to the top and conquer that test, either, and it was against the rules to jump up and use his long arms to snatch at the bandana at the end.
It had to be an outrageous sight: A 6-foot-11 teenager up in the air, determined to reach the top of that ladder and win, a big kid straining and twisting in the crowd, unconcerned about what anyone else saw.