CHICAGO -- Shortly after Whitney Young fell to Curie Metropolitan in one of the wildest games the Chicago Public League has ever staged, Jahlil Okafor was posted outside of his team's locker room multi-tasking. A boy in the seventh grade -- wide-eyed, mouth agape -- approached the group of reporters surrounding Okafor, Young’s star center and Rivals’ No. 1-ranked player in the class of 2014, and asked him for an autograph. Okafor obliged while continuing to answer questions about why his team had succumbed in the four-overtime CPL Final.
Out on the court, inside the Jones Convocation Center at Chicago State University, a medal hung around the neck of Cliff Alexander. Curie’s star big man had just scored 20 points and grabbed 12 rebounds to lead the Condors to their first-ever Public League title. This was the matchup everyone in Chicago had hoped to see: two of the best big men in the country duking it out for city bragging rights.
More than 7,000 people, including Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, attended. And they weren’t disappointed. The game, which led Friday night’s late edition of SportsCenter, included one overtime-forcing buzzer beater, four extra periods and a game-winner from a seldom-used senior. “It was a legendary game,” Okafor said. “It was epic."
For as tantalizing as 32 minutes of Cliff-Jahlil one-on-one action promised to be, the two star prospects weren’t matched up against one another for most of the game. Okafor played sparingly in the second half because of foul trouble, and Young used a 2-3 zone to deny Alexander the post entry passes he called for all night. “It was kind of frustrating,” Alexander said.
This game was so entertaining, complaining about the amount of time Alexander and Okafor spent going against one another would have been silly. Plus, there’s a chance Young and Curie could meet in the state playoffs later this year. But for college basketball fans, it was hard to watch Friday night and not think about where Chicago’s super frontcourt duo will be one year from now.
Okafor and Alexander both announced their college decisions Nov. 15 on live television. The way Alexander revealed he will attend Kansas was, shall we say, controversial. Okafor, meanwhile, chose Duke as part of a so-called “package” deal with Apple Valley (Minn.) High point guard Tyus Jones, the No. 5-ranked player in the 2014 class. Both Okafor and Alexander are expected to be major contributors for their respective teams next season, but how will their skills translate to the college game?
Most scouts agree Alexander is a more explosive athlete than Okafor. The 6-foot-8, 240-pounder is an elite rebounder and a ferocious dunker. While he was on the court preparing for Friday night’s game, for instance, Alexander casually dribbled in from the three-point line and, without breaking stride, leapt so high his head was at the rim and flushed home a one-handed dunk. With less than a minute left in the first quarter, Alexander threw down another gym-shaking jam. Ask people who’ve spent hours watching Alexander, and they’ll tell you the same thing: that’s standard for the Curie standout. “Cliff is such a freak athlete,” sad Evan Daniels, a national recruiting analyst for Scout.com.
Scouts are also impressed with Alexander’s toughness, shot-blocking and motor. While he’s raw offensively and hasn’t yet developed a consistent jump shot, Alexander’s athleticism and physical skills should be big assets for the Jayhawks next season.
And based on the rapid developmental curve Alexander has followed, there’s reason to believe he’s just scratching the surface of his potential. “His calling card is rebounding and just being athletic and tough and contesting shots. That’s where he’s at his best right now,” Daniels said. “He certainly has gotten better and has plenty to work with. There’s some significant upside there.”
The first thing that strikes you when watching Okafor play is how polished his offensive game is. It’s rare that a big man wields such an advanced post game this early in his career. Okafor can work over either shoulder, possesses an array of drop-steps, up-and-unders and spin moves he uses on the low block and has developed a solid mid-range game. One NBA executive with more than 20 years of experience told Yahoo Sports last summer that Okafor is the most skilled high school center he’s ever scouted.
While not as jaw-droppingly athletic as Alexander, the 6-foot-11, 270-pound Okafor is tough to dislodge from under the basket. When he re-entered in the fourth quarter for a short spell, before fouling out on the next possession, Okafor drove right at Alexander, turned his shoulder and bulled his way to the rim for an easy layup. “When there was a one-on-one opportunity, I just went to the rim hard,” Okafor said.
Okafor was one of only three 17-year-olds selected for Team USA’s U-19 squad that won the FIBA World Championships in Prague last summer. He averaged 11 points and five rebounds and was named to the all-tournament first team. The Blue Devils, who don’t have a true center that has played significant minutes this season, will happily welcome the player scouts believe is one of the most skilled big men of the past five years.
Daniels likened Okafor to a taller version of two-time first-team All-American and Boston Celtics forward Jared Sullinger. “He can score in so many ways and he’s so comfortable on the block,” Daniels said. “Offensively, he has all the tools to be a major contributor at Duke.”
Most national recruiting rankings currently peg Okafor ahead of Alexander, though there are some who believe Alexander could supplant Okafor at No. 1 (to say nothing of uncommitted five-star center Myles Turner). Both Alexander and Okafor are expected to spend just one year in college. They are projected as the No. 1 and No. 3 picks, respectively, in DraftExpress’ 2015 mock draft.
Before they reach the NBA, though, Okafor and Alexander will try to help two historic programs on track to earn top-three seeds in the NCAA tournament replace a crop of freshmen that could declare for this summer’s draft. Kansas forward Andrew Wiggins, center Joel Embiid and small forward Wayne Selden are considered first-round prospects, as is Duke forward Jabari Parker.