Jahlil Okafor Living Up to the Hype at U19s for Team USA

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Jahlil Okafor Living Up to the Hype at U19s for Team USA
USA TODAY Sports

It’s time to prepare for another big man who will dominate basketball for the next 20 years or so without selling a lot of jerseys or racking up a lot of YouTube hits.

Jahlil Okafor is that man, and all it took was 12 points and eight rebounds on Friday in Team USA’s 109-67 win over Canada in the quarterfinals of the FIBA U19 World Basketball Championships to convince me as much.

It was my first chance to watch Okafor, the top-ranked player in the 2014 class by Rivals.com, ESPN.com and anyone else with two eyes and any sense.

One comparison jumps out as soon as you see Okafor touch the ball. He is a 17-year-old version of Tim Duncan. He has the size, hands, footwork, smarts and all the fundamentals to bore.

And I’m in love. I have a thing for fundamentally sound big men, and Okafor looks to be the best that has come around in a long time.

This seems premature, right? That would be my reaction. I hate to overreact and over-hype a 17-year-old after watching one game, but that has already been done by the time most guys hit puberty. The rankings and the fact that Okafor is even on this U19 team tell you he’s going to be a guy we hear about a lot over the next year.

Only the hype that will come with Okafor is nothing like what we just witnessed with Andrew Wiggins. Compare the YouTube hits for proof.

Wiggins’ mixtape views 2,290, 525, Okafor’s mixtape 39,783.

Watching Okafor be huge and dunk a lot doesn’t tell us much from that video. Anyone that size—he’s 6”10’—is going to dunk a lot.

What you witness when you watch Okafor play against real competition, which he is facing at the FIBA games, is a player with a real post game.

Okafor is the rare big man who realizes he’s going to make his millions from the blocks. He already has a more complete post game than any big man in college basketball and many in the NBA. 

On Friday, Okafor gave everyone watching a preview of what makes him really special. On one possession, he sealed his man, caught a post entry pass and never brought the ball down as he finished in one motion. On another, he spun away from a double team and fired a bullet out to the top of the key to set his teammate up for an open three.

Then in the final minutes with the game way out of hand, Okafor showed it all—the hands, the feet, the touch and the fundamentals—in one beautiful sequence. He tipped a loose ball back and forth to himself in the middle of the paint in traffic, put the ball on the floor, spun toward the baseline and kissed it off the glass. Unfortunately, a Canadian player ruined the highlight by goaltending the shot. But, again, it's not about the highlights with Okafor.

Through the first six games (Friday not included), Okafor was the second-leading scorer and third-leading rebounder for the U.S. at 12.2 points per game and 4.8 boards, and he was only averaging 14.2 minutes.

Why he’s playing limited minutes probably has something to do with U.S. coach Billy Donovan giving the nod to the older guys. Plus, this is a team built to press and play fast. Okafor fits, but the U.S. does have better athletes.

That's the only thing Okafor is missing: elite athleticism. He’s a good athlete, but he’s no Dwight Howard or even Montrezl Harrell, who starts for the U19 team at center. But like Duncan, the athletic ability should be written about in tiny print at the bottom of Okafor's scouting report.

Here’s what’s important: He keeps the ball high when it should be kept high. He uses the glass. He understands angles. He has all the size, skills and smarts, and he’s only SEVENTEEN.

The consensus is that Wiggins would have gone No. 1 in the most recent draft. I would have taken Okafor No. 1 as well. Whoever he picks from the list below should immediately be considered a title contender in 2014-15.

Okafor is going to make one college team really special next year and one NBA team relevant for the foreseeable future. And if, like me, you enjoy watching a winner with fundamentals, enjoy Okafor. He’s going to be around for a long time. 

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