Will Jahlil Okafor Be the Best True Big Man in NCAA Basketball Since Tim Duncan?

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Will Jahlil Okafor Be the Best True Big Man in NCAA Basketball Since Tim Duncan?
USA TODAY Sports
Jahlil Okafor is the top-ranked prospect in the class of 2014.

The disappearance of the back-to-the-basket big man is something that old men complain about in barbershops.

These kids today, all they want to do is shoot the three and win dunk contests.

Unlike some "old guy" beliefs—like they don't play any defense in the NBA—this one has some merit.

Take a look around college basketball at the current best big men in the country. Kentucky's Julius Randle put on a show Tuesday night at the Champions Classic, and he did so in a way that LeBron James does—scoring because of brute strength, size and the ability to handle the ball like a guard.

Michigan's Mitch McGary played like the best big man in America in March, and Michigan rarely posts up its bigs. Michigan State senior Adreian Payne was impressive in the win over Kentucky on Tuesday, and he's known as an elite athlete with the ability to hit the three.

Even in the NBA, the best big man of the current generation, Dwight Howard, hasn't devoted his attention to his post game until this last offseason, and it's still a major work in progress.

Well, I have good news for anyone who longs for big men devoted to fundamentals, footwork and playing with their back to the basket.

The next Tim Duncan is about to arrive, his name is Jahlil Okafor and he's headed to Duke.

 

Is Okafor the Best Since Duncan?

The above statement seems a bit premature, but so did all the hoopla around Andrew Wiggins, Randle and Jabari Parker. As we saw on Tuesday, sometimes these kids live up to the hype. 

Still, I'm always hesitant to throw out big expectations until I see a guy play against legit competition. This summer I watched Okafor play in the U-19 World Championships for the United States, and I was smitten right away

The competition was close to the equivalent Okafor will face next year in the ACC, and Okafor was dominant in limited minutes.

He shot 77.2 percent and averaged 10.8 points and 4.8 rebounds per game. Let's average those out to what he would do if he played starter minutes in college (double what he played at the U-19s). He would have averaged 21.6 points and 9.6 rebounds, and that's as a 17-year-old.

Coach Billy Donovan was loyal to his college bigs even though Okafor looked comfortable against the older competition and was plenty deserving of more minutes. 

But forget the numbers. It was the visual evidence that made me a believer in Okafor. What any purist is looking for in big man is already there. Okafor can score with either hand. His footwork is extremely advanced. He knows how to attack the defense depending on where his man is guarding him. He doesn't just go to a predetermined orchestrated post move. 

Here were a few of my observations after watching him play the Canadians.

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.

When is the last time college basketball had an elite center with that kind of skill set?

Andrew Bogut is probably the closest thing since Duncan, and Bogut was the National Player of the Year his sophomore season for Utah in 2004-05.

Will Jahlil Okafor be the best true big man since Tim Duncan?

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Kevin Love had similar qualities, but he's a power forward. Greg Oden had similar hype, but it was his defense that intrigued scouts. 

Okafor is ready offensively, and the new rules will make him even more difficult to defend. Big men are no longer able to really body up and push their man off a spot. Give Okafor the opportunity to make moves without a forearm shiver slowing him down, and he'll dominate with his skill. 

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski has built his offense in recent years around perimeter players, but Okafor is so good expect Duke's offense to be built around him next season.

This year Coach K has created a matchup nightmare by playing Parker at the 4 and 5 and giving him the ball over the court. Next year he will not need to move Okafor anywhere. The big man knows his place is on the blocks. 

And if you're still skeptical of how good this guy is and could be, go watch Parker's first two college games, and consider that last year, Okafor, not Parker, was the Chicago Sun-Times Player of the Year.

Even if Parker was hobbled, only a special talent was going to beat him out. 

Okafor is that. And he's someone even the fans of another generation should be able to appreciate.

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