It clicked early for Jahlil Okafor. You can just tell that he gets it. He understands his overwhelming strengths and recognizes how to exploit them.
And chances are he'll be exploiting them at Duke against helpless ACC frontcourts on his journey toward becoming the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 NBA draft.
With Okafor, it's not necessarily all about upside the way it was for the top pick in 2014. Andrew Wiggins' appeal stemmed from the potential his spectacular athleticism drives in the long run. With a guy like Wiggins, you're hoping the skills eventually catch up to the hops, quickness and explosiveness. You're hoping one day it finally clicks.
And there's always some uncertainty attached to guys whose allure is tied mostly to potential. Who knows whether or not a prospect's shooting stroke will improve, his handle will tighten or his in-between game will develop?
Okafor is a little different in that the fundamentals and feel for the game are already there. Of course, he's an absolute monster physically, but Okafor hasn't just leaned on his physical tools to dominate at the high school and international levels.
However, there's no hiding his minimal bounce and burst. He's just not as light on his feet, and without the athleticism that powers so many of today's All-Stars, his ceiling isn't perceived as limitless.
Only Okafor's most attractive feature isn't quite his towering ceiling—it's his high basement floor. There's really not much risk at all attached to Okafor.
ESPN recruiting analyst Adam Finklestein nailed it (subscription required) with his take following this year's showcase period featuring the McDonald's All-American game, the Nike Hoop Summit and the Jordan Brand Classic:
"From an NBA perspective, he’s starting to look more and more like a 'safe pick' in that you pretty much know what you’re going to get, even if his ultimate upside may not be quite as high as top-ranked prospects in other classes."
This isn't the typical reputation of a No. 1 overall favorite. "Safe pick" and "franchise centerpiece," something lottery winners are usually looking for, don't normally go hand in hand.
But the fact that Okafor doesn't have that visible superstar ceiling may not matter too much next June. Safe could go a long way in 2015, as the projected field looks to be a bit short of obvious No. 1 overall candidates.
|No. 1 Overall Candidates for the 2015 NBA Draft|
|Emmanuel Mudiay, PG, 1996||China|
|Cliff Alexander, PF/C, Freshman||Kansas|
|Karl Towns Jr., C, Freshman||Kentucky|
|Stanley Johnson, SG/SF, Freshman||Arizona|
|Kelly Oubre, SF, Freshman||Kansas|
Emmanuel Mudiay is likely Okafor's biggest challenger at the top of the board, but his decision to play in China could make him tougher to evaluate and ultimately justify as the No. 1 prospect.
And though safe isn't overly exciting, the potential reward Okafor offers is still worthy of a top pick in the draft. We could be talking about a go-to option in the frontcourt and a double-team magnet who pounds the glass and clogs the lane.
When you take into account his particular style of play, video-game athleticism isn't quite a must-have attribute. Okafor fits the mold of a Tim Duncan, Al Jefferson or LaMarcus Aldridge type of big man—someone whose precise moves, high IQ and touch help compensate for their athletic limitations.
These guys didn't have trouble reaching All-Star levels without above-the-rim springs or blow-by speed.
At 6'11" with a massive 7'5" wingspan and an enormous 272-pound frame, Okafor has the body to carve out space along with the footwork to separate and deliver. His blend of imposing strength, nimble feet and soft hands is just too much.
From spin moves into jump hooks to face-ups into flip shots, he's been unstoppable at times with the ability to create high-percentage looks for himself in the paint:
After being named MVP of the 2012 Under-17 FIBA World Championships, he made the 2013 All-FIBA Under-19 World Championship Team, having averaged 10.8 points and 4.8 boards on a whopping 77.2 percent shooting in just 14.2 minutes. In nine games, only once did he miss more than two shots.
It's as if the rim looks bigger to Okafor, whose touch and instincts help expand it.
His basketball IQ is also right on point. He's got this level of awareness that allows him to pinpoint the best route to take and where the defense is most vulnerable.
Okafor always seems to have a good feel for where his defender is leaning and when to take advantage. It could be something as simple as kicking it out of the post to re-post for better position closer to the rim:
Down low, Okafor really uses his mass, strength and length, whether it's during a back-to-the-basket bully session or on the offensive glass.
He's tough to move inside—contact appears to just bounce off his enormous body.
Take a look at how easily he pushes around incoming freshman Karl Towns, a potential top-five pick and true 7-footer at Kentucky:
He'll end up making a few respectable college big men look completely inferior as a 19-year-old freshman. Okafor was probably ready for Division I as a junior in high school.
But over the past year, Okafor, who's built on the heavier side, has drawn rave reviews for his improved conditioning and mobility.
"His body is shaping up into where he can run the floor in consecutive trips like never before," said (subscription required) ESPN's Paul Biancardi following the Jordan Brand Classic. "Okafor is strong and physical and in the best shape I have seen him, and his motor is hitting on all cylinders," added (subscription required) ESPN's Reggie Rankin.
Okafor told Basketball Insiders' Alex Kennedy:
Right now, I’m in the best shape that I’ve ever been in – in my entire life. It all has to do with changing my diet. ... It’s really helping me. I’m already seeing the improvement on the floor when I’m playing, working out or playing with some of my friends. I think I’m definitely far and away better from where I was last year.
Defense will be a point of emphasis for Okafor and scouts next season. While he's got the tools to evolve into an effective rim protector, he hasn't earned that reputation as a routine defensive game-changer.
And there will always be the skeptics who'll tell you his underwhelming athletic ability will prevent him from dominating in the pros.
Okafor isn't a lock to go No. 1, but between a lack of standout competition, his expected immediate impact at Duke and the favorable risk-to-reward odds he offers as an NBA prospect, he'll enter the 2014-15 season as the favorite.