Today's basketball climate is driven by YouTube. Players have compilations of their flashy dunks and steals floating around the Internet before they even set foot on a high school campus, never mind college.
And make no mistake, Chicago center Jahlil Okafor gives good mixtape, as you can see below. Scrutinize that video and you'll be greeted by plenty of dunks, although they're more about force than style.
While there are no 360 spins or between-the-legs flourishes, there is one that ends with an opponent getting accidentally kicked in the face. Another abruptly cuts as Okafor is about to sit on an opposing player's shoulders like a kid riding his dad through Disneyland.
Then, look closer. There's a fadeaway jumper here, a smooth touch pass there and aggressive blocked shots everywhere. The swats should be expected from a 6'10", 270-pound player. The dribble drives off shot fakes, not so much. The spin moves for finger rolls with either hand are another nice flourish.
Accounts of Okafor's exploits for Whitney Young High School, his Mac Irvin Fire AAU team and squads all the way up to USA Basketball's U-19 squad tell us the highlights on his high school mixtape aren't isolated flashes of inspiration.
The New York Times profiled Okafor at a high school tournament last December. Hall of Fame writer Mike DeCourcy of the Sporting News watched him at the U-19 team's workouts in Colorado Springs. Both pieces allude to the same level of low-post craft that are fleetingly glimpsed on the YouTube clip.
Once Okafor got to the U-19 World Championships, the signs of his potential were evident. Despite ranking ninth on the team in minutes, he finished second in scoring and third in rebounding at 10.8 points and 4.8 rebounds in just over 14 minutes per game. For a college game, that would come out to 30.4 points and 13.5 boards per 40 minutes.
Oh, and he led the entire tournament by shooting 77 percent from the floor. While college competition will be a step up from the international athletes Okafor dominated in Prague, having some of the NCAA's elite prospects—including fellow potential lottery picks Marcus Smart and Montrezl Harrell—deferring to him should paint a picture of his future.
There are still warts in his game, to be sure. Okafor made only 50 percent of his free throws at the U-19 worlds. He has to work constantly on his conditioning. His defense is still a work in progress, all the stuffs on that mixtape notwithstanding.
But Okafor knows all this. He told HoopsWorld last month:
...when I get double- or triple-teamed, instead of forcing the shot and being frustrated, I’m looking for my teammates more. So, I think those two things have really helped me and how I’ve matured in the past 12 months. … I’m realizing the better shape I’m in, the more dominant I can be. I can play longer, I can play better and I can run the floor. I want to be more dominant on the defensive end, just prevent skilled players in the low post from being able to score.
So, after all that, what's the answer? What is it that paints Okafor as a future savior of some downtrodden NBA franchise?
What makes Okafor a special prospect—aside from a healthy dose of self-awareness—is a blend of awe-inspiring power and the kind of finesse fans no longer appear to enjoy from their big men.
While that may seem like a harsh indictment of the modern hoops junkie, there's merit here. Just go to Google and enter "Tim Duncan boring" into the box, complete with the quotation marks. You'll be instantly greeted with 24,700 hits.
Duncan is only a first-ballot Hall of Famer who's won four championships and dozens of individual honors. He's also the player whose name is most often invoked when writers try to gauge Okafor's ceiling.
Duncan scores on pick and rolls, jump hooks and the occasional 15-foot bank shot. Meanwhile, as CNN noted prior to this year's NBA Finals, America yawns. This is the man Jahlil Okafor wants to be when he grows up.
The NYT profile included the phrase, "He hopes to become a dunking, pivoting, flowing mash-up of Shaquille O’Neal’s power, Hakeem Olajuwon’s spins and Tim Duncan’s fundamentals."
In the very next sentence: "He watches clips of their moves, then practices them." Most young players are content to simply play with power, trying to evoke memories of Shaq yanking a backboard down on his own head. At some point in every player's development, however, he'll be surrounded by players that are just as powerful. A youngster needs more in his arsenal than just blunt force.
The ones who don't like the contact want to be stretch-4 types, pulling opposing big men out to the three-point arc to clear driving lanes for their guards.
Okafor wants more. He has no trepidation about putting his body into an opponent and taking the pounding on the block, as long as he's giving some back himself. While he's broken a couple of rims already, he's just as happy to improve his footwork or his jumper until they're as clockwork as the legends he's emulating.
If that means that the same fans currently salivating over the prospect of him playing for their university will one day take him for granted or call him "boring," that's their problem.
For more from Scott on college basketball, check out The Back Iron.