You get the feeling Duke center Jahlil Okafor is starting to pull away.
He appears to be in the process of separating himself from the pack as the No. 1 overall favorite in the projected 2015 NBA draft field.
To say he's been dominant is a bit of an understatement; through 13 games, he's averaging 19.5 points on a ridiculous 68.2 percent shooting. Nobody in the country has a higher player efficiency rating (37.81) than the 18-year-old freshman, according to ESPN.com.
Numbers aside (his impressive stat sheets have come against inferior nonconference competition), Okafor has simply demonstrated a one-of-a-kind skill level and feel for the game.
He's ultimately like the Jabari Parker of last year's class—polished, NBA body, high basketball IQ—only there isn't an Andrew Wiggins with unparalleled superstar upside to steal his thunder.
Kentucky center Karl-Anthony Towns is another terrific prospect, and one could argue his ceiling is actually taller than Okafor's. But with so few touches and "takeover" opportunities (19.5 minutes per game, 22.1 percent usage according to Sports Reference, 8.2 points per game), his sales pitch to the pros might lack proven results and assurance.
Picking Towns over Okafor would essentially require faith, given his less convincing resume and rawer offensive game.
The same goes for point guard Emmanuel Mudiay, who'll also be in the conversation for No. 1 overall. Only his predraft track record, outside of high school, consists of just 10 games over in China, where he played before injuring his ankle and being replaced by Will Bynum.
With Okafor, there's a sense of safety attached to him as a prospect you don't get as much of from Towns or Mudiay, yet he still offers the franchise-player potential that justifies No. 1 overall consideration.
And he seems to be getting more and more comfortable with each game, as he's scored at least 24 points in four of his last five without shooting below 60 percent in any of them.
|Okafor's Recent Game Logs|
|1/3, Boston College||28||7-of-11||8||4|
We're even starting to see some improvement in areas that don't come as natural to him. Okafor hit two jumpers outside the paint against Toledo December 29. This past Saturday against Boston College, he nailed 14 of 17 attempts from the line and blocked four shots.
Against more credible opponents, Okafor hasn't been as productive, which was partly due to extra defensive attention, but his impact and efficiency have yet to waver.
Okafor shot 6-of-8 from the floor against Wisconsin on December 3, when he had his way with 7'0" senior and projected first-rounder Frank Kaminsky, whether he was bullying him down low or shaking and baking on the move.
Two weeks later on December 18, he made Connecticut's Amida Brimah, a super-athletic rim protector, look like he didn't belong by fouling him out in only 13 minutes.
"He's a force to be reckoned with in the college game. And when he gets to the pros he's going to be a force to be reckoned with, too," said Huskies coach Kevin Ollie, via the Hartford Courant.
In terms of the scouting report, Okafor has flashed a devastating back-to-the-basket attack, which he complements with deceptive face-up quickness.
He ultimately treats the post like his personal office, where he's got tremendous control of his body and the ball, as if it's crumpled-up paper and the hoop is his trash bin. Credit those giant, soft hands, 7'5" wingspan and slick footwork. The rim seems to expand while the rock appears to shrink when he's isolated one-on-one.
We've seen him cradle it for a finish off one foot, switch to his left hand off a spin and drop floaters in right over his defender.
With calculated moves to go to and counters he can improvise with on the fly, Okafor has quickly established himself as one of the most refined post scorers in recent memory.
The vibes he gives off as a highly intelligent competitor only enhance his appeal and outlook.
Okafor's ability to read and manipulate the defense plays to his effectiveness in the half court. It's not a skill thing—he just happens to have an unteachable sense for seeking out weakness and exploiting it.
From kick-outs while double-teamed and pivots or pumps that fool his man to knowing what angle he needs to seal his man off before even catching the entry pass, Okafor's understanding of the game is truly exceptional.
The biggest question concerning Okafor really isn't that concerning at all. He's not your Dwight Howard-Andre Drummond-DeAndre Jordan type of athlete. Okafor lacks the above-the-rim explosiveness and bounce that traditionally fuels NBA upside.
But look around the league—the center position isn't exactly a spot that requires spectacular athleticism to dominate from.
Between his monster physical tools (6'11", 270-pound frame, extreme length) and extraordinarily sharp skills, along with a lack of standout No. 1 overall options in the projected 2015 field, Okafor's stock should be able to withstand a small knock on his athletic ability.
At this stage, leaving him on the board to chase Towns' or Mudiay's long-term potential would seem like a serious gamble. I can't imagine the Philadelphia 76ers would make it—not with Nerlens Noel disappointing and Joel Embiid still physically unproven.
And you know the New York Knicks will be all over Okafor, given their desperate need for a big man, particularly one who could help out right away.
Okafor started the year as the consensus No. 1 overall favorite. And through roughly six weeks of college hoops, his odds have never looked stronger.
- After going for 24 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks in a win over Arizona, UNLV sophomore Christian Wood has become a hot name in the NBA draft conversation. Last Wednesday, the big man hung 29 on Wyoming, and against Kansas Sunday afternoon, he finished with 12 points (two three-pointers), eight boards and two blocks. At 6'11", he's an athletic forward or center who can attack facing up or spread the floor as a shooter. The fact that he's also blocking 2.9 shots a game plays to his two-way ability as one of the more intriguing breakout prospects in the nation.
- Kansas freshman Kelly Oubre is really starting to heat up after barely playing the first month of the season. He recently went for 23 points against Lafayette and 20 against Kent State before double-doubling in a win over UNLV this past Sunday afternoon. With a sweet outside stroke, ball-handling skills and scoring instincts, he's flashed the athleticism and offensive versatility that drove his top-10 upside to begin with. Assuming Oubre has officially broken into Kansas' rotation for good, look for him to do the same with regard to the 2015 lottery conversation.
- California junior Tyrone Wallace has to be one of the biggest December risers, having averaged 20.9 points, 9.4 rebounds and 3.6 assists during the month. At 6'5", Wallace is a big-time athlete who can score, create and defend, while his presence on the glass has been remarkable. He's even hitting 38.1 percent of his three-point attempts. Wallace will be one of the breakout prospects to follow once conference play picks up, especially with two games against Arizona and one against Utah on the schedule.
- Syracuse power forward Chris McCullough appears to have collided with the freshman wall—he's now finished six straight games with seven points or less after scoring double digits in each of his first eight outings. McCullough is a terrific young prospect, but he's a bit too raw at the moment to expect much consistency. From a development standpoint, he'll probably be better off returning for his sophomore season, only he'll already be turning 20 years old in February. I wouldn't be shocked if he made the premature jump and tried to sell himself based on potential this June.
- It's been tough to ignore the recent play of freshman Trey Lyles, who's making the most of his limited touches in Kentucky's loaded frontcourt. At 6'10", he's shown the ability to score in the mid-range (hit three jumpers against Louisville) and operate facing up. He's also doing a nice job cleaning the glass and finding shooters as a passer. Between his size, refined skills and high basketball IQ, Lyles has flashed some pretty assuring NBA-role-player potential.
- Washington junior Robert Upshaw's play has slid slightly under the radar, as he currently leads the nation averaging 4.2 blocks per game. He's also reached double-digit scoring numbers in 11 of 14 outings. Offensively, Upshaw is limited to the low post, where he can convert over the shoulder or finish over defenders, but given his 7'0" NBA frame and eye-opening defensive impact, feel free to add his name to the 2015 first-round conversation.
- Virginia junior Justin Anderson is another guy who hasn't received enough attention or publicity. He's the leading scorer on a top-three team in the country while shooting a whopping 58.8 percent from downtown. After hitting 30 three-pointers as a sophomore, he's already matched his total in 2014-15. With shooting always being a need at the NBA level, Anderson seems to be quietly positioning himself as a viable late-round option.