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Jahlil Okafor’s Great Expectations

Dominant in high school and at Duke, the 19-year-old sensation heads to the NBA Draft believing his best days are still ahead of him

Jahlil Okafor

Jahlil Okafor

Johnny Tergo

Jahlil Okafor

The elderly man wearing yellow compression shorts cranes his head at an uncomfortable angle. A cadre of women fresh from a morning spin class stop and gawk. Small children point and giggle. It’s a Friday in Santa Barbara in early June, and Jahlil Okafor, one of the best talents in the 2015 NBA Draft class, has just entered the local YMCA.

There he goes now, clad in orange Nike shorts over black Under Armour workout tights, headed to a small weight room in the back corner, his longtime coach, Rick Owens, and childhood friend, Adam Walker, in tow. Some septuagenarians and wannabe hardbodies notwithstanding, the 6-foot-11 Okafor and his posse are all alone here. They like the peace and quiet it offers. And yet, as he eases his way into a rigorous weightlifting session, something he’s been doing nearly every day since he arrived in Southern California to prepare for the draft, it’s near impossible for Okafor not to draw attention. People are constantly stopping him on the street for autographs and congratulations.

“It’s definitely gotten to a whole new level,” Okafor, whose Duke team won a national championship this past April in his freshman year, says. “But it’s definitely a great feeling.”

If Okafor is experiencing any sort of nervousness or unease about being thrust beneath the spotlight – which should happen sometime tonight, after he strolls across the stage at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, shakes NBA commissioner Adam Silver’s hand and is immediately called upon to resurrect whichever struggling NBA franchise has just drafted him – he doesn’t show its effects. Perhaps it’s because the 19 year old, whose killer post game, fanciful footwork and pull-up jump shot have drawn comparisons to Tim Duncan and Hakeem Olajuwon, has gotten used to it by now. For as long as he can recall, “the expectations everybody else put on me didn’t really bother me,” says the Chicago-raised Okafor, who was named to the preseason All-America team last November before ever playing a game at Duke, and received his first college scholarship offer at age 13. “I’ve put the highest expectations on myself since Day One.”

And so, even now, as speculation runs rampant over whether he’ll be drafted Number One by the Minnesota Timberwolves or in the second slot by the Los Angeles Lakers, Okafor remains utterly unphased by the enormity of the moment. As he’s always done, he’s put his head down and plowed ahead. “He’s been handling this type of pressure all of his life,” his father, Chukwudi “Chucky” Okafor, says. “His approach to it is that of a professional: work, work, work and not complain. He’s just a kid and he got his first job.”

He pauses and adds with a laugh: “Not a bad first job though.” 

Jahlil Okafor

Speak to enough people who know Jahlil, and you begin to pick up on a recurring theme: He is wise and mature beyond his years. That admirable trait didn’t came easy, however: Jahlil’s mother, Dacresha, died when he was only nine years old, and a young Jahlil was forced to grow up faster than any child should. “People always credit me for being nice to people, but that was all due to her,” he told Chicago magazine last year. Even now, before every game, he speaks to her. “I’ll just tell her, ‘Let’s go, Mom. I’m ready.’ I think of her as my wings on the court, my extra step.”

As a toddler Jahlil and his family resided in Poteau, Oklahoma, where his parents each had basketball scholarships at Carl Albert State College. When the pair separated a few years later, Jahlil lived with his mother in the small border town of Moffett, Oklahoma; he’d visit his father in his native Chicago, where Chucky had gone to get a bachelor’s degree at Chicago State University. Following his mother’s death, Jahlil moved to Chicago to live with Chucky, eventually moving from the rough South Side and settling in to suburban Rosemont.

Basketball soon became the dominant force in Jahlil’s life. Even as a toddler, Chucky says, Jahlil was always competitive with his older sister, Jalen, and cousin, Josh. “He and his sister would see who could eat cereal faster,” Chucky recalls with a laugh. “Whatever he put his mind to he just hated to lose.”

Always the tallest of his friends, Jahlil began playing basketball at an early age; he started concentrating on it intensely upon moving to the Chicago area. Okafor played on an an über-talented AAU team that won three age-group national championships in four years, and by eighth grade, already standing at 6-foot-8, Okafor was offered a scholarship to nearby DePaul University. Needless to say, this made national news. Jahlil started seeing his name and face online and on ESPN. “That’s when I first starting getting negative Facebook messages,” he recalls. “Like, ‘Who do you think you are? You’re not supposed to get scholarship offers.’ And there were arguments on message boards like, ‘What if he’s a thug?’ That’s when I realized that in doing something good, there will be a lot of negativity as well.”

He was already being touted as a likely NBA player. “I’m the one who first said that!” Rick Owens, the coach who has been training him ever since Jahlil was 13, proudly proclaims. Adds Tyrone Slaughter, Okafor’s head basketball coach at Whitney Young High School, where together they won the state championship in Jahlil’s senior season: “His skill sets were undeniably incredible. Left hand, right hand, up and under. Pull-up jump shot. It was just instinctive. I said to myself: ‘God is real!'”

Okafor, who was averaging 24 points and 12 rebounds a game as a sophomore in high school, quickly became something of a celebrity at Whitney Young, which stands only a few blocks from the United Center, home of the Chicago Bulls. The mythology around him only grew after Slaughter had Jahlil, at age 15, play in a charity game with (then) NBA players like Shawn Marion and Okafor more than held his own. “Coach Ty and I were laughing about it, and he said he was proud of me,” Okafor remembers. “That was definitely a confidence booster for me.”

By his junior season, elite college coaches from Michigan State’s Tom Izzo to Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and Kentucky’s John Calipari were attending Whitney Young games and eventually offered Okafor scholarships to their respective schools. Looking back, Okafor admits high school basketball “wasn’t that challenging, but I realized there was Jabari Parker 20 minutes down the road who was doing bigger things, Derrick Rose who just came out, Anthony Davis who just came out. I think that helped me stay really humble knowing there were a lot of other players from Chicago doing a lot of great things as well.”

Okafor wound up choosing Duke University. Heading into his freshman season, he was a bit on edge. “I definitely was nervous going in,” he admits. “You want to play well and you want to win and you want to be as good as you think you are.”

He lived up to the hype: Jahlil averaged 17.3 points and 8.5 rebounds per game, was named the ACC Player of the Year and was an All-America team selection following a season that ended in a national championship win over Wisconsin in the NCAA Tournament.

“Even without the national championship it still would have been an amazing year,” Okafor says. “I stepped into a great environment with coaches who cared about me and all the guys on that team” – particularly Tyus and Matt Jones, whom he still sees nearly every week in Los Angeles – “became my brothers.”

His success at Duke was due in large part to his willingness to learn. “Sometimes when you have really great players that are incredibly talented and gifted, they can be difficult to coach,” Duke associate head coach Jeff Capel says. “But Jahlil was an open book. He responds to everything.” 

Jahlil Okafor

Jahlil Okafor is hardly a goofy guy – he takes his training quite seriously and his goal, he says, has always been to become “the best.” Still, even with a multimillion-dollar NBA contract and countless endorsement deals about to roll in, he can’t help acting like the kid he is. Case in point: upon moving to Santa Barbara, his first request was to buy a Rottweiler puppy. Natty, as he named her, is almost always by his side. He also constantly watches his favorite childhood movie, The Lion King (“The last time I watched it was probably three months ago. So it’s about that time to watch it again”), listens to Chance the Rapper (“I’ve been digging his new mixtape, Surf“) and spends much of his time off the court watching Netflix series like Daredevil.

“Jahlil has been the same mild-mannered, even-keeled kid his whole life,” Chucky says. Adds Slaughter, his high school coach: “There was never any instance I can recall where the stardom impacted his life as a student. It wasn’t ‘Oh, I’m Jahlil. You need an appointment.’ It was ‘I’m just a regular student.’ He was just who he was. What you see as this big, physical, dominant basketball player is completely different to him as a person. He’s a megastar and he acts just like an average old Joe.”

Capel noticed Okafor’s go-with-the-flow attitude the minute he stepped on campus at Duke. “There was a never a day where we came in for practice or a meeting where it seemed like he was in a bad mood,” he says. “He was always smiling. When you’re around a guy like that it’s a pleasure.”

Okafor credits his tempered attitude to his father, as well as his knowledge that he’s living out his dream. As he preps for the draft, he’s solicited advice from former Duke basketball players, including Kyrie Irving, Shane Battier and Jay Williams. “The main thing they said was to just have fun with this entire thing before I go into the real business of playing basketball,” he says.

And while he knows he’s “going to be going against grown men” in the NBA, as has always been his mantra, Okafor is more than ready to accept the challenge.

“I really don’t know what to expect at the next level,” he says. “I just want to make sure I’m prepared.”

He may not be ready to say it himself, but others are not shying away from predicting Okafor’s bright future.

“I think his best basketball is ahead of him,” Capel says. “And yeah, I think ‘great’ is the most overused word in sports. But I really think he has a chance to become one of the great ones.”

In This Article: Basketball, NBA, sports

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