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Jahlil Okafor is the Next Great Center

Alex Kennedy

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Centers are an endangered species in today’s NBA. You can count the number of superstar centers on one hand, which is one reason why the NBA recently eliminated the center position from the All-Star ballot in exchange for an undefined frontcourt spot. With small ball and hybrid big men gaining popularity, traditional centers are extremely hard to come by these days. The big man era is quickly becoming a distant memory and the next wave of NBA stars consists primarily of guards and forwards.

That’s why Jahlil Okafor is such an intriguing player. It’s been quite awhile since the NBA could get excited about a traditional center prospect. However, Okafor has the potential to not only be one of the best centers in the NBA, but one of the league’s best players overall.

Talent evaluators have already fallen in love with the 17-year-old, praising his game and versatility. Unlike most one-dimensional young centers, Okafor is capable of dominating a game in a variety of ways. On one hand, he’s extremely athletic and powerful, as evidenced by the fact that he has broken two rims in his high school career. On the other hand, he has some of the best footwork and post moves of any prospect in recent memory. He can dunk on multiple defenders or score using fundamentals. Okafor is truly the complete package, which is why there’s so much buzz surrounding him.

Okafor is currently a junior at Whitney Young High School in Chicago. He led the Dolphins to the city title this year and was named the Chicago Sun-Times Player of the Year over fellow five-star prospect Jabari Parker. He is considered the top overall recruit in the class of 2014 by nearly every ranking service.

Okafor is projected to be the top pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, assuming he leaves college after one year. If Okafor realizes his full potential, he could be a franchise-changing player who has a very long and successful NBA career.

“That’s my goal,” Okafor told Basketball Insiders.”I want to be the premier big man in the league and be extremely dominant on the offensive end and on the defensive end. That’s something that I’m doing right now. Hopefully I’ll be able to continue that in college and, if I’m fortunate enough, in the NBA.”

Growing up, Okafor always towered over his peers. As a seventh grader, he was 6’5. As an eighth grader, he was 6’7. He has grown steadily over the years and currently stands at 6’11. While Okafor puts in extensive work with trainers and has a jump roping regimen to perfect his footwork and mobility, he also feels that his slow-but-steady growth has helped those aspects of his game.

“A lot of big men have one huge growth spurt and then their footwork is kind of awkward,” Okafor said. “My growth spurt has been pretty consistent. I give some credit to that. I’ve always been the tallest person in my class. No matter how old I was, I’ve always been a lot taller than everyone else. It’s been pretty consistent.”

With that said, Okafor isn’t done growing. He’ll likely grow another few inches over the next several years. When Okafor was in eighth grade, he had an x-ray to predict his adult height. Doctors examined and analyzed his bone and told him that he’ll likely grow to 7’2 or 7’3.

Okafor was born in 1995 so he didn’t have the opportunity to experience the NBA’s big man era firsthand. However, he does watch film of those legendary centers and models his game after theirs.

“The NBA players that I love to watch the most are pretty much old-school players since I’m a big man,” Okafor said. “I watch players from the big man era. I love watching Hakeem Olajuwon, Tim Duncan and Shaquille O’Neal. Those are the three guys that are really my role models for basketball. I’m just trying to take a lot of the stuff that they did and put some of that stuff into my game.”

Okafor first realized that college and professional basketball would likely be in his future three years ago, when he was invited to participate in the Freshman All-American Camp just outside of Atlanta.

“My whole life it has always been my dream and my goal, but in eighth grade I went to the Freshman All-American Camp and I was recognized as the top big man,” Okafor said. “All of the top freshmen were there and that’s when I realized that I had a chance to be one of the best. It became more of a reality to me. I was actually convinced that I could do it.”

Since attending that camp, Okafor has continued to separate himself from his peers and solidify himself as one of the nation’s top prospects. He doesn’t remember the last time he faced man-to-man defense (“It’s been awhile,” he said with a laugh) because he’s usually facing double or triple teams. He’s the most talented player in virtually every game, to the point that he can toy with the lesser competition.

“It’s a lot of fun, especially with me being so competitive and loving the game of basketball so much,” Okafor said of being able to dominate on a nightly basis. “It always feels good when you walk off the court and feel like you were definitely the most dominant player on the floor. That’s my goal every night, to be the most dominant player on both ends of the floor.”

Even though Okafor is becoming a household name at 17, he hasn’t let it change him.

“Everything around me is the same,” Okafor said. “I still have the same core people around me. When AAU started, that’s when I started to realize the difference. I would go to these tournaments and all of these kids would want autographs or things like that. Or when I would go out of town with my high school team, I would see a lot of kids who want autographs. Other than that, everything else is pretty much the same. My family is keeping me grounded and all of that good stuff. It feels the same actually.”

Nearly every top college program has made Okafor an offer including Kentucky, Duke, Michigan State, North Carolina, Connecticut, Georgetown, Arizona, UCLA, Kansas, Florida, Florida State and Ohio State among others. Once his junior season ends, he’ll weigh all of his options and schedule his visits.

“I’m going to do that after my high school season,” Okafor said. “I’m going to sit down with my family, discuss it with them and trim down my list.”

While he’s not ready to narrow down his list of schools just yet, he did say that he has enjoyed the recruiting process. Coaches are reaching out to him on a daily basis to express interest and offer advice.

“It’s been pretty fun,” Okafor said of his recruitment. “I talk to a lot of colleges, almost every day. It’s a lot of fun. I talked to Coach K yesterday. I talked to Coach Izzo two or three days ago. I’ve talked to a couple of [Kentucky’s] assistant coaches. It’s a lot of fun talking to these basketball geniuses and hearing what they think of you. They’re always telling me what I can improve on and what they’d like for me to do so it’s a lot of fun.”

Before playing at the next level, Okafor wants to improve his conditioning and defense.

“This year, coming into this season, the main thing that I wanted to improve was my conditioning, which I’ve continued to work on,” Okafor said. “I also wanted to be more dominant on the defensive end, from blocking shots to being more vocal. I really wanted to help my team out more on the defensive end.

That’s something that I have improved on this year. That was something my coach wanted me to work on and he said I’ve been doing a great job. But I’m just going to continue working on those two things right now.

“It’s getting easier. I’m starting to realize what helps me. Some big things I’ve changed from when I was younger are the things that I eat and the work that I do other than skill work. I watch some of the old videos that my dad has and I just see how less athletic I was and how much slower I was. I wish I would’ve done those things sooner, but now I realize that the more conditioned I am, the easier the game is for me.”

Many people in NBA circles believe that Okafor could play in the NBA now, even though he’s only a teenager and still a work in progress. It’s not that crazy when you consider Okafor’s well-rounded game.

A player as athletic, skilled and smart as Okafor would likely be able to find a way to contribute to an NBA team, right?

“The only downside to Okafor is his age because he can’t play in the NBA right now,” one talent evaluator said.

For what it’s worth, Okafor believes he could make it as a 17-year-old pro.

“I would like to think that,” Okafor said when asked if he could play in the NBA right now. “I’ve actually had the [opportunity] to play against a professional basketball player. I played against Enes Kanter. He came to my school over the summer and I actually dominated him. Then, I found out that he had been the number three draft pick. I spoke with his trainer and he was like, ‘You dominated my kid,’ and he was telling me how he thinks I’m going to be special and stuff like that. I’ve heard from a couple college coaches that think I could be productive at the NBA level [right now], but it’s so hard for me to tell since I’ve never experienced a game at the NBA level or at NBA speed.”

If all goes as planned, Okafor will be able to experience an NBA game in the very near future. He’ll likely follow in the footsteps of his distant cousin – Emeka Okafor – and become a top draft pick. Okafor can’t wait for that moment to come, the moment when all of his hard work will have paid off. The scene has played out in his head many times. His name will be called, his family will be thrilled and his dream will be reality.

“That would be amazing,” Okafor said. “That’s been my goal since I was a kid. For me to hear the commissioner call my name, it’s going to be an amazing feeling. I always imagine putting on that hat of whatever team that I go to and seeing how happy my family will be. That’ll mean the world to me.”

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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  1. Pingback: 'Secretos' del posible 1 del draft: unas manos gigantescas y no ha terminado de crecer - @KIAenZona@KIAenZona

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NBA Saturday: Kuzma Is The Main Attraction In Los Angeles

Kyle Kuzma, not Lonzo Ball, is the rookie in L.A. that is turning heads around the NBA.

Dennis Chambers

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Out in Los Angeles, there is a dynamite rookie first-round pick lighting it up for the Lakers, invoking memories of the days when the purple and gold had homegrown stars.

That’s Kyle Kuzma. He was the 27th pick in the NBA Draft. Twenty-five picks after Lonzo Ball, the rookie that first sentence would have presumably been about had it been written three months ago.

Ball’s early season struggles are well-noted. He’s missing shots at an all-time bad clip for a rookie, his psyche seems a bit rattled, and he isn’t having the impact most Lakers fans would have hoped he would from the jump.

All of that has barely mattered, though, in large part to the show Kuzma has been putting on just 16 games into the 2017-18 season. In Friday night’s loss to the Phoenix Suns, Kuzma put up 30 points and 10 rebounds for the Lakers, the most by an NBA freshman so far this year. That performance was Kuzma’s sixth 20-point game of the young season, another rookie best. And to top it all off, Kuzma was the first rookie to reach the 30-point, 10-rebound plateau since none other than Magic Johnson, back in February of 1980.

Kuzma’s path to the NBA was much different than Johnson’s, though, along with his rookie counterpart Ball. Those two prospects were highly-touted “superstar potential” guys coming out of the college ranks. Kuzma? Well, he was a 21-year-old junior out of Utah who didn’t make the NCAA Tournament his last year and was a career 30 percent three-point shooter as an amateur.

The knocks on Kuzma began to change during the NBA Draft process and came to a head for the Lakers when long-time scout Bill Bertka raved about his potential.

“He got all wide-eyed,” Lakers director of scouting Jesse Buss told ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne. “And he said, ‘If this guy isn’t an NBA player, then I don’t know what the f— I’m looking at.'”

The Lakers took a chance on the 6-foot-9 forward who had a rare combination of a sweet shooting stroke to accompany his low-post moves that seemed to be reminiscent of players 20 years his senior.

Fast forward from draft night to the Las Vegas Summer League, and everyone could see with their own two eyes the type of player Los Angeles drafted. The numbers were startling: 21.9 points, 6.4 rebounds, 1.4 blocks, 1.1 steals, and 48 percent from beyond the arc out in Sin City for Kuzma, all capped off by a Summer League championship game MVP.

Summer League stats should be taken with a grain of salt, but what Kuzma did in July was proved he belonged.

Through the first month of Kuzma’s rookie campaign, when the games are actually counting for something, all he’s continued to do is prove that his exhibition numbers in Vegas were no fluke.

After his 30-point outburst, Kuzma now leads all rookies in total points scored (yet still second in scoring average), is fourth in rebounds per game, third in minutes, and third in field goal percentage.

By all accounts, Kuzma is outperforming just about every highly-touted prospect that was taken before him last June, and sans a Ben Simmons broken foot in September of 2016, he would be in line for the Rookie of the Year award if the season ended today.

Following Wednesday night’s loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, head coach Brett Brown had more than a few nice things to say about Kuzma.

“He’s a hell of a rookie,” Brown told NBC Philly’s Jessica Camerato. “That was a great pick by them.”

Brown went on to commend Kuzma for being “excellent” Wednesday night, when prior to his game Friday against the Suns, Kuzma set a career-high by scoring 24 points.

For all of the praise and the scoring numbers Kuzma is bringing to the Staples Center, his Lakers team sits at just 6-10 on the season, and has been on the wrong end of a number of close games so far this year.

While that’s good for second in the Pacific division right now, behind only the Golden State Warriors, it isn’t likely that type of success (or lack thereof) will get the Lakers to the playoffs. So, despite all of the numbers and attention, Kuzma isn’t fulfilling his rookie year the way he had hoped.

“It is cool, but I’m a winner,” Kuzma told Lakers Nation’s Serena Winters. “I like to win, stats don’t really matter to me. I just try to play hard and I want to win.”

Few projected the type of impact Kuzma would have this early on in his career, and even fewer would have assumed he’d be outperforming the Lakers’ prized draft pick in Ball. But surprising people with his game is nothing new to Kuzma.

From Flint, Michigan, to Utah, to Los Angeles, Kuzma has been turning heads of those that overlooked him the entire time.

With one month in the books as the Los Angeles Lakers’ most promising rookie, Kuzma has all the attention he could’ve asked for now.

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Kelly Olynyk Strengthens the HEAT Bench

David Yapkowitz speaks to Kelly Olynyk about his early showing in Miami.

David Yapkowitz

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The past few years, Kelly Olynyk carved out a nice role for himself as an important player off the Boston Celtics bench. He was a fan favorite at TD Garden, with his most memorable moment in Celtic green coming in last season’s playoffs against the Washington Wizards in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

With Boston pushed to the limit and finding themselves forced into a Game 7, Olynyk rose to the occasion and dropped a playoff career-high 26 points off the bench on 10-14 shooting from the field in a Celtics win. He scored 14 of those points in the fourth quarter to hold Washington off.

He was a free agent at the end of the season, and instead of coming back to the Celtics, he became a casualty of their roster turnover following Gordon Hayward’s decision to sign in Boston. Once he hit the open market he had no shortage of suitors, but he quickly agreed to a deal with the Miami HEAT, an easy decision for him.

“It’s awesome, they got a real good culture here,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “The organization is great, the city is great, the staff from the top down they do a good job here.”

Olynyk was initially the HEAT’s starting power forward to begin the season. In their opening night game, a 116-109 loss to the Orlando Magic, he scored ten points, pulled down five rebounds, and dished out three assists.

The very next game, however, he found himself back in his familiar role as first big man off the bench. In that game, a win over the Indiana Pacers, Olynyk had an even stronger game with 13 points on 50 percent shooting from the field, including 60 percent from three-point range, eight rebounds, and four assists.

Throughout the first eight games of the season, Olynyk was thriving with his new team. During that stretch, he was averaging a career-high 11.4 points per game on a career-high 55 percent shooting from the field and 60. 8 percent from downtown.

“I’m just playing, I’m just playing basketball,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “They’re kind of letting me just play. They kind of let us all just play. They put us in positions to succeed and just go out there and let out skills show.”

For a HEAT team that may not be as talented on paper as some of the other teams in the Eastern Conference, they definitely play hard and gritty and are a sum of their parts. Night in and night out, in each of their wins, they’ve done it off the contributions from each player in the rotation and Olynyk has been a big part of that. Through Nov. 16, the HEAT bench was seventh in the league in points per game with 36.6.

In a win over the Los Angeles Clippers on Nov. 5, Olynyk was part of a bench unit including James Johnson, Tyler Johnson, and Wayne Ellington that came into the game late in the first quarter. The score at that point was 18-14 in Miami’s favor. That unit closed the quarter on a 16-6 run to put the HEAT up double digits. After that game, head coach Erik Spoelstra recognized the strength of the HEAT bench.

“Our guys are very resilient, that’s the one thing you’ve got to give everybody in that locker room, they’re tough,” Spoelstra said. “This is all about everybody in that locker room contributing to put yourself in a position, the best chance to win. It’s not about first unit, second unit, third unit, we’re all in this together.”

In Boston, Olynyk was part of a similar group that won games off of team play and production from every guy that got in the game. They were also a tough, gritty team and Olynyk has recognized that same sort of fire in the HEAT locker room.

“It’s a group of hard-nosed guys that can really grind it out and play tough-nosed basketball,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “We can go a lot of places. We just got to stick together and keep doing what we do. We can compete with anybody and we just got to bring it every single night.”

At 7-8, the HEAT currently sit outside the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference. Olynyk has seen a bit of a decrease in playing time, and likewise in production. He’s right at his career average in points per game with 9.5, but he’s still shooting career-highs from the field (54 percent) and from three-point range (47.4).

It’s still very early, though, and only one game separates the 11th place HEAT from the 8th place Magic. The HEAT are definitely tough enough to fight for a playoff spot, especially with Olynyk around helping to strengthen their bench.

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Defensive Player Of The Year Watch – 11/17/17

Spencer Davies updates the list of names to keep an eye on and who’s in contention for DPOY.

Spencer Davies

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We’re exactly one month into the season now, as the NBA standings have started to take shape headed into winter.

A couple of weeks ago, Basketball Insiders released its first Defensive Player of the Year Watch article to go in-depth on players that could compete for the prestigious award. Since then, there have been injuries keeping most of the household names out of the picture.

Guys like Rudy Gobert (knee) and Al-Farouq Aminu (ankle) have been or will be sidelined for weeks. Kawhi Leonard has yet to make his season debut recovering from a bothersome right quad.

While that isn’t the best news for fans and the league at the moment, it’s likely that those players will be just fine and return with the same impact they’ve always made. In the meantime, there are opportunities for others to throw their names in the hat as elite defenders. With new names and mainstays, here’s a look at six healthy candidates.

6) Joel Embiid

Trusting the Process in Philadelphia was worth the wait. As polished as the seven-footer is with the ball in his hands on offense, he might be even more dangerous as an interior defensive presence.

One of ten players in the NBA averaging at least a block and a steal per game, Embiid makes a world of a difference for in limiting opponents. Through 14 games, the Philadelphia 76ers are allowing just 96.4 points per 100 possessions with him playing. Furthering that, he’s the only one on the floor who dips the team’s defensive rating below 100 and has the second-highest Defensive Real Plus-Minus rating (3.03) in the NBA.

5) Kristaps Porzingis

Like Embiid, it’s been an incredible season for the one called The Unicorn. Before the season started, Porzingis stated it was a goal of his to accomplish three things—an All-Star game appearance, Most Improved Player, and Defensive Player of the Year.

So far, he’s on the right track. Outside of being the league’s third-highest scorer (28.9 points per game), the Latvian big man is hounding and deterring shot attempts nearly every time inside. According to SportVU data, Porzingis is allowing his opponents to only convert 35.1 percent of their attempts at the rim, which is the lowest by far among his peers seeing at least four tries per game. Oh, and when he’s off the floor, the Knicks have a 112.4 defensive rating, which is 9.3 more points per 100 possessions than with him on.

4) Nikola Jokic

At the beginning of the season, it looked like the same old story with the Denver Nuggets defense, but their intensity has stepped up on that end of the floor for the past couple of weeks. Playing next to new running mate Paul Millsap has taken some getting used to, but it seems like the two frontcourt partners have started to mesh well.

Though it might not have been the case a season ago, the Denver Nuggets are a net -12.4 per 100 possessions defensively without Jokic on the court as opposed to a team-best 100.1 defensive rating with him on. A huge knock on the Serbian sensation last year and before then was his inability to defend. He’s still got things to work on as a rim protector with his timing, but the progress is coming. He’s seventh in the league in total contested shots (168) and has been forcing turnovers like a madman. Averaging 1.6 steals per game, Jokic has recorded at least one takeaway in all but two games.

3) Draymond Green

In the first DPOY watch article, the Golden State Warriors had been better off defensively with Green sitting. That right there should tell you how much we can really put into data in small sample sizes. It’s changed dramatically since that point in time.

Without Green playing, the Golden State Warriors have a defensive rating of 105.4 as opposed to 98.4 on the same scale with him on the floor. His matchups are starting to grow weary of driving on him again, as he’s seen less than four attempts at the basket. Currently, in DRPM, he ranks eighth with a 2.60 rating.

2) Al Horford

The Boston Celtics are still the number one team in the NBA in defensive rating. Horford is still the straw that stirs the drink for Brad Stevens. If you didn’t see that watching that knockdown, drag-it-out game against the Warriors on Thursday, go back and watch it.

He has the highest net rating on the team among starters and is leading the team by altering shots and grabbing rebounds with aggressiveness we haven’t seen since he played for the Atlanta Hawks. Ranking fourth in Defensive Box Plus-Minus and in DRPM, Horford is continuing to make his presence felt.

1) DeMarcus Cousins

Dominance is the word to describe Cousins’ game. With a month-long absence of Gobert, he has a real chance to show fans and voters that his defensive side of him is no façade.

Next to his partner Anthony Davis, Boogie has kept up the physicality and technique of locking up assignments. The third and final member of this list averaging at least a block and steal per game, Cousins is at the top of the mountain in DRPM with a 3.13 rating.

The New Orleans Pelicans significantly benefit with him on the hardwood (102.3 DRTG) as opposed to him on the bench (112.7 DTRG). He’s one of six players in the league seeing more than six attempts at the rim, and he’s allowed the lowest success percentage among that group. He’s also contested 193 shots, which is the second-most in the NBA.

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