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One-on-One With Duke’s Jahlil Okafor

Duke’s Jahlil Okafor talks about championship expectations, Mike Krzyzewski, the Blue Devils’ incoming freshmen and his improvement.

Alex Kennedy

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Jahlil Okafor will arrive at Duke University in several days, and he’s bringing national championship expectations with him.

Okafor was the top high school player in the nation last year and all eyes will be on the 18-year-old during the upcoming season, as he tries to turn the Blue Devils into a juggernaut alongside fellow five-star recruits Tyus Jones, Justise Winslow and Grayson Allen as well as returning players Quinn Cook, Rasheed Sulaimon and Amile Jefferson among others.

Basketball Insiders caught up with Okafor for a wide-ranging, one-on-one interview.

Basketball Insiders: How excited are you to get to Duke and start your collegiate career?

Jahlil Okafor: I’m very excited, just to be at the collegiate level finally and getting to be on campus with Tyus, one of my best friends, and Justise, another player who I’m really, really close with. I can’t wait to be down there and get ready for the season.

BI: How good can this team be? If you guys realize your full potential, do you think this is a championship team?

Okafor: That’s definitely going to be our goal, to win a championship next year. That is our expectation and that’s what we’re going to be working hard for under the leadership of Coach K.

BI: You mentioned Coach K, how excited are you to play for him? Not many basketball players can say that they’ve been taught and coached by Mike Krzyzewski.

Okafor: I love Coach K. He has been down with me since day one, since I started the recruiting process. I’m just really excited to get under the leadership of [Coach K], and all of the other players on campus too. I’m just really excited. Jabari [Parker] talks very highly of Coach K, and I can’t wait.

BI: What are some things that you want to work on, what areas of your game?

Okafor: There are so many different things that I’m working on right now. There’s a lot. Right now, one thing that I have been focusing on this summer is getting into optimum shape and being ready to log heavy minutes next year. The Duke coaching staff wanted me to come down there already in shape and pretty well conditioned. This whole summer I’ve been getting my body right. I changed my diet up. That’s been my focus.

BI: What was it like for you going through the recruiting process? You were obviously being courted by everyone – was it crazy, was it exciting, was it stressful? What was that process like for you?

Okafor: It was a lot of fun and exciting, for the most part. I never let it get too stressful. You’re really in control of the whole recruiting process, so it was never stressful for me at any point. I knew how fortunate I was to be in that position. It was mostly fun, getting to meet all those coaches and visiting all those universities; it was great experience for myself and something my family enjoyed also.

BI: Duke fans are known for being insanely passionate. What is it like now that you’ve been accepted by that Duke family and how crazy are those fans?

Okafor: They’re very crazy, and I love them to death. They’re all on my Twitter page, always tweeting me, letting me know how excited they are for me to get down there. They have big expectations for us this year and they’re very excited for myself and the other three freshmen coming with me to go down there. They’re just so supportive. One of the things motivating me to work hard is because I want to make to all those Duke fans proud next year.

BI: Are there any NBA players that you watch right now to model your game after? I know last time we talked you mentioned some legends. Are there any guys that you’re watching and studying now?

Okafor: I just love watching the game. If you’re talking about my position, I love watching Tim Duncan. I’m sure I mentioned him last time we talked. That’s one guy I have mentioned often. I love watching him.

BI: From the last time we talked one year ago to now, how much have you improved as a player?

Okafor: There has been a lot of improvement. I think I have improved a tremendous amount. The main thing is that I changed my diet up. 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. I was always working out, but now I’ve changed my diet up. I’ve been drinking pretty much only water, I took fast food out of my diet, I’m staying away from bread, it’s a bunch of little things that I’ve changed. 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.

BI: Jabari Parker is obviously going to the NBA, but there was a brief period of time where he considered coming back to Duke to play with you. I know you two are close with your Chicago roots. What was going through your head as he made that decision? Did you think he was going to come back or did you know he was gone?

Okafor: It was great for me just to watch, to see his dreams come true. I was just there supporting him the whole way. If he would of stayed, that would have been great to me. But if he decided to follow his dream, that was also great to me. It didn’t matter to me if he decided to stay or go, as long as he was happy.

BI: Do you think you could be a one-and-done player too? I know you’ve previously expressed disappointment that the NBA is talking about forcing players to stay in college for two years instead of one. I think everyone pretty much agrees that you could play in the NBA right now. Do you feel like you could be a one-and-done guy?

Okafor: That’s always a possibility. That’s one thing I try not to think too much about right now. I’ve waited my entire life to play college basketball, to wear a Duke jersey next year, to play against North Carolina after always watching that game on TV and seeing that rivalry. That’s what I’m excited about right now. I’m really not thinking about the one-and-done thing. I think that’s going to make things a little harder for me. Being able to play in March Madness and enjoy college basketball is what I’m thinking about right now.

BI: Everyone is talking about this recruiting class that you’re a part of, all of the guys that teamed up at Duke. What’s it like being labeled as one of the top recruiting classes in recent memory, and is there a lot of pressure on you to win a championship or at least go deep into the NCAA Tournament?

Okafor: It’s just the pressure that we put on ourselves. Regardless of what people say on the outside, we know how good we can be. We know what our main goal is and that’s to win a national championship. We put more pressure on ourselves than what we’re getting from outside and from the media and all those things. There definitely is some pressure and that’s going to grow, but that was one of the reasons we all decided to go to Duke University together. It was to achieve the goal of winning a national championship and becoming better basketball players. That’s something that we’re looking forward to.

BI: Have you been communicating with those guys and talking a lot lately?

Okafor: Yeah, I have been talking with them a lot. Tyus [Jones] and Justise [Winslow], they’re gone right now with USA Basketball, but I’ve been in contact with them. Grayson [Allen], he’s in Florida right now getting ready to step on Duke’s campus soon, just as I am. I’ve been pretty much talking to all of those guys.

BI: I know you and Tyus go way back to when you were kids. How is the chemistry between you guys and do you feel like you and Tyus can be one of the best one-two punches in the country?

Okafor: I think we’ll definitely be a force to be reckoned with next year. I like to say we definitely have a lot of chemistry. I’ve played with him numerous times. In the Jordan All-American game most recently, in the Nike Hoops Summit and in all of the USA Basketball games we’ve played in. It’s definitely going to be a definite threat next year with both us on the court, with him being a true point guard and getting me the ball and with his great leadership skills. I don’t know if we’ll be the best one-two punch, but it’ll definitely be something other teams will have to prepare for.

BI: I know last time we talked, you were still growing. What is your height and weight right now?

Okafor: I’m 6’11 and 265 lbs.

This upcoming year is important for Okafor, as he could win a national championship with Duke and then go No. 1 overall in the 2015 NBA Draft. For more on the 2015 NBA Draft, check out Basketball Insiders’ latest 2015 mock draft.

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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College Headlines

Report: NCAA Announce New College Basketball Policies

Basketball Insiders

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The NCAA adopted a sweeping series of policy and rules changes Wednesday that it hopes will clean up college basketball, which has been engulfed by an FBI investigation and other corruption over the past two years.

Among the significant changes that were adopted by the NCAA’s board of governors and Division I board of directors are allowing elite high school basketball recruits and college players to be represented by agents who are certified by the NCAA; allowing eligible underclassmen to enter the NBA draft and return to school if undrafted; introducing more rigorous certification requirements for summer amateur basketball events; and imposing longer postseason bans, suspensions and increased recruiting restrictions for coaches who break rules.

“These changes will promote integrity in the game, strengthen accountability and prioritize the interest of student-athletes over every other factor,” NCAA president Mark Emmert said in a statement. “We remain committed to promoting fairness in college sports and creating an environment that will champion the success of student-athletes.”

Source: Mark Schlabach of ESPN

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NBA

NBA Daily: Junior Robinson: “Size Doesn’t Matter”

Junior Robinson talked to Basketball Insiders about the Pro Basketball Combine, his athletic family tree and that killer on-court fearlessness.

Ben Nadeau

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At just 5-foot-5, Junior Robinson is easily one of the shortest players to go through the draft process in some time. But after four successful seasons at Mount Saint Mary’s, Robinson refuses to let his height define him as he reaches for the next level in his ever-evolving basketball journey.

In May, Robinson was invited to the Pro Basketball Combine, an opportunity for the collegiate star to prove himself on a big stage ahead of the NBA Draft. But even with a solid showing in both the testing and scrimmage stages of the audition, Robinson is expected to go undrafted this month. Still, there remain plenty of avenues — starting with summer leagues and two-way contracts — for Robinson to head down.

For now, however, he’s happy for the chance to compete and prove himself one more time.

“It was fun, I’ve had a great time so far, I’m here to have fun as well as try to make a name for myself — as the rest of these guys are,” Robinson told Basketball Insiders. “I think I played well, I didn’t make a lot of shots, as many as I wanted to, but, at the end of the day, I think I did well.”

Robinson, who led the Mountaineers to 18 wins in 2017-18, has undergone the type of transformation front offices specifically scout for. After averaging 8.2 points and 3.3 assists as a freshman, Robinson grew into his game, role and responsibilities. He would finish his collegiate career pulling down 22 points and 4.8 assists per game instead, a scoring tally that was good for 16th-best in all of Division-I. For somebody that often faced defenders more than a foot taller than him, shooting 44.6 percent from the field — and a workable 38.8 from three-point land — this year is a testament to Robinson’s willingness to adapt and survive.

“I had to find different ways to do different things, I’m not jumping over guys like 6-foot-9 — so I had to find a way to score around, over, or, you know what I’m sayin’,” Robinson said. “I had to do a lot of things to just improve my game inside, outside, ball handling, everything had to improve in order for me to be where I am today.”

Today, although accomplished, the odds are still stacked against Robinson. To date, only Earl Boykins and Muggsy Bogues have reached the NBA at 5-foot-5 or smaller. Bogues averaged 7.7 points and 7.6 assists over 14 NBA seasons, while Boykins himself enjoyed 13 — but those are two of the greatest exceptions, not the rule. Currently, the league’s shortest players are Kay Felder, who only played two games in 2017-18, and Isaiah Thomas, both standing at 5-foot-9. Of course, Thomas, a more recent success story, was the No. 60 overall pick in 2011 and has parlayed that opportunity into two All-Star appearances and a top-five MVP finish last season.

But when he was asked what exactly he’s looking to prove these days, Robinson’s answer was compelling.

“That size doesn’t matter. I mean, as long as you have heart and you’re willing to compete and give it your all every day — what’s height got to do with it?” Robinson told Basketball Insiders. “All my life, I’ve been told I’m too small, I’m too short or that I’m not gonna be able to play with bigger guys. At some point, that phrase and all those have to go away, you just have to be a basketball player.

“And that’s what I try to prove — that I’m just a basketball player like the rest of these guys.”

Over his four seasons in Maryland, Robinson collected a handful of impressive individual outings — but perhaps none more so than the show he put on against Loyola back in early December. During a slim five-point victory, Robinson logged 39 points, four rebounds, four assists and three steals on 4-for-7 from long-range. No matter your size, that’s an achievement worth acknowledging — and Robinson made a habit of putting in big performances like that all season. When Robinson scored above his season average (22), the Mountaineers were 11-4, a mark that accounted for 61 percent of the university’s wins last year.

Where Robinson went, so did Mount St. Mary’s.

Watching Robinson, even from afar, is a treat. There’s certainly something to be said for the league’s hulking, mammoth rim-rattlers, but Robinson’s craftiness and clever play can be just as enthralling. Utilizing pump-fakes, feints, floaters and his reckless abandon, Robinson frequently excelled at creating scoring chances out of very little. Any NBA franchise that gives Robinson an extended look this summer will find a hard-working, determined scorer — traits he credits to his uber-athletic family tree.

“My parents are pretty athletic,” Robinson said. “My mom played at Elon and went overseas and played in Germany. My dad was really athletic, he could do any type of dunk at like 5-foot-4. It’s in my genes as well, it’s also a competitive thing — I wanna be the best I can be. I wanna be just as good as these guys or be on that pedestal. For me to be able to come in here and play with them, it’s great for me.”

For now, nobody is quite sure what the future holds for Robinson, but he’ll likely get his shot to go headlong at looming seven-footers soon enough. His fearlessness has been a staple for Robinson since he arrived at Mount St. Mary’s in 2014 — get knocked down, get right back up. As he tells it now, Robinson knew he had to be unshakable to make the next level, slowly honing those killer instincts and shifty offensive moves. What we’re left with now, effectively, is a very talented 22-year-old scorer that spent last season as a legitimate Division-I force to be reckoned with.

But to him, Robinson’s unparalleled fearlessness is all just another day at the office.

“I think was I was nine, I went up and a kid knocked me over and I realized: It’s not going to kill me, so why not?”

And the rest is history.

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NBA

NBA Daily: Egor Koulechov: Three Schools, Five Years, One NBA Dream

At the Pro Basketball Combine, Egor Koulechov talked about his overseas journey, his extensive collegiate history and what it was like leaving home to chase a dream.

Ben Nadeau

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“Do you want the beginning, or do you want the condensed version from when I got to the states?”

When Egor Koulechov was asked to describe his worldwide basketball journey at May’s Pro Basketball Combine, he laughed before responding. After all, it’s a story he’s told a hundred times before — so what’s one more? In pursuit of reaching the summit of his NBA dream, Koulechov grew up grinding overseas before attending three stateside colleges in five years.

While he’s facing an uphill battle from here, Koulechov refuses to give up on it just yet.

As Koulechov, 23, recounts it now — albeit in an abridged, rapid-fire version — he lived in Volgograd, Russia until the age of six, then his family moved to a Neve Ur, a kibbutz in northern Israel. At 14, Koulechov relocated from home and played for two separate academy clubs, Maccabi Rishon LeZion and Wingate, as he progressively fell further and further in love with the game. Subsequently, Koulechov told his parents he wanted to play basketball in the United States, so he packed up and stayed with a host family alone for the following two years.

“I remember when I was sitting on that plane when I left my parents, that’s when it kind of hit me,” Koulechov told Basketball Insiders. “I’m not going to see my parents every day anymore, I’m not going to be home, I’m going to have to take care of myself. . .

“It’s just been an incredible journey, to be honest, I’ve met so many people, but it’s such a big adjustment, I remember, at 16, I struggled with it for a little bit.”

From there, Koulechov enrolled at Arizona State, where he averaged just 3.7 points and 2.8 rebounds in 14 minutes per game as a freshman. Smartly, the Israeli-Russian transferred to Rice University, sat out a season in accordance with NCAA rules and then took a massive step forward. In his second season at Rice, Koulechov pulled down 18.2 points, 8.9 rebounds and 2.1 assists on 47.4 percent from three-point range. All of sudden, he was back on the map.

“Then, last year at Rice, I had a decision to make, whether I wanted to go pro or would I want to do a grad year,” Koulechov said. “I was kind of in between and decided to give this thing one last go-around to stay in the States and give myself the best shot of making my dreams come true — that’s why I went to Florida for one year.”

This past spring, Koulechov wrapped up a graduate transfer season at the University of Florida, where the 6-foot-5 guard tallied 13.8 points and 6.4 rebounds over 30.6 minutes per game. He started in all 34 games for the tournament-bound Gators, using his innate playmaking abilities and solid shooting marks to take advantage of smaller defenders. During Florida’s first-round victory over St. Bonaventure, Koulechov took in a team-high 20 points along with six rebounds — all season long, he was the team’s most consistent contributor. Although it wasn’t enough to get Koulechov to the NBA Draft Combine, he was more than happy to compete in the Pro Basketball Combine instead.

“It was awesome, honestly, I haven’t done workouts like that in front of teams, I haven’t had any NBA workouts, I have some lined up later — but this was good, this was a good experience,” Koulechov said. “It’s honestly a little nerve-wracking at first, when you kind of have all those people watching you there shoot, kind of a little tense, but once you start getting used to it and getting in the flow, it’s kind of easier.”

More likely than not, Koulechov will go undrafted later this month — but with private workouts, multiple summer leagues and two-way contracts ahead of him, he’ll get plenty of chances to prove he belongs. Even as he works from behind the eight ball, the modern league thrives on three-point shooting, so it doesn’t seem unreasonable that Koulechov, a career 39.5 percent marksman in college, could certainly catch on with the right franchise.

But his capable combine performance helped him exhibit far more than just his long-range abilities.

“Toughness, shooting, rebounding, defense, all those things — the 3-and-D thing that’s been going around a lot,” Koulechov said. “That’s kind of what I try to portray and show those guys, but it’s just how I play. It’s not like I try really hard, it’s kind of coming natural.”

Of course, it hasn’t been an easy road for the overseas dreamer — but it’s only served to make him even stronger. Unlike most NBA prospects, Koulechov was never a highly sought-after high school prospect, nor was he chased by five or six elite collegiate programs either. And yet, he still sacrificed everything to come stateside and compete for an opportunity. Now, he stands closer than ever to the big leagues, but he almost didn’t make it here.

During that challenging season at Arizona State in 2013-14, Koulechov couldn’t stop the doubts from sneaking in.

“[I felt like giving up] many times, many times,” Koulechov told Basketball Insiders. “But after my freshman year, I was kind of like: ‘Wow, why do I need this?’ Why when I could just go back home, play pro and make decent money? But I like to think of myself as mentally tough, and I know a lot of Israeli players who came through college and came for one year and then they left — everybody leaves after one year.

“I kind of wanted to be tougher than that. I didn’t want to be just another guy that tried it and went back to the same old thing, so that’s what I really wanted to get out of it.”

He’s not wrong either, and the current list of Israeli-born NBA players is a short one. Outside of the Indiana Pacers’ T.J. Leaf — born in Tel Aviv — and Omri Casspi, who was cut by the Golden State Warriors in early April, Israeli representation remains low. Koulechov’s passion for his hometown has motivated him through years of ups and downs — but following that stellar second season at Rice, he knew he had to keep reaching for his decade-long goal.

“If I did go back to Israel, I’d have to do military service, so this right now is me trying to make it to the NBA so I can represent Israel and give them another player,” Koulechov said. “That’s my dream, that’s always been my dream since I started playing basketball at 13. So that’s why I stayed here for another year.

“I could’ve been playing pro after one year of college or even before that — but this has always been my dream so I’m just trying to give it my best shot.”

After recapping his lifelong journey up until this point — a path that took him to three countries and three colleges before the age of 22 — Koulechov paused, smiled and said: “That’s the condensed version.”

And if Egor Koulechov has his way, his story is far from over.

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