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.
NBA Daily: Trae Young Looks To Be Next Up
Oklahoma’s Trae Young is taking college basketball by storm, and drawing comparisons to All-Star point guards.
When basketball fans glance across the college landscape to find the next wave of talent they expect to dominate the sport, they check in on the usual spots.
Duke, Kentucky, North Carolina, Michigan State, Kansas and UCLA are among the culprits. Norman, Oklahoma, and the Sooners, though? Well, they’re not a destination that comes to mind very often when debating what young player is in position to take the reins at the next level.
Until now, that is. Meet Trae Young.
Young is Oklahoma’s freshman point guard. He’s 6-foot-2, isn’t overly muscular, and operates up and down the court with a smoothness that’s eerily similar to the guy who plays the same position out in the Bay Area.
How he looks isn’t the only thing that draws comparisons from Young to Steph Curry. Look at the numbers, and the obscene production the 19-year-old point guard is putting up. At the moment, Young leads the entire country in points per game (28.7) and assists (10.4). Young has reached the 30-point plateau four times in eleven games, including his 43-point outburst against Oregon. He’s scored 29 points on two occasions, and twice more reached 28 points.
Young’s picture-perfect shooting form and effortless release from beyond the arc are what makes this teenager so lethal. But he’s not just a one-trick pony. On Dec. 20 against Northwestern State, Young tied the NCAA record with a 22-assist performance (to go along with his 26 points). It was the first time in 20 years a player had reached 20 points and 20 assists in the same game. In six of Young’s first 11 collegiate games, he’s reached double-digit assists.
The invigoration of Young into the Oklahoma offense has Lon Kruger’s 11-20 team from a year ago at 10-1 and ranked No. 17 in the country heading into Big 12 Conference play. Make no mistake about it, that’s large, if not wholly, because of the freshman point guard.
How exactly did the Sooners land a superstar player of this caliber, though?
Well, they almost didn’t.
Young’s college choice came down to his hometown Sooners (he attended Norman North High School right down the road) and typical blue-blood powerhouse Kansas. Even with the commitment of a five-star point guard, few, if any, saw this type of impact from Young right away.
Ranking No. 23 on ESPN’s Top 100 for the class of 2017, Young was behind three other point guards: Trevon Duval (Duke), Collin Sexton (Alabama) and Jaylen Hands (UCLA).
Expecting the supernova level star Young has become almost immediately would’ve been a bit overzealous in any prediction. But that’s what makes college basketball the marvel that it is. Young has looked like the best player in the country, on a team where, at just 19 years old, he is considered “the man,” and without the usual supporting cast that players get at Duke and Kentucky.
After a 31-point, 12-assist performance against Northwestern on Friday, opposing head coach Chris Collins couldn’t do anything but rave about the teenager that dominated his team.
“With how deep he can shoot it from, you have to extend out on him, and then it just opens the floor,” Collins said. “He does a great job. He changes speeds well and he is shifty. And so the moment you are kind of a little off balance, he does a great job getting into your body and kind of playing off your movements. He’s got incredible vision. I always knew he was an incredible scorer. But the one thing I think he is underrated is his ability to pass. I thought he made some great passes and found guys.”
While the comparisons between Young and Curry are obvious, Collins offered up his own version of the mold he believes Young is fitting into.
“I had the opportunity to coach Kyrie Irving at the same age, and he was similar like that before he got hurt,” Collins said about Young. “There was just a maturity to his game that he had. He knew how to change speeds. He looked like a veteran from day one and that’s how Trae is out there. He plays at his pace. He knows where he wants to go.
Ironically, 11 games were all Irving got to play at Duke during his freshman season, and he still managed to be drafted first overall. Young may have a bit more competition than Irving did come next June for the draft’s top spot, but just over a month into his rookie campaign in college, Young is looking every bit of the best player in the entire nation.
College Basketball Has A Money Problem, But No Solution
The FBI confirmed that college basketball has a big money problem. But it won’t go away until NCAA fixes their rules.
College basketball saw its world rocked on Tuesday when the FBI made a two-year long investigation into the illegal paying of amateur players public for all the world to see.
Ten people total were arrested and charged with fraud and corruption. Those men included active assistant coaches from Auburn, USC, Arizona, and Oklahoma State, along with a prominent executive from Adidas.
All the FBI did this week was confirm what was potentially the worst kept secret in college sports: that high-profile high school athletes receive under-the-table benefits to attend certain schools and keep certain relationships with shoe companies, agents, financial planners, etc. once they make their jump to the NBA.
As the curtain is pulled back on the backdoor dealings of the grassroots basketball scene and the public receives more confirmation about how some of these basketball powerhouse schools continuously get the best of the best, surely there will be more professional casualties. Already this probe has cost a Hall of Fame coach his job, as the University of Louisville announced Wednesday that Rick Pitino would be suspended from his duties. Pitino’s attorney later released in a statement that the coach “has, in effect, been fired.”
With the massive involvement the FBI seems to have in this matter, the smart guess would be to assume that Pitino isn’t the only prominent coach that will fall victim to this case. On Tuesday, Adidas executive Jim Gatto was arrested in the initial sweep by the authorities, making all of the schools with an Adidas sponsorship immediately look suspect. Just one day later, the FBI issued a subpoena to employees of Nike’s EYBL grassroots division, which runs their AAU basketball circuit.
These initial offenders appear to be the tip of the iceberg. Common sense would suggest that since the long arm of the law is now involved in how certain recruits make their college decisions things will certainly change. However, until the NCAA finds a better way to compensate their student-athletes, don’t hold your breath.
Yes, this is going to be a long and excruciating process for the NCAA. Once certain people involved are facing federal agents and the likes of jail time, they will turn over more information, dragging others down with them. For a while, maybe the recruiting process will get back to operating more organically. But in a multi-billion dollar business like college basketball, money will find its way back in.
Each year there are more than a few top prospects who come from families that are in need of assistance. That player, despite being just a kid, can be viewed as the family’s ticket out of their difficult situation. Those realities are what makes this entire scandal somewhat understandable. That certainly isn’t advocacy for cheating, but when you take into account the financial status of a high-profile player and his family, coupled with the impending millions that a university is set to make off of that individual, with no effective legal payout from the NCAA heading their way it almost makes the cause just.
Certainly, though, rules and laws were breached by these individuals and they will face the consequences as a result. The list of those involved will grow, and the pointed finger at who to blame will swing wildly in the direction of many. But until the conversation is had as to why this truly happening, nothing will ever change permanently for the better.
According to Forbes, Louisville’s team value in 2016 stood at $45.4 million, with their 2015 revenue reaching $45.8 million. Those are eye-popping numbers for a basketball team that doesn’t have to pay its players. An organization can only be as successful as its employees. So, while Louisville continues to be one of the nation’s top basketball programs as a result of their high-tier talent, their payout to these athletes reaches only to the price of tuition and room and board. Most of the players that help keep elite team’s like Louisville relevant don’t stay for more than a year or two.
In the documents released by the FBI, Gatto, agent Christian Dawkins and financial advisor Munish Sood are named directly as helping provide funding to a particular player.
The statement reads that Gatto, Sood, and Dawkins “conspired to illicitly funnel approximately $100,000 from company-1 to the family of Player-10, an All-American high school basketball player; to assist one or more coaches at University-6, a school sponsored by Company-1, and to further ensure that Player-6 ultimately retained the services of Dawkins and Sood and signed with Company-1 upon entering the NBA.”
Clear as day, the NCAA’s biggest problem is written in black and white by the FBI. These companies and agents know that players are more than willing to take money (truthfully, who wouldn’t?). When a player or player’s family recognizes their worth in a market that doesn’t let them cash in on it, their recruiting process becomes marred with wink-wink agreements from the schools that are recruiting said player, and ultimately the decision is made to attend whichever school is willing to bend the rules the most.
On Tuesday, the world saw for certain that this time the rules were bent to their breaking point. Dark days are ahead for college basketball during this scandal, but until the NCAA develops a reasonable way to compensate their athletes, the problem will never fully disappear.
Is Lauri Markkanen Finland’s Dirk Nowitzki?
Draft prospect Lauri Markkanen talks to Michael Scotto about preparing for the draft and his NBA prospects.
Not many 20-year-olds have drawn comparisons to Dirk Nowitzki and have an opportunity to be a basketball ambassador for an entire nation. Lauri Markkanen is not your average 20-year-old.
“First of all, it’s an honor to be compared to him,” Markkanen told Basketball Insiders. “It’s probably not fair to him to have some young guy compared to a Hall of Fame player and champion. We have similarities because of the height, being from Europe and shooting. But I have a long way to go before I’m in the same category as him. Hopefully, I can get there one day.”
Markkanen, a 7-foot prospect from Finland, shot 49 percent from the field, 42 percent from downtown and 84 percent from the foul line in his freshman season at Arizona. Nowitzki has shot 47 percent from the field, 38 percent from downtown and 88 percent from the foul line in his 19-year career.
A few weeks ago, video footage surfaced of Markkanen draining 18 straight 3-pointers from the corner.
— Michael Lelchitski (@mike_sig) May 29, 2017
“He has the most ready NBA skill of any player in the NBA draft,” a Western Conference executive told Basketball Insiders. “He’s the best shooter coming into the draft in my opinion. That’s one skill you can rely on.”
Markkanen isn’t just a standstill shooter. He’s lethal in pick-and-pop sets, and can move off the ball and attack off the dribble.
“He has a lot of similarities to a guy like Ryan Anderson,” another Western Conference executive told Basketball Insiders. “I think later in the season he showed more versatility to his game. He’s shown that he has more to his offensive package with his ability to post up, which will only get better as he gets stronger. He has a good enough handle to create space and is tall enough where his shot will be hard to contest.”
As the league emphasizes floor spacing more than ever before, Markkanen could be a matchup nightmare in small ball lineups.
“He’s an excellent shooter with range for his size,” an Eastern Conference scout told Basketball Insiders. “He knows how to play and has good overall fundamentals. Center will be his best position as a stretch-five. He has deceptive mobility. He’s a below the rim player, not a rim protector, nor a top rebounder now.”
While Markkanen’s shooting ability is unquestioned, he believes other areas of his game are underrated.
“I think I am the best shooter in this class,” Markkanen told Basketball Insiders. “I think my ceiling as a rebounder and defender is higher than people may think. And my work ethic is something I take a lot of pride in, which will help elevate my game.”
Scouts and executives believe Markkanen will need to improve his lateral quickness to compete better on the defensive end at the NBA level. He will also have to get stronger to fight for rebounding position in the post, but that’s a natural progression for any rookie coming into the league.
Unlike most foreign players, Markkanen skipped an important adjustment. He came overseas and got a chance to adjust to lifestyle on and off the court in the States while attending the University of Arizona.
“As a player, the physicality of the game and the pace was different and took some getting used to,” Markkanen told Basketball Insiders. “Otherwise, the adjustment was not that bad. As a student, there was more work than back home, but it was not too difficult to me.”
While Markkanen enjoyed his time at Arizona and is looking forward to NBA life as a rookie in the States, he believes he can eventually help grow the game of basketball back home in Finland.
“That is one of my biggest goals,” Markkanen told Basketball Insiders. “Hopefully my story can inspire more kids back home to learn the game and enjoy it. I look forward to many future projects back home and hopefully continued success of the national team program.”
Markkanen’s father, Pekka, played for Kansas and was a member of the Finland National Team. At 15 years old, Markkanen made his Second Division debut for BC Jyvaskyla. At Helsinki Basketball Academy, Hanno Mottola – one of two all-time Finnish NBA players – was one of Markkanen’s coaches, as DraftExpress noted. Markkanen’s international debut for the Finland U-18 National Team came at the 2015 FIBA Europe U-18 Championship. A year later, Markkanen was the top scorer in the 2016 FIBA Europe U-20 Championship, averaging 24.9 points per game, and participated in the NIKE Hoops Summit.
“As a player, the kid dominated at the junior level,” a Western Conference executive told Basketball Insiders. “In big games, he stepped up. He led Arizona to an incredible record.”
Arizona won the Pac-12 Tournament and was a No. 2 seed in the West Region of the NCAA Tournament. Markkanen led all freshmen in offensive rating (134.1) and made as many 3-pointers as any 7-footer in college since 2000, as DraftExpress noted. As a result, Markkanen was named a member of the Pac-12 First Team. Arizona eventually lost 73-71 against No. 11 Xavier in the West Regional Semifinal.
While Markkanen hopes to become a role model for children in Finland and inspire them to play the game, he has other goals in mind before hanging up his sneakers down the road.
“Winning an NBA championship, winning an Olympic medal and being an All-Star,” Markkanen told Basketball Insiders.
Markkanen’s journey will begin Thursday night at the NBA Draft, where colleague Steve Kyler and I both have him going to Minnesota with the seventh pick in our latest mock draft.
However, the Timberwolves may trade their pick for an established veteran or as part of a package to acquire Jimmy Butler. With the uncertainty of the draft in mind, why should any team select him?
“I think I am unique as a player,” Markkanen replied. “I am a very hard worker and give everything on the court. I am going to do everything in my power to help my team win.”
While becoming the next Nowitzki is the ceiling for Markkanen’s career, becoming a basketball ambassador and role model for young children in Finland could be Markkanen’s greatest accomplishment by the time he hangs up his sneakers.