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.