If you’ve ever seen former Duke star Jahlil Okafor grasp 13 tennis balls at once or palm a regulation-sized basketball as if it were a grapefruit — or even if you haven’t — you know all about his massive hands.
You might not know, though, about what you can’t see, what he says has lifted him to national acclaim by the time he was 13 and an early stroll to the stage at Thursday night’s NBA draft as well.
Okafor was 9 years old the day his mother died before him and three siblings, a life-altering moment he at first thought was playful when she struggled to breathe. A decade later, a memory he won’t forget has shaped him into one of this draft’s top prospects as much as those massive hands and his huge body have.
“She’s my wings,” he said.
The son of parents who each played college basketball, Okafor dunked on a low-hanging, clothes-hanger rim when he was in diapers and drew a crowd at Foot Locker because of his big hands and unusually big body when he still just a baby.
Now pushing 7 feet and enormous everywhere, Okafor carries with him a dedication — passed down this past decade through his father from their love of the game, and shared grief as well as a sense of purpose borne from the death of his mother, Dacresha Benton. She died at age 29 due to a collapsed lung, on a March day 10 years ago that Okafor says still seems to him just like yesterday.
“He’s a kid who believes he is destined for greatness,” Duke associate head coach Jeff Capel said, “and he’s not afraid of it.”
All about winning
The basketball court became a sanctuary after Okafor moved from his mother’s Arkansas home to live with his father, Chucky, in Chicago upon her death. Offered a scholarship by DePaul when he was an eighth-grader, he arrives Thursday with the most polished footwork and low-post fundamentals seen in a 19-year-old since, well, maybe Tim Duncan entered the NBA nearly 20 years ago.
He also will bring what he calls a winner’s mindset that already includes an Illinois state championship, an NCAA title in his only season at Duke and three FIBA gold medals at his tender, young age.
Now the Timberwolves must decide conclusively that Kentucky’s Karl-Anthony Towns’ versatility trumps Okafor’s skilled specialty and life story when they choose No. 1 overall Thursday for the first time. They brought Okafor, Towns, guards D’Angelo Russell and Emmanuel Mudiay to town separately last week for interviews, dinner and a workout.
“I’d take him No. 1 because he is going to be a phenomenal NBA player,” said Duke teammate Tyus Jones, Apple Valley’s own. “But Jah is my best friend, so I’m extremely biased.”
Ultimately, the Wolves are expected to select Towns because his versatility — better defender, shooter and athlete — is a finer fit alongside Andrew Wiggins and big men Gorgui Dieng and Nikola Pekovic.
That sounds like it is just fine with Okafor, who said being selected first overall isn’t important to him. Rather, he would prefer to play for a franchise with a winning tradition. The Lakers own Thursday’s second pick. He also could go third to Philadelphia if the Lakers go with Russell or Latvian big man Kristaps Porzingis.
“I haven’t said anything like that,” he said when asked if he told the Wolves he would rather play in Los Angeles than Minnesota. “I don’t want to say why I should be picked over somebody. I just want to say why I should be picked for any team. I just want to win. I’ve always been a winner. I’ve never been the type of guy to say pick me over him.”
Made for the NBA game?
Okafor last season became the first freshman to win ACC Player of the Year in the same league where Duncan, Michael Jordan, Ralph Sampson, James Worthy and David Thompson, among many others, once played. Wolves basketball boss Flip Saunders admired Okafor’s unique skills all season and has contemplated whether Okafor might be the kind of generational player who will dominate the NBA even more than he did in college because of the pro game’s open spaces.
“Questions remain about his defensive ability and determination as well as his free-throw shooting. He calls his 51 percent average last season a mental block and an aberration and said he is working daily to improve it.
“I’m getting better on both sides of the ball,” Okafor said. “My defense is a criticism, but we won a national championship at Duke, so it wasn’t that bad. Coach K was fine with the way I played defense.”
But what he does, he does very well in a game that doesn’t produce his kind of low-post scorer anymore. Is he a player who could become indefensible 1-on-1 in the NBA, who some scouts predict could average 20 points a game straightaway?
“I would like to believe that,” Okafor said. “I feel like I can score when there’s one guy guarding me. That’s not too far-fetched from my imagination.”
Capel coached former No. 1 overall draft pick Blake Griffin at Oklahoma and said he predicted Griffin would be even better in the NBA. He says the same about Okafor, who Capel said wasn’t quite the same last season after he sprained his ankle in February. Towns began to emerge as the favorite for No. 1 pick shortly thereafter.
“I always say this to Coach K: There is nothing the kid can’t do on the court, nothing,” Capel said. “He has to be engaged all the time. He has all the talent. The game comes so easy to him, at times it may look like he’s not playing hard. To be honest, he maybe got bored a little bit at times. With someone so gifted, that sometimes is just human nature.”
If greatness does await him, it will come from those oversized hands, that footwork and those fundamentals and a senseless moment in his life from which he has found purpose and meaning, even in every gentle breeze that lifts him.
“My wings, that’s my mother who passed,” he said. “Before every game I talk to her and that just gives me a sense of confidence. She’s my angel.”