Photo: Jahlil Okafor celebrates at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Jahlil Okafor’s basketball identity grows nationally with each televised game the Duke freshman plays, but it is still basically this simple: He’s the big kid projected as the first pick of the 2015 NBA Draft.
Similarly, Okafor arrived at Chicago’s Whitney Young High four years ago known as the big kid projected to be the top recruit in the nation by the time he graduated.
But former high school teammate Terry Baggett, a Whitney Young senior captain when Okafor joined the varsity as a freshman, says there is much more to the big man’s persona. He sees the same team player who hasn't outgrown his hat size as a big kid or now that he's the Blue Devils' big man.
“Jahlil has been touted since seventh grade that he’s the best player since whenever, but it never mattered to him,” Baggett said. “He came to work in the gym every day. We placed a lot of weight on his shoulders, even though he was a freshman, to help our team excel, but it was never a burden with him. He goes out and plays his game. I think he’s doing the same thing at Duke. He’s been that way since high school.”
Baggett knows about leadership qualities, especially as Army’s Academic All-American running back last fall. He is about to graduate from West Point as a lieutenant in the U.S. Army faced with confronting terrorism around the world.
Another Whitney Young teammate was Sam Thompson, an Ohio State senior starting forward this winter. The 6-7 Thompson provided Oakafor with a big body to face in practice; that helped the big kid understand his place on the roster.
“Jahlil is still a prolific scorer at Duke, but from playing with him in high school, the biggest thing I notice is he’s still a team player,” Baggett said. “You can tell by the way his teammates look at him. He’s a guy whose actions on the court say he’s a team player.”
Fans and NBA scouts alike see a 6-foot-11, 270-pounder with mature moves around the basket that belie his age. Baggett sees development beyond relying on his physical advantages.
“He has slimmed down from when he was a freshman in high school,” Baggett said. “He’s more explosive and more of a force to be reckoned with under the basket.”
Okafor leads No. 4-ranked Duke (25-3) with a near-double-double averages of 18.4 points and 9.4 rebounds a game. He has played 27 of 28 contests, starting all 27 he was healthy. The Clemson contest he missed was Duke’s first outing after he suffered an ankle injury in the first half of the 92-90 overtime against North Carolina on Feb. 18 at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Unlike some players eyeing the upcoming draft, Okafor didn’t seem more concerned about protecting his NBA stock during the North Carolina battle; he played through the injury in the second half and the overtime period – a total of 41 of 45 minutes. He made key plays down the stretch and finished with a double-double of 12 points and 13 rebounds.
Okafor’s youthful enthusiasm stood out as he broke into a sprint despite the ankle injury to celebrate Duke’s overtime victory against its fierce neighborhood rival. He made crucial plays, including four overtime points, down the stretch to beat the Tar Heels.
He missed the Clemson contest three days later, but he was back on the court after a week in a “game-time decision” at Virginia Tech. The Blue Devils needed his career-high 30 points with nine rebounds to avoid an upset loss with a 91-86 overtime victory.
Baggett says he watches Duke’s televised games when he can from his West Point dorm. He also keeps in touch through social media with friends on how Okafor is doing. He last saw him play live during Army’s 2014 Christmas break when he was home in Chicago. Baggett’s younger brother Miles was a sophomore on the Whitney Young varsity when Okafor was a senior.
While most basketball fans at West Point naturally tune into Duke games to see Blue Devils head coach Mike Krzyzewski, Baggett looks for more than Coach K, the former Army player and head coach that owns college basketball’s career record for most victories.
“Every time I see Jahlil on TV I brag about my high school and having played basketball with him,” Baggett said. “From my friends I’m in contact with, I hear he’s enjoying college and having a great time.”
Staying in college might be the only thing that prevents Okafor from being the first pick of the 2015 NBA Draft.