By Joe Henricksen
Go through the list of highly-recruited, no-doubt-about-it big men prospects out of the state of Illinois in the last 20 years. There aren’t very many, especially in the last 10 years, but current Whitney Young sophomore Jahlil Okafor will certainly be added to the list.
Okafor is legit, the real deal. That’s why it’s impossible not to gush about Okafor and why it’s certainly not premature to hype the state’s top prospect in the Class of 2014.
The 6-9, 255-pound Okafor is the best big man prospect in Illinois since former Thornwood star Eddy Curry, who was considered by some to be the No. 1 player in the country 10 years ago. Curry went on to be MVP of the 2001 McDonald’s All-American game, skipped college and ended up as the No. 4 pick by the Chicago Bulls in the 2001 NBA Draft.
In the last 20 years, the Hoops Report came up with just 17 players, led by Kevin Garnett and Curry, who were 6-9 or bigger and were at least consensus top 50 players nationally in their class (see list of players below) from the state of Illinois. While it’s a lofty expectation, Okafor has a chance to be near the very top of that list by the time he graduates from Whitney Young.
There are two attributes that make him so darn appealing as a prospect:
1. He knows exactly who he is as player and accepts it, which is a true, on-the-block, back-to-the-basket big man. And those players are nearly impossible to find today.
2. For his size and age, he’s ridiculously polished, fundamentally sound and plays with a basketball knowledge that shows his maturity is well beyond his years.
While he’s not an eye-popping athlete, Okafor is a dominant figure physically. Okafor establishes low-post position and combines advanced post moves with great patience, which results in quite an impressive package from a player with his size. His great hands not only allow him to catch difficult passes in traffic, but they also provide him with a soft touch around the basket.
Okafor talents were recognized early. He was first offered by DePaul in 8th grade. Now he has offers from Illinois, Tennessee, Connecticut, Arkansas, Georgetown and Ohio State. There will be offers coming in from all over the country over the next 12 months. While the list will grow, Okafor is in no rush.
“I will take my time, but Iike everyone I want to find a place that I feel comfortable,” says Okafor. “And I definitely want to play with other top players, both in my recruiting class and those who are already in the program.”
There is one player who Okafor says he would “love to play with” in college — Tyus Jones, another highly-regarded 2014 prospect out of Apple Valley, Minn. The two played with one another on the U.S. National Team this past summer and hit it off as friends and teammates.
“I really would like to play with Tyus,” said Okafor of Jones, who is a 6-0 point guard and one of the top players in the country in the sophomore class. “That would definitely be something [where Jones plays in college] I will look at.”
Whitney Young coach Tyrone Slaughter says what makes his big man so special is when you get away from the obvious — the size and strength, the large, soft hands and footwork in the post — you see and appreciate all the attributes you can’t coach.
“His attitude toward the game and life itself are pretty special,” says Slaughter. “He was raised with great values and that has translated to the basketball end of things. He has respect for people, the game, opponents, life itself. And the game is so much fun for him. He wants to get better.”
Okafor is well-mannered and respectful. When talking with him you forget he’s so young as he’s more mature than your average teen. He clearly has a great head on his shoulders and one that keeps him grounded and hungry to get better.
These are reasons why Okafor, much like Simeon’s Jabari Parker, is such a rare commodity. We’re talking the whole package, combining productivity at a young age with great size, tremendous talent, high character and zero baggage. When you blend and mix all those together, the hype and recruiting attention will come in waves. Yet Okafor continues to just take it all in stride.
“My dad and my family keep me humble,” says Okafor. “I’m just a regular kid who just happens to be blessed with some God-given abilities. There’s just no need to get caught up in what people are saying and writing. I love basketball and just want to get better.”
Okafor says his dad continues to tell him to take some time off, that it’s OK to get away from basketball here and there. That’s just not happening.
“I love it [basketball] and there isn’t anything else I really want to do with my time,” says Okafor, who says his confidence level soared after playing with the U.S. National Team this past summer. “So I will just keep playing, try to get better.”
The sensible, down-to-earth kid already has identified two areas he wants to improve on going forward — conditioning and defense.
“To be play at the highest level and to continue playing at that level consistently and over long stretches, you have to be in great condition,” says Okafor. “I also want to improve defensively, become a bigger and better presence on that end.”
Okafor is just adding to the package.
Best big men “prospects” from Illinois in last 20 years
(Listed by the year they graduated from high school)
Anthony Davis, 6-10, Chicago Perspectives (Class of 2011). … Maybe not a true “big man” but still 6-10 and the No. 1 prospect in the country. … Will play at Kentucky this year. … Projected as NBA Lottery Pick whenever he decides to come out.
Meyers Leonard, 7-0, Robinson (Class of 2010). … Late bloomer who ended up as a top 50 national recruit. … Led Robinson to Class 2A state championship as a senior. … No. 2 ranked Hoops Report prospect in Class of 2011. … Played limited role for Illinois as a freshman this past season.
Mike Dunigan, 6-9, Farragut (Class of 2008). … Hoops Report’s No. 2 prospect in Class of 2008. .. McDonald’s All-American. … Among top 25 high school prospects nationally. … Left Oregon after a disappointing sophomore season. … Played this past season overseas. … Went undrafted in 2011 NBA Draft.
Michael Thompson, 6-10, Providence (Class of 2002). … Yes, he was a consensus top 50 player in the country and a McDonald’s All-American. … Signed with Duke. … During sophomore season transferred to Northwestern. … Between Duke and Northwestern, Thompson only played in a total of 35 games.
Eddy Curry, 7-0, Thornwood (Class of 2001). … Led Thornwood to state runner-up finish and was Illinois Mr. Basketball in 2001. … MVP of McDonald’s All-American game. … Top-ranked prep prospect in the country. … No. 4 pick in 2001 NBA Draft. … A 10-year NBA career with a numerous personal off-court issues. … NBA salaries have totaled nearly $70 million.
Darius Miles, 6-9, East St. Louis (Class of 2000). … Not a prototypical “big man” but still a 6-9, highly-recruited combo forward. … No. 3 ranked player in the country as a prep behind Zach Randolph and Eddie Griffin. … No. 3 pick out of high school in 2000 NBA Draft. … Played for four teams in seven NBA seasons but straddled with the “bust” label and controversy throughout career. … Despite disappointing career, Miles totaled $62 million in NBA contracts.
Andre Brown, 6-9, Chicago Leo (Class of 2000). … Highly-regarded coming out of Leo as a consensus top 15 player nationally. … Sat out freshman year and had solid three-year career, averaging 12.5 ppg and 9.3 rpg over three seasons. … Played in 75 NBA games (598 total minutes) over three seasons.
Steven Hunter, 7-0, Proviso East (Class of 1999). … Consensus top 50 recruit nationally. … Brief stop two-year stop at DePaul included averaging 8.5 and 11.4 points a game in two seasons. … Has started only 130 NBA games in his career but totaled over $22 million in his 8-year NBA career.
Brian Cook, 6-10, Lincoln (Class of 1999). … Hoops Report’s No. 1 ranked prospect in Class of 1999. … McDonald’s All-American. … Big Ten MVP at Illinois where he scored 1,748 career points. … No. 24 pick by Los Angeles Lakers in 2003 NBA Draft. … Totaled over $16 million in NBA salaries.
Leon Smith, 6-10, King (Class of 1999). … Averaged 25.5 points and 14.5 rebounds a game as a senior and was Hoops Report Player of the Year. … Top 20 player nationally. … Selected by San Antonio Spurs with the No. 29 pick in the 1999 NBA Draft out of high school and traded to Dallas. … Inked 3-year NBA contract for nearly $1.5 million. … Played in a total of 15 NBA games.
Lance Williams, 6-9, Julian (Class of 1998). … All-stater in loaded Class of 1998 in Illinois. … A top 30 national recruit for DePaul. … A four-year starter at DePaul, where he scored 1,170 career points. … Has enjoyed a long overseas career.
Marcus Griffin, 6-9, Peoria Manual (Class of 1997). … Helped lead Manual to four straight state titles. … McDonald’s All-American. … JUCO All-American at Lincoln. … Averaged 11.1 ppg, 5.5 rpg and 1.4 bpg in solid two-year career at Illinois.
Melvin Ely, 6-10, Thornton (Class of 1997). … Played on loaded Thornton teams that went 96-4 in three seasons. … Put together an outstanding career at Fresno State, including a big senior year (23.3 ppg, 9.1 rpg, 1.8 bpg). … No. 12 pick in 2002 NBA Draft. … Quietly has put together eight years in the NBA (5.3 ppg in his career) and has made over $13 million in his playing career thus far. … Played in 30 games for Denver this past season.
Kevin Garnett, 6-11, Chicago Farragut (Class of 1995). … Best big man to ever come out of Illinois after transferring in from South Carolina for senior year. … Began preps to pros trend as he was No. 5 pick in 1995 NBA Draft. … A 14-time NBA All-Star and 2004 NBA MVP. … Future NBA Hall of Famer has made over $270 million in contracts.
Rashard Griffith, 7-0, Chicago King (Class of 1993). … One of nation’s top players as a prep, led King to unbeaten record and state title. … Illinois Mr. Basketball and McDonald’s All-American. … Played collegiately at Wisconsin for just two seasons, where he averaged 13.9 and 17.2 points a game. … No. 38 draft pick by Milwaukee Bucks in 1995. … Long playing career in Europe.
Thomas Hamilton, 7-2, Chicago King (Class of 1993). … Was a teammate of Rashard Griffith and led King to unbeaten state title season. … Academics prevented Hamilton from ever being eligible collegiately. … Played in 33 NBA games — 11 games with the Celtics in 1995-96 and 22 games with the Rockets in the 1999-2000 season.
Juwan Howard, 6-9, Chicago Vocational (Class of 1991). … McDonald’s All-American. … Part of Michigan’s Fab Five recruiting class. … After stellar three-year career at Michigan, Washington selected him No. 5 overall in 1994 NBA Draft. … Graduated from Michigan on time with his class even after leaving college early for the NBA. … Career average of 15 ppg in the NBA and two-time NBA All-Star. … Just finished his 16th season in the NBA and his career earnings have topped $150 million.
NOTE: Recent St. Ignatius graduate Nnanna Egwu, who is a freshman at Illinois, would rate among the top big men in the last 20 years in the eyes of the City/Suburban Hoops Report. The Hoops Report had Egwu as the No. 3 prospect in the loaded Class of 2011. But the national recruiting services severely missed on this one. Thus, Egwu was not a “consensus top 50 player nationally” as the barometer for this story. He ended up No. 97 nationally by Rivals.com, No. 69 by ESPN.com and No. 67 by Scout.com.
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