Okafor’s the man in the middle of things

Malik Newman (12) of the Jackson Tigers tries to make a shot from the paint as 6'11 Jahlil Okafor of the Mac Irvin Fire goes for the block at the Nike Peach Jam in North Augusta. Mike Adams photo.

NORTH AUGUSTA — Jahlil Okafor is a center of attention.

It’s easy to see why when looking at the 6-foot-11, 275-pound basketball player who’s position naturally is … center. He’s the top-ranked prospect in the class of 2014 and draws a crowd wherever he goes. That was the case Thursday, in his debut game in the Nike Peach Jam.

Fresh off a stint with the U19 U.S. basketball team, Okafor rejoined his teammates on Mac Irvin Fire – a Chicago-based team that’s a regular in the Peach Jam. There was a full house at Gym 3 of the Riverview Park Activities Center to watch Okafor and his teammates take on the Virginia-based team Boo Williams. That included a full complement of college coaches, who saw Boo Williams pull off a second-half comeback for a 60-57 upset win.

“We got off to a rough start, but we’ll pick it up,” Okafor said of an up-and-down performance where he almost had a triple-double with 13 points, 14 rebounds and nine turnovers. “The turnovers, that’s not acceptable. I was trying to make plays when they were not there and was trying to force stuff.”

Spectators weren’t the only ones who flocked to Okafor. The Boo Williams players double- and triple-teamed Okafor almost every time he touched the ball. They also combated his size and skill with extra attention when he didn’t have the ball but was battling for position in the low post, having a smaller player front him with one of the big men closely shadowing the action.

All of the defensive scrutiny played a role Okafor’s high number of turnovers. He admitted that being out of synch with his teammates – including Cliff Alexander, the Class of 2014s No. 2 rated prospect according to ESPN – also was a factor. Many of the Mac Irvin players have been working together on the Nike circuit the past few months while Okafor was one of only two high school players (including highly regarded prospect Justise Winslow) to participate on the U19 U.S. squad.

Okafor’s optimistic it won’t take long to fall back into a rhythm with his Mac Irvin mates. It’s just part of his overall approach to dealing with pressure and expectations of being the top-rated prospect in the country.

“Sometimes I do definitely feel the pressure. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t. But I’m just trying to have fun,” Okafor said. “I try to have fun playing basketball and do my best. I try to keep my poise, not get frustrated and play my game.”

Okafor displayed flashes of brilliance against Boo Williams, showcasing the skills that make him such a sough-after commodity. With the game tied at 55-all with 30 seconds to play, Okafor got the ball on the right wing, made a fundamentally-sound spin move while fending off a defender and had the poise to finish his shot to briefly give his team that lead.

That was an example of his impressive nimbleness for such a big man, displaying great balance. This allows him to be a terrific on-ball defender as well as a fluid member of the offense – able to make plays outside of the paint as well as finish around the hoop. He has good touch, maneuvering around defenders in mid air, able to score by more than just slamming the ball.

He’s also an unselfish player, which is significant for a junior star. He’s well spoken and comes off as warm and a polished person off the court. On the hardwood, Okafor has an excellent concept of how to play a team game, but he telegraphed some passes and forced some others which led to turnovers against Boo Williams. But his ability to mesh well with others is another part of his game that makes Okafor so attractive to college coaches.

Many of them are on pins and needles waiting for Okafor to make his decision. The good news for Arizona, Baylor, Michigan State, Ohio State, Kentucky, Kansas, Illinois and Duke – Okafor’s list of finalists – is that he doesn’t plan to string out his recruitment process, looking to make a decision in the fall. And it could be a major jackpot for whichever college lands Okafor.

That’s because he said his plan is to go to the same college as Tyus Jones – the third-ranked recruit in the Class of 2014 who’s playing in the Peach Jam with Minnesota-based Howard Pulley.

“He’s like my brother,” Okafor said of Jones, saying they could be joined by Winslow in the same signing class. “I’d love for it to work out, but I’m going to do what’s best for me.”

Joining forces with those top prospects would fill one of Okafor’s main college requirements. He said he’s looking for a college where he will team up with other great players, in addition to a program where he feels comfortable with the coaches, has a chance to win a national championship and values academics – although it’s more than likely he’ll leave after one year on campus for the NBA.

Anything else would be surprising for a player who’s the center of attention.

Noah Feit is the sports editor for the Aiken Standard and has been a professional journalist for more than 14 years after graduating from Syracuse University.