July 21, 2012

Okafor hears from Izzo

NORTH AUGUSTA, S.C. - Two weeks ago, and five thousand miles away, Jahlil Okafor was hailed as the finest player for the best 17-and-under basketball team in the world.

Back here in grassroots America, the physical Chicago center learned that just because he was MVP of the 17-and-under World Championships for USA's gold medal team, there aren't a set of Okafor Rules. At least not yet.

The physical 6-foot-10, 280-pound center was ejected from a morning game earlier this week during pool play of the Nike Peach Jam due to a flagrant elbow. Later that day, in an afternoon game, a kinder, slightly more gentle Okafor registered a double-double (15 points, 10 rebounds) during a victory for his summer travel team, the Illinois-based Mac Irvin Fire.

He adjusted, kept his elbows out of peoples' faces, went back to work and never complained about the call earlier in the day.

"My elbow, it wasn't intentional," he said. "I don't know why I got ejected, but I just tried to bounce back the next game."

He didn't mean to get his elbow up high into his defender's head while trying to post up in that morning game. But sometimes the thickest, most powerful center in the tournament doesn't know his own strength. And usually, he puts those tools to good work in the low post. He is ranked the No. 2 player in the Class of 2014 by Rivals.com, and the No. 1 center.

In early July, he averaged 13.6 points and 8.3 rebounds for team USA in the World Championships in Lithuania.

"It was amazing," Okafor said of the World Championships experience. "I had the most fun I've ever had in my life."

He had 17 points and eight rebounds in the gold medal game, a 95-62 victory over Australia.

Okafor ranked No 13 in the tournament in scoring, No. 7 in rebounding and No. 2 in field goal percentage (.595). He led the world tournament in offensive rebounding, at 4.1 per game.

All of that stuff is eye candy for Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo, who is positioning the Spartans to be in the lead pack of candidates for Okafor. Okafor will be a junior at Chicago Whitney Young High School this fall.

"Coaches are telling me that I'm moving a lot better and they feel like I'm growing more into my body and stuff like that," Okafor said.

Izzo, and every other Division 1 coach of note, is in North Augusta this week for the Peach Jam, which serves as The Finals for the summer-long, Nike-sponsored Elite Youth Basketball League.

Izzo was among the handful of coaches who got through to Okafor with recruiting phone calls since the FIBA World Championships.

"I just got home last week after being gone for a month with USA Basketball, and it's been very exciting," Okafor said. "Everybody is pretty much coming at me (for recruiting). I pretty much hear from everybody.

"Usually my dad handles most of the phone calls, but I talk to a couple of them on the phone. I talked to Izzo a few days ago, before we came down here (to the Peach Jam). He was just congratulating me on the USA thing, and me winning MVP and he was telling me to keep working.

"I heard from North Carolina a few days ago. They let me know that they want me in their program, how they can help me and how I can help them."

It's a pitch he has heard from several schools.

"Everybody, (including) Ohio State, Michigan State, Duke, North Carolina, Arizona, Duke, Georgetown," Okafor said. "Those are the schools that have been coming at me a lot. I don't have any favorites yet."

At the Peach Jam, Okafor's Mac Irvin Fire team has been short-handed this week due to the loss of Jabari Parker, the nation's No. 1-ranked senior. Parker, also of Chicago, sustained a foot injury while playing at the World Championships and is not available to play in the Peach Jam.

The Fire, who would have been one of the favorites to win the Peach Jam championship, finished pool play with a 2-2 record, thanks to a 60-54 victory over Boston-based BABC on Friday night.

Okafor had 14 points on 7-of-8 shooting, with six rebounds.

The knockout rounds of the Peach Jam begin today (Saturday). The knockout rounds in the Okafor recruiting bonanza won't begin until next year.

"It's humbling to have all of these college coaches come and watch us play," Okafor said after a victory Wisconsin Playground Elite on Thursday night. "I had my first experience with it last year but it is something that I never get used to."

What factors will weigh heavily in his decision on a college?

"The players around me; that's a main thing," he said. "A great relationship with the coaching staff. My family always stressed education so they have to have a good academic program."

He hasn't officially cut down a list of favorites.

"I will try to do that soon, but I don't know when," he said. "But I'll try to cut it down to 10 or 15 schools soon."

Fall and winter official visits?

"That's something I plan on doing, but I don't know where yet," he said.

He's been a little busy lately, with the AAU circuit, the World Championships and everything.

"It's something I love doing," he said. "I'm having a good time. I got tired and I took one day off - one day - and then I went back at it."

"I improved a lot over the summer, just because of the practices and playing against some of the best players on the USA team. I played against Dakari Johnson and BeeJay Anya every day and that improved me a lot.

"I want to improve on the defensive end, become more of a stopper, more of a defensive force."


Notable: After Thursday's game against Wisconsin Playground Elite, Okafor shook hands with former Spartan great Shannon Brown in the lobby area of the Riverview Park complex in North Augusta. Brown is on hand watching his little brother, Sterling Brown, who is a guard for the Mac Irvin Fire.

"I see Shannon around all the time but I don't know him that well," Okafor said.

On Friday night, more than a thousand townspeople attended games at the complex. At one point, a group of 50 or more were huddled around Shannon Brown, in line to take pictures with him while he sat on a park bench. Brown smiled for every picture.

Brown attended games with his wife, recording artist Monica.

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