INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Jahlil Okafor has spent the season tuning out huge expectations, beating defenses geared to stop him and showing off offensive moves that leave NBA scouts drooling.
Through it all, Duke’s star freshman big man has stayed focused on one thing: winning.
He has the Blue Devils back in the Final Four, two wins away from Mike Krzyzewski’s fifth NCAA championship. It’s where the potential one-and-done talent — viewed as the possible No. 1 overall NBA draft pick whenever he leaves school — has been determined to get all season even with all the outside demands for him to be nothing less than dominant.
“I think all the attention on myself and the team has really made us grow up a lot faster,” Okafor said. “It’s something I’ve become accustomed to my entire life. I’ve had a lot of attention on me, and coming to Duke University has been an entire new level. It’s just really prepared us to get where we are now.”
The 6-foot-11, 270-pound Chicago native has been every bit as good as advertised for the Blue Devils (33-4) heading into Saturday’s national semifinal against Michigan State, even after two straight quiet games in the tournament.
He’s averaged 17.5 points as the nation’s No. 2-scoring freshman, averaged 8.7 rebounds and ranked second nationally among all players by shooting nearly 67 percent.
He showed off all the moves in Duke’s rout of San Diego State in the round of 32 — spinning moves, a hook shot, a short jumper, even a dribble drive and the ability to run the floor for a dunk.
When he’s at his best, he gives Duke a polished back-to-the-basket scorer with the ability to kick the ball out against collapsing defenders and set up teammates for open 3-point looks.
And that’s when the Blue Devils are at their best.
“Typically you have to teach a freshman, ‘OK, this is what’s going to translate to the college level,” said Duke assistant Nate James, who tutors Okafor in practice.
“With Jah, he had it all. So you come in, you’re not really teaching him moves. I don’t spend a lot of times with, “OK, Jahlil, you’re going to take the ball here and you’ll go up.’ Now I’m trying to talk to him about when to go, when to take advantage of the 1-on-1.”
Then again, Okafor doesn’t get a ton of those looks in games. He’s put up big numbers all year despite being atop every opponent’s scouting report, with coaches constantly sending double and triple teams his way on the block.
“I think you’ve got to put him in ball screens, you’ve got to make him move, make him do some things,” Spartans coach Tom Izzo said. “Hopefully we’ll have some wrinkles that we’ll try to put in, if there’s any weaknesses, to try to find them.”
Okafor said his biggest improvement is talking with his teammates more on the court on defense, one of Krzyzewski’s biggest annual coaching points with his teams. His father sees something more: a confident and talented player developing each day under the tutelage of “one of the bests, if not a modern-day John Wooden.”
“He’s just with time getting older and a lot more mature,” Chucky Okafor said. “He’s just growing in to a man. That’s the most incredible change. … He’s comfortable with himself. He’s comfortable with the situation. Just the way he’s handling everything, I think that’s the most mature growth.”
Okafor’s next task is bouncing back from two quiet tournament games in last weekend’s South Regional games in Houston.
He managed six points on 3-for-6 shooting in the Sweet 16 against Utah, then had nine on 4-for-10 shooting in the Elite Eight win against Gonzaga that pushed Krzyzewski into a tie with UCLA’s Wooden with a record 12 Final Fours.
Okafor said he wasn’t disappointed by his individual play. Rather, he said he was focused only on winning to reach the Final Four, setting up what could be the final weekend of his college career.
Both father and son said Okafor hasn’t decided on his NBA future just yet, although The Herald-Sun of Durham, North Carolina, reported in November that Krzyzewski said during a public speaking engagement that Duke “won’t have him long” and that “we’ll have him this year and then he’ll be one of the top picks.”
Regardless of when the move happens, the only thing that matters to Okafor is enjoying the moment and winning two games in Indianapolis.
“I don’t know what I’m doing after this season, but this is where I always wanted to be, in the Final Four,” Okafor said. “It’s here right now, and I couldn’t be happier.”
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