On the Block | Jahlil Okafor and the Momentary Resurgence of the Blue Devil Big Man

Freshman sensation and NPOY candidate Jahlil Okafor is reminding Duke Blue Devil fans what it’s like to have a dominant big. And while he’s a sure one-and-done candidate, Okafor gives the Cameron Crazies a reason to get excited with March quickly approaching. 

Time stood still momentarily this past Wednesday night in Durham, North Carolina. Not throughout the entire city — no. But in the cramped, hallowed halls of Cameron Indoor Stadium on the campus of Duke University, you could hear a mouse fart when Blue Devil big man Jahlil Okafor landed awkwardly on his left ankle after spinning baseline and putting up a soft baby-hook over North Carolina junior forward Joel James. As Okafor’s Lebron X Prism crumpled underneath the unbalanced weight of the freshman’s 6’11”, 270 pound frame, his shot rimmed out, and play resumed. Okay, obviously I’m a liar. Time didn’t stand still. But after a Mason Miles Marhsall Plumlee offensive board, a missed long distance call from Quinn Cook, and a put back by sophomore guard Matt Jones, I promise time ceased. A referee’s time-out was called, and ESPN cut to a commercial break.

Stunned by a thirty-second Wendy’s Bacon & Blue Burger on Brioche commercial sense of disbelief, my mental fog subsided and I began to comprehend what had just occurred. Okafor, a firm contender for the NCAA National Player of The Year, was competing in his first career game against Roy Williams’ North Carolina Tar Heels. I needn’t say much else. Separated by less than ten miles of tobacco and varying hues of blue, the Duke-UNC rivalry is thee quintessential college basketball matchup. As someone that grew up a fan of the Dukies (crucify me now and get it over with), I cringed when Okafor hit the deck — and for a brief moment I wondered if we’d ever see the big fella rocking a Blue Devil uniform ever again. Overdramatic? Maybe. Unwarranted? No.

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See, Okafor’s been somewhat of an anomaly for Coach K’s bunch. Yeah, he was the number one high school recruit in the nation this past cycle, and part of a unprecedented 2014 Dukie commit class consisting of four McDonald’s All-Americans, but the Chi-town freshman has brought something back to Durham that has been missing for quite a long time. Does the name Shelden Williams ring a bell? What a workhorse. I’m not comparing the pro potential of these two guys (because Jahzilla wins by a landslide), but the Blue Devils haven’t had a dominant big since Candace Parker’s husband was cleaning the Cameron glass and bullying the entire country in the post. Think about it. Who are the true low-post bigs that have come to play for Duke since the days of sir Shelden? You’ve had the brothers Plumlee (trademark role players), Brian Zoubek (Um…), and Josh McRoberts (who’s technically a stretch four). To put things into perspective, Coach K had ‘Bari playing power forward for him at times last year. Now I know the modern day big man is progressively drifting farther and farther out of the paint, but Okafor’s expertise has rekindled a noticeable culture change compared to Duke teams of past; a resurgence that, be it only for one year, will prove instrumental come tourney time.

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Jahzilla with the sweet feet (and hand) on the low block.

There’s been little to hide in years past when Mike Kzyzewski has sent out his starting unit for the Blue Devils. Notoriously a live-by-the-three/die-by-the-three squad, Okafor presents the Dukies with the flexibility in the paint that they’ve been lacking since Shelden Williams averaged 18.8 PPG and 10.7 RPG for Coach K in Duke’s 05-06 season. With ten double doubles on the season for the freshman center, it’s obvious that Okafor has been a man down low for a Blue Devils squad with only a few minor blemishes on their tourney resume. And while Okafor is leading the squad with 17.9 PPG and 9.4 RPG respectively, teams have put forth their best effort all season to deny the Jah the rock, or to provide extra help guarding the big boy in the post. Teams like ACC rival Virginia put forth their best effort to deter the center, relying heavily on fronting Okafor in the post, and meeting him with a double-team nearly every time he touched the ball. Though the Hoos lost 69-63 in their battle at John Paul Jones Arena, Okafor tied his season low 10 points, and he contributed a total of 5 turnovers.

Other teams have attempted to implement similar tactics against Okafor and the Blue Devils, but Kzyzewski has done a great job to surround the big with capable scorers spread across the entire Duke unit. Duke’s got four starters averaging double digit points, and as a team the Blue Devils are shooting .387% from beyond the arc, a number that ranks second in the ACC only to the Notre Dame Fighting Irish (.404%). When met with a double-team, Okafor has consistently exhibited the ability to distribute the ball quickly and efficiently, either to one of Duke’s talented three-point shooters like Quinn Cook (.407%), or to fellow Duke big Amile Jefferson, whose 73.5% assist at the rim rate ranks highest on the team. Coach K has lauded Okafor all season for his ability to pass the basketball from the post, and it’s opened up the Duke offense for a triple-threat attack that when clicking, is nearly impossible to defend. And while Okafor’s ability to diagnose a double-team has noticeably improved over the course of this season, that doesn’t mean he lacks the inherent ability to navigate out of trouble if he can’t find the open man.

Exhibit A: 

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With a little over three minutes left in the first half and the Blue Devils leading 43-36, Duke point guard Tyus Jones headed to the line for two free throws. Jones sunk his first attempt, but prior to the freshman putting up his second free throw, the Cameron Indoor crowd erupted into a raucous frenzy as Jahlil Okafor emerged from the tunnel with the Duke training staff at his side. Then, with 45 seconds remaining in the first half, Okafor limped onto the floor to deafening “OK-A-FOR!” chants from the crazies, a moment that will forever be etched in the Duke/UNC rivalry stone. Energized by Okafor’s return (and Tyus Jones’ steel balls), the Blue Devils would go on to win 92-90 in an overtime thriller against UNC, their first meeting of the season. Contributing 12 points, 13 boards, 3 assists, and 1 block on the night, Jahzilla proved to once again be an instrumental piece for the Blue Devils. Okafor has dominated all season for the Dukies, and there’s no doubt that Kzyzewski and his squad will rely heavily on the freshman as they look to avenge last year’s first round embarrassment to the fourteenth seeded Mercer Bears, a game in which Blue Devil big men accounted for a total of 2 points and 3 assists.

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There’s no denying that Jahlil Okafor has been special for the Duke Blue Devils this season. From a sheer post domination standpoint, the freshman is unmatched. Just ask North Carolina big Kennedy Meeks, who’s wishing now that he hadn’t lost all that weight this off-season. Okafor bullied the UNC big multiple times during the second half, exhibiting his polished post presence, and providing Duke with one of many threats that they’ve been developing over the course of this season. Whether it’s his dominance in the paint or his ability to find the open man, Jahlil Okafor has been a god-send to Mike Kzyzewski and the Duke Blue Devils this season. And while the resurgence of the Duke big man is momentary with Okafor likely to seek greener paychecks pastures next season, it’s a resurgence that could take the Duke Blue Devils far into March. How far will they go? Time will tell, but one thing’s for sure — Okafor’s earning his stripes, one game at a time.

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