SANTA BARBARA - And the first, shall be last.
For Jahlil Okafor's entire career, first is the only number that's ever mattered.
The No. 1 ranked player in his class four straight years in high school.
State champion in Illinois his senior season.
Gold medalist with Team USA in the 2012 FIBA Under-17 World Championships and again in 2013 in the FIBA Under-19 World Championships.
High school national player of the year by Parade, USA Today and McDonalds his senior season.
MVP at the McDonald's All-American and Jordan Brand Classic games.
ACC Player of the Year.
First team All-American as a freshman.
National champion with the Duke Blue Devils in April.
But with 12 days remaining before the NBA draft, for the first time in his career, there is a dark cloud hanging over first. Karl-Anthony Towns and D'Angelo Russell have passed him on our Big Board. Okafor, the national champion. Okafor, the All-American. Okafor, the first in his class his entire career, is in an unusual position. For once, he has to convince the basketball experts that he's No. 1.
His case will be a simple one.
"I'm a winner," Okafor said when asked what he would say to the teams at the top of the draft about why he should be the No. 1 pick. "I've always been a winner. And I'm a great teammate."
STICKING TO THE SCRIPT
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It's almost impossible to believe Okafor is in this position at all.
For virtually the entire year, he was not only No. 1 on our Big Board, but also the consensus No. 1 among NBA scouts and GMs. Every team that I polled from July through February had him on top.
After dominating high school basketball for four years, he was dominating college ball. Ruling the ACC. Leading Duke to a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. A favorite to win National Player of the Year as a freshman.
His low post skills were unique. Every scout I spoke with couldn't remember the last time a freshman big man played with such skill and confidence in the post. Most big men are lucky to have one good move. Okafor has 10, and 10 more counters when the defense reacts.
He has soft hands, quick feet and a calm demeanor on the court. Whenever he's out there he acts like he's been doing this his whole life. In many ways, he has.
Okafor's parents both played college ball. They've been grooming him for first since he was a baby.
"I have videos of me playing basketball in diapers," Okafor said. "I've always been a basketball player. My earliest memories are of playing basketball. I was born playing it. It's why I'm so comfortable on the floor."
In the eighth grade his comfort level hit a new high when he met a local big man trainer named Rick Lewis. Lewis saw Okafor's talent immediately and wanted to give him a strong foundation to build upon. Okafor was already using his size and strength to dominate the paint. But Lewis knew that being the biggest and strongest would only last so long before others caught up. If he was going to stay No. 1, he needed skills to go with his obvious strength.
"The first time I saw him play," Lewis recalled, "I asked him after the game, 'How many assists did you have? Not that many. That's going to change. You're the biggest thing on the floor and you're going to get double and tripled teams and you'll start forcing up shots. You have to learn to pass.'
"He went to his first tournament and called me after and said, 'Did you see my left hand dunk?' because he couldn't dunk with his left when I first got him. 'But how many assists did you have? One, two? That's not enough.'"
Okafor remembered the conversation too. "It's funny you mention the not-many-assists story," he said. "Now people see me as a big man who knows how to pass out of the post. And it started with that conversation. He's helped me so much on and off the floor."
Passing was just one of the areas Lewis focused on. He began creating a plan for Okafor that included daily workouts that worked on footwork and post moves. In an era where big men are more happy playing like wings, Lewis wanted to create an old-school, Patrick Ewing-esque low post monster.
"I've trained a lot of guys over the years and he's been the first guy I have had that I can say has bought into the entire script and the entire program," Lewis said. "Every move he does is off a script. He doesn't do anything that is brand new. He doesn't make up anything on the floor. Everything he does on the floor we have a drill for. It helps him to know what he's doing. And it keeps him from getting injured on non-contact moves."
That script Lewis is referring to is what NBA scouts have been drooling over for months. Okafor's unique ability to read defenses, react and dominate the paint. It's been a decade, maybe longer, since a big man could do what he's done at his age.
"I stick to the script," Okafor said. "Different moves and counters. It's instilled in me. I've never gone off that script."
Even when he got to Duke and suddenly the competition was bigger, stronger and more advanced.
"The script stayed the same," Okafor deadpanned. "I got bigger, I got stronger. We've been doing the same thing since the eighth grade."
The "same thing" has put up huge results for Okafor. As a freshman at Duke, Okafor averaged 17.3 points and shot an incredible 66 percent from the field. That number went up to a ridiculous 76.5 percent at the rim, according to Hoop-Math.com. He was so efficient as a freshman that Kevin Pelton's formula for projecting WARP freaked out, essentially calling his numbers a fluke and pushing him to sixth and later to 14th among draft prospects.
Wrote Pelton: "He's not currently at the top of my rankings of projected WARP (he's sixth, in fact), but there's actually a good explanation for that. The system doesn't believe anyone can be as good at finishing as Okafor has been. As of now, Okafor's 2-point percentage would be the second-best by a major-conference player to average at least 15 points per game in College Basketball Reference's database (back to 1997-98), trailing only Villanova's Michael Bradley in 2000-01 (.727). And Bradley did that as a fourth-year transfer. If we narrow the list to freshmen, Okafor is No. 1 by a huge margin over Arizona State's Ike Diogu (.625 in 2002-03)."
In other words, Pelton's system felt that Okafor's shooting percentage was just too good to be true. At the time Pelton still believed Okafor would be the No. 1 pick.
It wasn't until February that things started to get fuzzier.
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After spending the first nine months of the season ranked No. 1 on our Big Board, Okafor slid to No. 2 in late March and to No. 3 last week.
What happened? Two things really.
First, as polished as Okafor was offensively, his defense started to become a major issue as scouts continued to watch him. He struggled to protect the rim, couldn't guard players on the perimeter and often played lethargically on the defensive end.
Various theories abound. He lacked conditioning, lacked athleticism, was staying out of foul trouble, Mike Krzyzewski's system didn't do him any favors, etc. Whatever the explanation, as good as Okafor was offensively, his defense was equally bad.
His poor free throw shooting was another issue. Okafor was getting to the line on average about five times a game and was shooting a miserable 51 percent from the charity stripe. In the NBA, head coaches were strategically hacking poor free throw shooters like DeAndre Jordan and Dwight Howard every time they touched the ball. It's more of an issue now than ever.
Second, was the rise of Towns. After a slowish start at Kentucky, Towns really started coming on in March. While the two players were roughly the same size, Towns was more athletic, a much better shot blocker and showed off an ability to face the basket -- a skill Okafor lacked.
In the old NBA (the one that emphasized isolations in the post), Okafor would have been hands down the No. 1 pick. In the new NBA (one that emphasizes rim protection, switching on defense and big men who can space the floor) Towns fit the mold as the new "it" big.
Scouts and GMs alike drooled at the possibility of the two of them going head-to-head in the national championship game. But a Kentucky loss to Wisconsin in the Final Four ended that dream. It was around then that, for the first time all year, the majority of teams now had Towns ahead of Okafor.
As the draft process continued, more and more teams also put Russell ahead of him. LeBron James, Steph Curry, James Harden and a host of other guards or wings were now dominating the playoffs. There wasn't a dominant big man in the mix. Starting centers like Andrew Bogut and Timofey Mozgov were spending huge chunks of time on the bench in the Finals.
"The NBA is trendy," one GM said. "Okafor's game doesn't fit the trend. It's old-school. And I think that once someone said it out loud, people began jumping off the bandwagon. But I think it's a huge mistake. The reason the league has changed is because we can't find dominant big men any more. The highest percentage shot available is at the rim. I think Okafor will cause major problems for teams that have gone away from bigs. He'll dominate the paint. And the defense? I don't worry about it. He's 19. He'll get in better condition. He'll learn to play it well enough to not be a liability. And then people will be asking in a few years whether we just passed on the next Shaq, the next Tim Duncan, for the next Chris Webber. I'm not sure trendy is ever really a good thing."
COMING TO WIN
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Okafor has taken the criticism to heart and has been working since May to address the biggest critique made against him: that he lacks the athleticism to dominate the NBA. He has been working for two months with the folks at P3 (the Peak Performance Project) to change his body and his game. His body is leaner than it's ever been. His stomach is toned. And his athleticism has improved significantly.
I profiled P3 a few years ago. It provides complete bio-mechanical and neuromuscular assessments to athletes and then helps them improve on weaknesses. This is a place on the cutting edge of where sports training is going in the next decade. Now that the NBA has contracted them to do pre-draft testing, P3 has hundreds of NBA players in its database to compare to Okafor.
"On Day 1, we were able to see exactly how he stacked up to our NBA center database from a vertical, lateral, agility, and bio-mechanical perspective," P3 assistant GM Adam Hewitt said. "While there were some clear targets -- we knew that Jah could get a lot better and that he wasn't close to reaching his athletic potential.
Two months after starting with P3, Okafor has made major strides.
"He was able to really improve his lateral acceleration and agility while at P3," Hewitt continued. "The 1-off skater test (a lateral acceleration test) is a test we have been doing with NBA athletes for a long time now and what we have found through in-house research is that there is a strong correlation between being able to put up a lot of horizontal force and having a fast lateral agility time."
In his first assessment when he came in, Okafor's left slide agility was measured at 2.88 seconds. His right at 2.81 seconds. Two months later, he posted scores of 2.66 seconds in his left slide agility and 2.58 seconds for his right, ranking him in the 87th percentile compared to other NBA centers in P3's database.
Okafor also improved his standing vertical jump by 2.5 inches and his maximum vertical by 4 inches. And Hewitt thinks he'll continue to get better. These sorts of issues aren't fixed in a couple of months. Give P3 two years with Okafor, and while he'll never be Andre Drummond, he'll be much more athletic.
On the court, though, Okafor has been sticking to the script.
While scouts want to see improvements in his perimeter game, Okafor, in the light workout I saw on June 20, spent all of his time refining his moves in the paint.
"My main focus, my pride is right there on the block," Okafor said after the workout. "That's where I've always played and my focus has always been. That's my bread and butter and I don't want to go away from that."
Even when the league now wants big men to step out and shoot?
"He's not afraid to be a true big man," Lewis said. "He has to be the stretch-the-floor big man. He understands that. He is mentally prepared to do that. With the scouting report the way it is, people are going to leave him. They are going to back-up off of him. In order for him to get open again, he has to make that 15- to 17-foot jump shot."
But maybe Okafor won't have to adjust. The way the lottery balls fell on draft night may have played into Okafor's hands. The analytics revolution that has captured the NBA hasn't quite landed in Minnesota and Los Angeles. While both teams use the numbers, Flip Saunders and Mitch Kupchak are both old school executives.
Both teams are seriously considering Okafor with the No. 1. pick.Saunders has been a huge Okafor fan all year. He'd love to have a dominant low-post scorer to pair with Andrew Wiggins. He's getting push back from his staff, which prefers Towns, and that has raised some question about what the Wolves will do at No. 1.
If Towns goes No. 1, the Lakers have been debating between Okafor and Russell. While Russell is sexier and fits the mold of a Steph Curry or James Harden, the Lakers have traditionally been built on the back of elite centers. With a gaping hole in the middle, will they really pass on Okafor for a wing like Russell?
If the Lakers take Russell, things get a little messier for Okafor.
The Sixers, at No. 3, don't seem to have Okafor heavily in the mix at all. The Knicks do like Okafor and would likely take him at No. 4. But with Phil Jackson pressing to improve defensively, and with the Knicks entertaining trades as well, it's not a slam dunk.
For the first time in his life, Okafor may have to wait to hear his name called.
And, for once, being first doesn't matter so much to him. Because being first in the draft has nothing to do with winning. Nothing to do with basketball. Okafor's focus remains on those two things.
"This is my sanctuary," Okafor said, pointing to the court. "It's where I go to clear my mind from things. Now I potentially will get paid to do it. This is what I love to do. I just want to win. Doesn't matter where I go. Just know wherever I go, I'm coming to win."
The first, scripture says, shall be last. And the last shall be first. For Okafor, wherever he goes on draft night, whether he goes one or four, the end goal will be the same.
He's coming for first -- the sort of first that's decided in the Finals, not on draft night.