Recruiting is a nasty business. Legendary coaches chasing 17 year old prospects around like they want to ask them to prom. Shady leeches hanging on to these kids under the guise of “uncle” in hopes of one day getting a pay day off of the kid’s talent. Nevertheless, it is an important vein in the life of college basketball. A necessary evil to continually push for national championships.
Few kids, however, ultimately do swing titles so easily. One could argue Anthony Davis was the biggest reason UK won the title in 2012 but lest not forget the complimentary players on that team that helped chemistry so well. Perhaps Kyrie Irving could have swung the title to Duke in 2011 had he been completely healthy and in shape, Coach K certainly thought so.
Alas, recruits seldom change programs single-handedly, which makes the Jones-Okafor-Winslow package so fascinating to me. Okafor wouldn’t come to Duke as the sole recruit but he would however be the most important recruit by far.
I am just going to say it: Tyus Jones is unnecessary as the roster currently stands. Despite some rumors and rumblings that the coaching staff believes Quinn Cook will have the realistic option to be a first round draft pick in 2014, I believe Cook will be around as a senior. With Duke loaded with wings and guards for the 14-15 season (Murphy, Jones, Ojeleye, Allen, possibly Sulaimon and Winslow), what purpose is Duke served by playing two point guards. Sure, Jones could back up Cook but that isn’t going to happen. A talent like Jones isn’t coming to play 10-15 minutes per game and by playing him at the scoring guard slot, Duke loses size and rebounding at the two. I could dive into this topic with more detail on the compliments of their skill sets but that is a digression for another day. If Jones sees himself staying more than one year, sure but I wouldn’t bet on it.
Winslow would come in as a contributor from day one, no doubt about it. His rebounding will translate well to the collegiate level and he is a deft scorer in ways that Duke could use. Still, he’d have stiff competition for minutes in both forward roles.
It is Okafor that can change everything.
Jahlil Okafor stands 6’11″. He weighs in at a sturdy 270 pounds. His wingspan reaches to the top of George Muresan’s head. He had a drop step going either direction. He has an up and under, the awareness to improvise on both the low-block and at the elbow, a power spin into the lane, and loves his bank shots. He is the high school version of Tim Duncan and may not be far from his talents currently.
His importance lies not only in his talents but misconceptions about Duke and their post game. It is no secret that when Coach K has a low-block stud to get the ball to, he feeds them as a means of creating space for his shooters. The opposite of that strategy also works in that he needs a low post player, credible enough to score on his own, to pull defenders off of the shooters. If you watched Mason Plumlee this year, you saw that he often commanded double teams, allowing the four out offense to devastate opponents. Players would tend to help off of Ryan Kelly to double Plumlee, Kelly would step out to the three point line, and defenses are put in a quandry.
1) Double Mason and try to prevent the easy two points.
2) Allow a Ryan Kelly open three
3) Rotate defenders to open only the skip pass to the corner (most likely Seth Curry)
4) Hedge on Mason but leave him isolated in the low block.
Duke’s offensive set was damn hard to beat when Plumlee was allowed to establish down on the low block. It was less successful when Plumlee was pushed off to about 15 feet and he would have to face up.
Okafor can get Duke back to that offense with the added caveat of being a better face up guy. His footwork is phenomenal for a big man his age. He lays his foundation well, opens up wide for the entry passes, and then plays his man. Defender gives him baseline? Fake inside, spin underneath, dunk. Defender cuts off baseline? Up and under, bank shot, you pick the hand.
Okafor’s impeccable skill at reading his defender is what is truly great about him. Coupled with an array of post moves 90% of NBA centers would salivate over, Okafor presents a player that can get two points nearly whenever he chooses.
Erasing those misconceptions about how Duke develops post players isn’t a one man task. Okafor can’t do it all himself but he does present an excellent trump card during recruiting. Maybe if Okafor had come along ten years ago, Duke lands Greg Monroe and other targeted centers. Who’s to say?
A guy like Okafor has always been the missing piece to many of Duke’s not-quite-there teams. 2008 sure could have used him. As could 2009 and 2011. 2002 didn’t need him per se but a high-low game of Boozer and Okafor makes me light-headed.
With the 2014-2015 squad, he already looks the missing piece. A senior All-ACC PG? Check. A 6’5″ long range sniper (or a junior Sulaimon, which would be even better) in Jones? Check. A strong, athletic, hopefully great defender at small forward? Check. A stretch four with excellent finishing skills and a developing mid-range? Check. A dominant, low-block center with sharp instincts, dependable in isolation, and ideal size?