by Danny Hazan / @DeeHaze24
Jahlil Okafor has been itching to get back on the court to play a game with the Mac Irvin Fire.
The top rated prospect for the Class of 2014 only gave himself five days off following Whitney Young’s loss in the Class 4A Illinois High School Association sweet 16 to four-time defending state champion Simeon back in early March.
He even showed up Friday to the NY2LA Sports Swish ‘N Dish in suburban Milwaukee, the Fire’s first tournament on the spring and summer club circuit, five hours prior to his game’s tipoff.
While he waited he watched fellow Chicago big-man, and five-star recruit, Cliff Alexander and the D-Rose All Stars get hammered by the Wisconsin Swing 60-36.
“Watching him play made me mad,” said the 6-10, 270 pound Okafor. “He’s obviously he most dominant player on that team, and he had like three touches the whole game. So after the game, I was like, Big fella, you might have to scream at ‘em to get you the ball.
“My teammates know if they don’t give me the ball they’re going to hear my mouth. There’s a way to tell your teammates and I talked to him about that.”
The Fire made sure Okafor got his touches in their game against Ray Allen Select out of Milwaukee, and even when he didn’t get fed the rock, he took matters into his own hands.
Okafor’s tip-in as time expired gave the Fire a 73-71 double overtime victory, and started his final go-around on the circuit off on the right foot.
“That meant a lot because this is the first game of the season,” said Okafor, who has been offered by just about every high-major school in the country. “I have big goals this season and I want to be a leader. I had to put my team on my back in a game like this, and it felt good to help my team win.”
He finished with a game-high 34 points, and was a terror on both the offensive and defensive glass. Aside from his impressive agility relative to his imposing size, Okafor possesses a rare bag of tricks for a 17-year-old with his back to the basket—a repertoire reminiscent of Utah Jazz big man Al Jefferson.
“His footwork is insane, it’s crazy,” he said of Jefferson. “I’m always working on my game. I’m working on my post moves because my footwork is there. I just have to keep getting in better, and better shape.”
Okafor got his points on an array of post moves, sledgehammer dunks, put backs and by getting himself to the free-throw line.
The Fire had difficulty handling Ray Allen Select’s trio of Division I perimeter prospects in Riley LaChance, Brady Ellingson and Reed Timmer. RAS big men Ricky Landers, Caleb Mortag, Davante Jackson and Ronnie Singleton also did their best in trying to slow Okafor down by providing whatever physical resistance they could while he was trying to post up.
Having played in the Chicago Public League since his freshman year, not only has Okafor grown accustomed to the overtly physical nature of his often-undersized defenders—he flourishes because of it.
“I love it,” Okafor said. “I love playing physical. That’s when I thrive. When they try to push me, I push back. It gets my motor running and that makes me a better player.”
Friday night’s club-season opener may have served as a precursor for the rest of Okafor’s run with the Fire. While each game may be just another game he’s trying to win, it’s a chance to play against the country’s best junior every time out for his defender.
Thanks to some tips from the man who had a major hand in ending Whitney Young’s season March 8, Simeon’s Jabari Parker, Okafor appears ready for all comers.
“With Jabari being number one [in the country] and a year older than me, he experienced everything I will,” Okafor said. “He basically just told me the only thing about it is the target on your back. Every night people are going to come out, and I have to be prepared to expect everybody’s best shot.”
The NY2LA Sports Swish ‘N Dish continues through Sunday.