Welcome 2 Chicago

by September 24, 2013


Originally published in SLAM 172

by Aggrey Sam / photos by Jeff Sciortino

You already know about Chicago’s pedigree when it comes to point guards. The list is headed by Isiah, DRose, Tim Hardaway, Mo Cheeks…and goes on and on. The Windy City has also produced its fair share of scorers, ranging from Mark Aguirre to Jabari Parker to DWade. When it comes to big men though, well, the Chi has been lacking.

The likes of KG, Toine and Anthony Davis (a 6-2 PG when he was in 10th grade) were certainly no slouches, but those were versatile freaks of nature: tall dudes with uncanny perimeter skills. No disrespect to the likes of Juwan Howard and Terry Cummings, both of whom were steady, productive pros before being slowed by injuries and age, respectively, but it’s safe to say that in comparison to its strong lineage of perimeter players, the city has come up short when it comes to producing dominant true big men.

Thanks to Cliff Alexander and Jahlil Okafor, however, that’s all set to change.

Okafor, a 6-11, 270-pound center from Whitney Young HS, is currently the consensus top prospect in the nation for the Class of 2014; Alexander, a 6-9, 240 pound senior power forward at Curie HS, is right on his heels.

While Alexander is a powerfully explosive athlete whose skills are now catching up to his physical attributes, Okafor is poised to take the mantle of the game’s next great center, not only because of his size, but because of his advanced post game, as well. But aside from the commonality of being preternaturally big men from the same city, their paths to the upper-echelon of high school players have been very different.

Okafor’s mother passed away when he was just in the third grade, prompting a move from Arkansas to Chicago, where he was raised by his father, Chukwudi, and a tight-knit group of extended family. Dwarfing everyone else his age, the distant cousin of Wizards center Emeka Okafor was a phenom in grade school and as a freshman at Young—the perennial hoops power, which produced Quentin Richardson, is one of the Chi’s top academic schools and the alma mater of First Lady Michelle Obama—immediately lived up to the hype, and then some.

“He’s gifted and he has that ‘it’ factor,” says one long-time college coach of Okafor. “Even though he’s not supremely athletic, I still think his knowledge of the game and his size, and his ability to figure things out on the go is going to take him a long way. Jahlil is the best player in the 2014 class, and he could be the smartest kid.”

Adds Joe Henricksen, a local talent evaluator in Chicago and publisher of the City-Suburban Hoops Report scouting service: “Jahlil is going to go down as one of the elite, if not best, true back-to-the-basket big men of this era because he is so polished. He’s polished and advanced at an early age, and he continues to add to that skill package.

“He is so fundamentally sound, his footwork is off the charts, his hands are phenomenal for a kid his size and the thing he has going for him is work ethic and his character,” continues the scout, who also writes for the Chicago Sun-Times. “You’re talking about an off-the-charts, elite character kid who gets it, who’s humble, who wants to be better. True difference-making 5 men have been lost; to find one is like a needle in a haystack nowadays.”

Okafor’s massive frame belies his nimble footwork, soft hands, polished maneuvering on the block, excellent shooting touch and mature passing ability. His lack of above-the-rim athleticism hasn’t prevented him from excelling against older competition, such as his FIBA all-tournament performance this summer with the gold medal-winning USA Basketball U19 team in Prague, Czech Republic, where he was on a squad full of established college players.

“When I went to high school, the expectations were high around me, but my own expectations were even higher,” says Okafor, whose moves and even-keeled demeanor remind some of Tim Duncan. “I wanted to be where I am now, one of the top players for my senior year. When I was playing with the USA team, playing with a bunch of college guys, that really helped me a lot. Going up to Colorado Springs [where USA Basketball’s headquarters are located] with the altitude change and talking to Coach Billy Donovan and Coach Shaka Smart [U19 team coaches], they basically told me I was one of the best big men they’ve ever seen at my age and the only thing that was really stopping me was my conditioning. I really took that to heart.”

With his prominent stature in hoops circles, it could be easy to be complacent, but Okafor has a lofty long-term goal to work toward: the 2016 Olympic team. “I’ve talked with USA Basketball about that and they tell me I do have a chance of being on that 2016 team, so that’s just another expectation for myself,” he says. “It’s pretty exciting to think I could be on the same team as LeBron, Carmelo Anthony, all the guys I grew up watching.”

With the lack of true centers currently in the League and his experience in the program (he won gold medals playing for the U16 and U17 USA teams the previous two summers), it’s not just a teenager’s fantasy. Heading into his senior year, however, Okafor has only one mission: Win a state championship.

“City championship also, but state is the main goal. It’s going to be tough. Last year, we had Simeon [led by Duke freshman Parker, Rose’s alma mater has won four consecutive Illinois state chips—Ed.] and this year, we’ll be battling Cliff,” he explains, knowing that the city’s top teams often face off for the right to go downstate for the state playoffs. “Wanting to be the best, and also having so much talent here in Chicago, like with Cliff, you can’t really stop working when you’re playing in Chicago.”

Alexander took a much different path to being an elite prospect, as he started to play organized ball in just eighth grade. Like Okafor, whose father played at West Texas A&M, Alexander’s pop, Clifton Terry, also hooped, faring well enough at a local JuCo to have a short stint in the D-League. But Alexander didn’t take to the hardwood right away and was basically a novice upon entering Curie, a competitive program in the city, but without a national rep like Young’s. An extremely raw prospect, his size, length, athleticism and chiseled frame alone made people take notice, and by 10th grade, after helping Curie advance to the city championship, he was on the radar.

“Not in the beginning of my freshman year, but at the end I started seeing it,” Alexander recounts. “Then in my sophomore year, when I played against Jahlil, it was a great experience, packed crowd. Every time I got the ball, I had to go strong at him.

“Everybody says that I play like Amar’e Stoudemire. I see it a little bit,” he continues, describing the upside to his game that has people raving. “He can shoot the 15-footer, put it on the floor, post moves, sets good screens. Yeah, I can see it.”

Now the relentless athlete has added to his arsenal, displaying go-to post moves and extending the range on his jumper, while maintaining his trademark high-energy play on both ends of the floor as a supreme rebounder, intimidating defensive presence and punishing finisher. While in Las Vegas this past July for the LeBron James Skills Academy, one particular witness, according to Alexander, took notice.

“[LeBron] told me at the end of the camp that hopefully he’ll see me down the line,” he recalls, smiling widely. “He just said I need to work on a few things—my ballhandling, get stronger—so that’s what I did all summer.”

Others agree with James’ evaluation. Says Rob Smith, the coach at rival Simeon: “He’s probably been the most impressive guy to watch grow, just watching him from afar. You can really see how much time he’s been spending in the gym. He came in just a raw basketball player, but I remember when he was in eighth grade, we were at a showcase that I was working and everybody else went out to lunch, and he was the only one still in the gym, working on some post moves and asking a lot of questions. I see all that stuff starting to pay off, and I really think the sky’s the limit for him.”

They might be foes during the high school season—jokes Alexander, “We always talk about that, how I’m going to beat them in the state playoffs”—but over the summer, he and Jahlil teamed up on the Chicago-based Mac Irvin Fire in a handful of tournaments, causing nightmares for opposing AAU squads with their complementary styles of play. “Playing with him, it was a great thing. I had a great summer with him. Just dominated. Every time he gets the ball in the post, teams forget about me, leave me open. That just gives me a chance to shine,” says

Alexander. “Great player, great guy. I love to be around him. “

Echoes Okafor: “Cliff is one of my best friends and when you have so much in common, it kind of makes you get closer. So, it’s been a lot of fun and it’s a lot of fun playing against him during the season.”

Alexander even suggested a potential reunion on the next level, given that several of the same colleges are recruiting both players. “Me and Jahlil are talking about going to the same school right now,” he said. “Hopefully it happens. It’s possible.”

Unlike Alexander, who’s enjoying the recruiting process, Okafor—who has already pledged to play alongside one of the nation’s top floor generals, Minneapolis PG Tyus Jones, a former USA Basketball teammate and current SLAM diary keeper—seems to be weary of the constant attention, which is understandable after being in the spotlight for so long.

“Right now, I’m thinking I can’t wait to get it overwith. These coaches call and text you whenever they want to, so my phone’s blowing up,” he explains. “I want to be around other great players. I have to be comfortable with the coaches, and my family, they’re huge on academics, so that’ll be a factor also.”

During breaks in the photo shoot for this story, while watching the duo talk, shoot around and be kids in the Quest Multiplex gym on the West Side, Okafor and Alexander are like regular teenagers, except a lot bigger. Bright futures aside, they have another year to do just that, while making college decisions and perhaps facing off in the city and state playoffs, before moving on to the next level, and like their recent predecessors Rose, Davis and now Parker, trying to reach their shared dreams of being one-and-done college stars, top Draft picks and eventually, NBA All-Stars. But for the time being, if they can remain level-headed and continue on their current trajectories, they’ll be on their way to making Chicago’s style of play be as well known for snatching boards as it is for slashing to the bucket.

Aggrey Sam covers the Bulls for Comcast SportsNet Chicago