In the first month of his sophomore year, Jahlil Okafor, a 6'8" center for Whitney Young in Chicago, received a scholarship offer from Duke's Mike Krzyzewski, a highly unusual move from a staff noted for waiting to give out scholarships in a more conservative manner. While young big men traditionally take longer to develop than their shorter peers, it was a gamble on the skill development and character of the Chicagoland product, who had just completed a successful summer as one of the youngest players with USA Basketball and on the newly formed Nike EYBL circuit with his Mac Irvin Fire AAU team.
On that aforementioned USA Basketball team was a scrawny point guard from just outside of the Twin Cities in Minnesota named Tyus Jones. Although he wasn't physically imposing, his ability to elevate his teammates, navigate the court, and score prodigiously set him apart. A celebrated 45 point outburst at an EYBL game in Dallas and a gold-medal leading performance in Cancun at the FIBA Americas U-16 Tournament caused Blue Devils Coach Mike Krzyzewski to watch him play for the Howard Pulley Panthers for the first time at the Peach Jam after just his freshman year.
Although Jahlil and Tyus had crossed paths at various AAU Tournaments throughout the country since grammar school, the USA Basketball team was the first time they had spent extended time as teammates. A bond developed among the precocious Minnesotan, the skilled big man with an old soul, and an older, wiser Chicagoan named Jabari Parker, who was named MVP of the Tournament.
In the late winter of his sophomore campaign at Apple Valley HS, Tyus Jones became just the second player Coach K offered in the class of 2014. Although it was already his third year of varsity basketball, it was during this season that Jones truly broke through and fulfilled many of the exceedingly high expectations that had been placed upon him. After averaging twenty-eight points, eight assists, and shooting 44% from beyond the three-point line, Tyus garnered the Gatorade Player of the Year Award in Minnesota and MaxPreps All-American recognition.
By early June, Jones and Okafor were back in Colorado Springs trying to make the USA Basketball U-17 team set to compete for a FIBA World Championship in Kaunas, Lithuania. They both made the competitive team and roomed together with Duke recruit Justise Winslow and current NC State freshman BeeJay Anya. Amidst the hoops and hijinks, it was during this ten-day trip in Europe that Tyus Jones and Jahlil Okafor, who was named MVP of the FIBA U-17 World Championship, decided that they enjoyed each other's company so much that they vowed to attend the same college together.
USA Basketball coach Don Showalter, who coached the duo both in Cancun and Kaunas, said of his point guard Tyus, "Well, obviously, everybody knows, any basketball person, knows how good he is, but I think one of the things that separates him from other point guards is how well he sees the court and then how he distributes the basketball. He’s like a college point guard right now from the standpoint that he can dictate to the defense. He’s a hell of a team player. He really could care less if he scores points although he’s someone who can score. But he’s one of those special people that sees the court and gets the ball to people."
In October of their Junior year, the duo flew with their families to the Triangle to catch Duke's version of Midnight Madness, Countdown to Craziness. The Blue Devil seedlings, which had been planted in the heads of the two prized recruits, began to sprout. Okafor went on to have a dominant season for Whitney Young, an academic magnet school, where he earned the Chicago Sun-Times Player of the Year over his close friend, AAU teammate, and current Duke freshman Jabari Parker. Meanwhile, the 6'2" Jones lead Apple Valley to its first state title in school history with a dominating performance of 26 points (including 18 for 18 from the charity stripe), 11 rebounds, and 8 assists in the title game in front of more than 13,000 fans.
While Tyus had trimmed his list of suitors down to a select seven in March, Jahlil waited until the end of May to cut his list of possible colleges to a final eight, six of which coincided with the Minnesota point guard. This summer, both were expected to try out for the USA Basketball U-19 team, but Tyus felt it was best to remain home, while his grandfather battled through health issues. Jahlil, who had been fighting through a high ankle sprain all spring, and fellow Duke recruit Justise Winslow were the only high schoolers to make the U-19 team set to compete for the FIBA U-19 World Championship in Prague, where they went on to win a second gold medal for the United States.
Coach Showalter said of his 6'11" center Jahlil Okafor, whom he coached for two summers, "Jahlil, I mean he’s a different type of post player than most post players in high school. He’s a true back-to-the-basket post player and I don’t think we see that much in high school basketball. Most centers want to step out and face the basket, which he can do. He has great hands, a tremendous right and left hand around the basket. He finishes very very well. And, you know, he likes to play in that center position. I think that’s another factor that kind of separates him from other post players. He generally likes that post position and he pretty much claims that for his own. With his size and great footwork he’s very very tough to stop down low."
In August, Jahlil Okafor announced that he was going to take his official visits to Baylor, Kentucky, Arizona, Kansas, and Duke, with the Baylor, Kansas, and Duke visits sharing the same dates as Tyus Jones. They first headed to Waco to catch the Baylor Bears destroy Wofford 69-3 on the football field and toured the facilities with the Baylor staff, including Tyus' cousin Jared Nuness. While Okafor took advantage of available official visits to Kentucky and Arizona, the duo met up again seven weeks later in Lawrence, Kansas, where Coach Bill Self arranged for a second open team practice for the Kansas fans and the two top players to enjoy.
A week later, the pair of top-five recruits headed for their final official visit to Duke, where they were hosted by their former teammate and friend, Jabari Parker. Jones, who arrived with his extended and yet tight-knit family, found solace in what he viewed as a family-like setting at Duke. Jahlil's father, the effervescent Chuck Okafor, who did not take the flight to Kansas, made the trip to Durham for his son's final official visit, where they took in a Duke exhibition game against Bowie State.
Three weeks later, a program-changing decision that had been made in the prior days, was announced jointly on ESPNU. Twenty-six months after initially offering Jahlil Okafor, the gamble paid off handsomely as the Blue Devils landed 6'11" Jahlil Okafor, the consensus top-ranked player in the country, and Tyus Jones, the top-flight point guard they've had a laser focus on for nearly two years.
Veteran scout Tom Konchalski said of top-ranked Jahlil Okafor committing to Duke, "Jahlil Okafor brings to the program what they're missing this year. He's a post presence, an inside scoring presence, he's a guy who has a legitimate post game. A lot of big guys, they're perimeter wannabes. And not that he can't score from out there, he can score the high post down to the low post. With "The Wolf of Wall Street" coming out, I should say he has more inside moves than Jordan Belfort. No, but he gives them a legitimate scoring presence inside and he'll certainly be one of the top post players in the country.
On 6'2" Tyus Jones, Konchalski added, "He brings a court IQ that is off the charts. He has a tremendous understanding of the game. He's a throwback player in that he has an approach. I mean, he's a guy who's quick and can get to the basket and he's a good penetrator, but because of change of pace, mainly, because he's not a guy who's going to be showy. He's not a very flashy player. His strength is that he understands how to change pace and to change direction and he can get inside the lane based upon that. But what he brings is an understanding of the game and he plays with purpose. There's a lot of guys who play the game, but there aren't a lot of guys who play to win. He plays for result, rather than for effect. He's interested much more in the competition and less so on the exhibition."
"Well, when you see him play, you say that guy's not that quick. You know, he's not that explosive athlete. A guy who he's usually compared to in his class is Emmanuel Mudiay, who is a tremendous talent and a good player. When you see him, you see a guy who runs past people, jumps over people, and dunks when he drives..things like that. Tyus Jones isn't that kind of player. He's really a guy who's a facilitator, who makes people better, and who understands the game. He reminds me with his temperament on the court a little bit of Bill Bradley. He's certainly more athletic than Bill Bradley. There's something about the way he puts the ball to the floor, his economy of motion, the fact that he's very abstemious with his dribble, there's nothing superfluous in his game and that's what he brings to the team."
Konchalski continued, "Although, you never know, when you look at him, you say here's a guy who, while Okafor will probably be a one-and-done, here's a guy, because he's a 6'1.5", 6'2" point guard, with the kind of game he has, he's probably not going to be a one-and-done, he's probably going to stick around longer. Plus, he's going to be splitting minutes with Quinn Cook. He's not going to put up the kind of numbers that would validate his going into the NBA after his freshman year. But he's going to be around longer. They may go together, but I don't think they'll stay together. I think he'll stay longer than Okafor. He can score, but he's not going to be like Austin Rivers, where he's hunting his shot at every opportunity. Not that he can't score, but his supreme impact on the team will be making the team run better and making other players better."
On the collective impact of the tandem joining Duke, the veteran scout pointed to the collateral impact. "Duke is fortunate to get commitments from Okafor and Tyus Jones. It's as if Mike Krzyzewski has won Powerball. And I say that because I think the two of them may be enough to lure Jabari Parker back for a second year. It increases exponentially because of his friendship with Okafor. This puts them in great shape for him to possibly win a fifth national championship in 2015. And not that they're not a contender this year, but if Parker were to come back and with Parker, with Okafor, with what they have, Sulaimon and Amile Jefferson coming back and Quinn Cook coming back as a senior, with what they have, I think that they would have to be regarded as the favorite. Now, the favorite does not always win, but I think that is the collateral effect of getting those people is far beyond just their value to the program individually. In fact, I really think that it increases the chances of Jabari Parker coming back for a sophomore year, which I guess, when he committed to them, he said that he would be open to staying for more than one year. And let's hope he does, for Duke's sake. You know, certainly, that's why. That's the story with them, the story. The fact that when Okafor goes there, that would help lure Jabari Parker back. "
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