Jahlil Okafor is one of the top players nationally in the class of 2014. Okafor, who says he is now 6'-11" tall, has tremendous post moves. He is a throwback to an era where centers dominated the college game. It is easy to understand why so many people clamor for his attention, from college coaches to media to fans to street agents.
Fortunately, he has a good head on his shoulders. He also has a support system that helps free him from the constant pressures.
"It's pretty easy. I've got a great family. My dad, my aunts, they keep me away from all that. They keep me level."
Besides being one of the top 5 players in the 2014 class, Okafor was named to the USA basketball team for his age group and has college coaches salivating over the prospect of him play for them. Rather than rest on his laurels, he wants to continue his improvement.
If there was a knock on his game last year, it was his lack of explosion. A broad shouldered, stocky athlete, Okafor is not known as a great leaper. But one can definitely see improvements this season. So can he.
"Definitely. Everybody I talked to told me that the only thing that could stop me is my conditioning. I don't want anything to stop me, so I've been working really hard."
He not only can bang down low for points and boards, he now shows off a face-up game and good crossover move. He also flashes a spin move in the lane that leaves defenders grasping at air. Add in his good touch from the foul line, and there is little he can't do.
Despite all his ability, his Whitney Young team did not advance as far last winter as everyone assumed. Okafor has plenty of talent surrounding him, but injuries depleted the ranks.
"First of all, Thomas Hamilton got hurt. That made me grow up a lot faster. He's had my back in the day; he's like my big brother. And then Paul White got hurt. And Jermaine Morgan was out for half the season. We just couldn't gain any momentum. So it wasn't a real successful season for us."
Hamilton is 6'-9" and White and Morgan stand 6'-8". 2014 point guard Miles Reynolds asserted himself well most of the year, but athletic teams exploited a lack of quickness and ball handling at the guard spots.
"Our guard play is something we work on the whole year. I don't want to blame the guards. It was a pretty up-and-down year."
Okafor is enjoying more success with the 17U Mac Irvin Fire AAU team this spring.
"Everything is going pretty well. We are 10-4; we had a couple losses without Jabari (Parker). But it's going pretty good so far."
Illinois is trying to get back in the mix with Okafor after the coaching change. New head man John Groce has been quick to express his interest.
"He came up to my high school. I also spoke to a couple people that know him. From what I can tell, I really like him."
He admits the Illini have fallen behind, but there is still a glimmer of hope.
"Illinois was one of the first schools to offer me. I'm definitely going to look at Illinois."
Groce wants to have an attacking offense and pressure defense. Will that reduce their chances of landing the precocious big man?
"I don't know anything about it. I feel like I can probably get used to it. I wouldn't say I prefer a half-court style. Me and my dad talk about programs, and we feel I can play for any program I go to."
Okafor isn't limiting his future to basketball. He also has plans for a career after his playing days end. Unlike many athletes who look for an easy way to fulfill minimum college requirements on their way to what they hope will be a professional career in basketball, Okafor has more refined plans.
"Education is important to me. I want to be a veterinarian. I've just always loved animals."
It isn't easy to be admitted to a veterinary school. There are only 26 in the United States, and applications far exceed the total number of students accepted each year. It is much easier to gain acceptance to a veterinary school if you attended a college that has one.
Illinois has a veterinary school. Of the other colleges who have offered Okafor, only Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Missouri and Kansas State can say the same. Okafor will still go to the college of his choice, but his long term plans would be enhanced by attending one of these schools.
Former Illini offensive tackle Jim Juriga played professional football after graduating from the UI. After his playing days ended, he was accepted into the veterinary school at Illinois and is now a successful veterinarian. Okafor has similar goals.
In the meantime, he will combine basketball with academic success so he will have future options. He hopes for an eventual pro career, but he is preparing now for a time when basketball is over and he can enter his second profession.