BY MIKE BRESNAHAN FOR THE LA TIMES
DURHAM, N.C. — The first things you notice are the hands.
You’ve been told about them by everybody — on the record, off the record, it doesn’t matter.
They appear to shrink a basketball when shooting a hook, lefty or righty. They touch a rebound eight feet away and guide it into the basket in one motion. They hold the ball Michael Jordan-style in the post, one huge palm extended confidently away from the body.
Jahlil Okafor isn’t Michael Jordan. He goes to Duke, not North Carolina. He’s 6 feet 10. But he’s expected to be the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft in June.
He’s adored by the Cameron Crazies, fellow students calling him “Jah” and spending wickedly frigid nights in “Krzyzewskiville,” their camping tents supported by wooden pallets to keep from getting that much colder from the frozen dirt.
They hope their sacrifice is enough to gain admittance into the first-come, first-served student section of Duke’s reverential but surprisingly tiny arena. There’s not much more time to watch Okafor, a freshman who hasn’t officially expressed interest in the draft, a mere formality at this point.
His coach has already called Okafor the nation’s best college player, an impressive public display of affection from one of the top talent recruiters ever, particularly since Okafor was playing a year ago against North Lawndale High and Urban Prep West in the Chicago Public Red-West league.
“What Okafor has done has been, I think, remarkable,” Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “Jah’s played well at a high, high level. Even if his stats aren’t 20-something points, he causes so much concern that someone can be open. Someone else’s game has picked up just by having him on the court.”
His stats are typically high, though — 18.2 points and 9.6 rebounds a game despite plenty of double teams — and he plays a lot of minutes (31.1 on average) because Krzyzewski strictly adheres to a small rotation.
There are Okafor observations like this from Danny Manning, the Wake Forest coach and top overall NBA draft pick in 1988: “He’s got really soft hands.”
And from Ryan Kelly, a reserve Lakers forward who played at Duke and got to know Okafor last summer: “Really strong hands. No one’s taking the ball from him if he goes and gets it. For a big man to have skills like his and have the touch with those giant hands is really impressive.”
Finally, from an NBA front-office official who requested anonymity: “He loves to score and can help someone immediately. Good hands too.”
The Lakers own the NBA’s fourth-worst record, and if they stay there they’ll have a 10.4% chance of landing the No. 1 pick in the May 19 lottery. They’re hoping for better draft karma after falling a spot in last year’s lottery (from six to seven) and taking Kentucky power forward Julius Randle, who sustained a season-ending broken leg on opening night.
Only a handful of things aren’t bouncing the right way for the 19-year-old Okafor. The Chicago Bulls won’t have a lottery pick, so there’s no chance he goes to his favorite team on draft day.
More recently, he’s developed a problem of missed free throws, making only one of seven against Syracuse on Saturday and five of his last 22.
Then there’s the biggie: The same way people talk about his hands in excited tones, they discuss his defense in a concerned, hushed manner.
Okafor doesn’t protect the rim, some say. He takes plays off on defense, hasn’t quite figured it out like the Kentucky towers, Karl-Anthony Towns and Willie Cauley-Stein.
Refreshingly, Okafor agrees with the assessment.
“I feel it’s true. That is one of my weaknesses,” he told The Times. “I wouldn’t argue with that. That’s something I’ve been working with the coaches a lot this season, trying to get better at it.”
On draft night, his skills on offense, including great footwork, a face-up jumper from the post and quick spin moves, will be simply too strong to pass up, outweighing his defensive deficiencies.
When his name is called, Okafor will think of his mom, Dacresha, who died in front of him when he was 9 because of a collapsed lung likely brought on by bronchitis. He keeps her image as the screen saver on his phone.
The first person he’d thank would be his father, Chukwudi, who took a sabbatical from work to watch Okafor play almost every game at Duke.
“When I lost my mother, he was always there for me. He made sure I didn’t use it as an excuse to go down the wrong path,” Okafor said. “That’s part of my motivation too, my mother. There hasn’t been a day where I haven’t thought about her.”
His mother played at a junior college in Oklahoma, his father at a small college in Arkansas, and Okafor always had basketball in his future. There are no “first memories” of playing the game. He’s just always been seen with a ball.
“I’ve talked to a bunch of big men who told me they didn’t really start playing basketball until seventh or eighth grade,” Okafor said. “That wasn’t the situation with me.”
Right now, he’s got to fix this free-throw thing.
He missed his first six from the line against Syracuse. Before he shot the seventh, Duke fans stood and clapped encouragingly. He made it, little consolation for a player with only 52.5% free-throw accuracy this season.
“I think he’s probably embarrassed about that,” Krzyzewski said. “He’s the best player in the country and so anything that’s a little bit wrong, we don’t like that. He’ll work at it. I have faith in him. Hopefully against Wake Forest [on Wednesday] he gets fouled and goes six for six, or 16 for 16, whatever they’re calling that night.”
It can become irritating, but it’s not the worst glitch for a big man: Shaquille O’Neal and Wilt Chamberlain famously struggled from the stripe, Dwight Howard and DeAndre Jordan more recently.
When NBA microscopes turn Okafor’s direction over the next few months, he’ll want to clean up as many on-court messes as possible.
The goals are simple for now. Okafor is more concerned about responsibilities at Duke than the obvious financial boon awaiting him. The draft’s No. 1 pick stands to earn about $26 million over his first four years in the league.
“There’s three banners I want to hang — ACC regular championship, ACC tournament championship and of course the national championship,” Okafor said with the wonderment of a teenager.
There will be tougher tests than the Atlantic Coast Conference after summer blends into fall.
Okafor will still have those hands, perhaps the strongest selling point of anybody in the draft.