Source: USA TODAY
Kansas beat Duke in a basketball game on Tuesday night. On Friday, Duke beat Kansas in an even more important battle.
If you want to start framing the 2014-15 national championship race, begin the conversation with the Blue Devils, who scored a recruiting coup by securing commitments from Scout.com’s top-ranked prospect, center Jahlil Okafor, and the nation’s fourth-best high school senior, point guard Tyus Jones. Both players simultaneously revealed Duke hats during two nationally televised news conferences.
Okafor, a 6-foot-11 player at Chicago’s Whitney Young High, and 6-1 Jones of Minnesota’s Apple Valley High, have long planned to play together in college. Their commitments represent the best package deal in college basketball at least since Greg Oden and Mike Conley pledged to play for Ohio State in June 2005.
“The train keeps rolling at Duke,” said Jerry Meyer, the director of basketball scouting for 247Sports.com.
Among the most impressive aspects of Mike Krzyzewski’s reign as the sport’s pre-eminent coach is his deft ability to recruit at the highest level in four different decades and during markedly different eras. The ever-changing recruiting landscape has undergone several dramatic changes since Krzyzewski signed his breakthrough class, which included Johnny Dawkins, Jay Bilas, Mark Alarie and David Henderson.
Throughout the 1980s and early ’90s, Krzyzewski continued to recruit prospects who would become household names and lead Duke to seven Final Four appearances between 1986 and 1994. When the path to the NBA changed for some elite prospects in 1995, when Kevin Garnett ushered in the preps-to-pros era, Duke still had tremendous success on the recruiting front, signing prospects such as Shane Battier, Elton Brand and Jay Williams.
And since the NBA’s age restriction was imposed for the 2006 draft, college basketball’s one-and-done era began. Though John Calipari, both at Memphis and Kentucky, has established himself as the best modern-day recruiter, Duke has continued to land elite prospects, most notably Kyrie Irving, current freshman Jabari Parker and now Jones and Okafor.
“A modern-day John Wooden,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino told USA TODAY Sports last season.
And Jones and Okafor will be cornerstones for a potential march toward another national championship. In an age when freshmen can have a dramatic impact on the game immediately (see Andrew Wiggins, Julius Randle, Parker), the Jones and Okafor tandem should be no different.
Okafor is a rare high school big man who is most accustomed to playing with his back to the basket. He has good hands, consistently finishes put-backs and exhibits total control over his space down low. Meyer said Okafor is a player no one enjoys defending because he embraces the physicality of the game and can “bully his defender” to displace him.
Jonathan Givony, the owner of DraftExpress.com, watched Okafor in person this summer against current college big men during the tryouts for the U-19 USA Basketball team and then during the World Championships in Prague. Givony said Okafor shot 77% from the field in Prague, facing mostly players two years older. Givony said Okafor’s measurements were 6-11 (in shoes), 277 pounds and with a 7-foot-6 wing span.
“That is an NBA center right there,” Givony said. “I think he is a monster. It’s so hard to find a legitimate center who enjoys playing with his back to the basket and who has legitimate back-to-the-basket game — such a dominant rebounder and interior scorer.”
Meyer said the three other high school players in the past decade who possessed a similar post-scoring game were DeMarcus Cousins, Kevin Love and Al Jefferson. Evan Daniels, the national recruiting analyst for Scout.com, said if Okafor were in the same high school class as Andrew Wiggins, Julius Randle and Jabari Parker, he would have ranked Okafor behind those three phenoms but ahead of everyone else.
“He would not be far behind,” said Daniels, who compared Okafor to a taller, better version of Jared Sullinger.
And Jones is the ideal point guard to team with Okafor. A consummate floor general, Jones has long impressed college coaches with his feel for the game, his leadership and his poise. He can play at different speeds while exhibiting strong court vision. Meyer said Jones’ basketball I.Q. is as good as any player he has scouted in the past decade.
In terms of style of play — not necessarily future NBA accomplishments — Meyer said Jones reminds him of a cross between Steve Nash and Tony Parker. And specifically how Jones handles the ball and maneuvers into the lane, Parker is an apt comparison.
One question has been three-point shooting, but Givony said Jones shot 41% from three-point range in 23 Nike EYBL games this summer, while also making 87 percent of this free-throw attempts.
Adam Rowe, the publisher of BlueDevilLair.com, said Krzyzewski targeted Jones early in his high school career and “made a promise to the lead guard that he would not recruit another player in his class at the same position. That loyalty paid off.”
In fact, Duke invested so much time and effort into recruiting Okafor and Jones, Meyer said that if Duke did not land them, it would have been devastating.
“They hitched their wagon to those two,” Daniels said. “It’s hard to say that they needed them. But they did. If they missed on those guys, it would have been a huge deal.”
Instead, in his fourth decade as Duke’s head coach, the recruiting train rolls on for Krzyzewski.
Eric Prisbell, a national college basketball reporter for USA TODAY Sports, is on Twitter @EricPrisbell.
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