By Joe Henricksen

Okafor rates with state's recent top big men

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By Joe Henricksen

Go through the list of highly-recruited, no-doubt-about-it big men prospects out of the state of Illinois in the last 20 years. There aren't very many, especially in the last 10 years, but current Whitney Young sophomore Jahlil Okafor will certainly be added to the list.

Okafor is legit, the real deal. That's why it's impossible not to gush about Okafor and why it's certainly not premature to hype the state's top prospect in the Class of 2014.

The 6-9, 255-pound Okafor is the best big man prospect in Illinois since former Thornwood star Eddy Curry, who was considered by some to be the No. 1 player in the country 10 years ago. Curry went on to be MVP of the 2001 McDonald's All-American game, skipped college and ended up as the No. 4 pick by the Chicago Bulls in the 2001 NBA Draft.

In the last 20 years, the Hoops Report came up with just 17 players, led by Kevin Garnett and Curry, who were 6-9 or bigger and were at least consensus top 50 players nationally in their class (see list of players below) from the state of Illinois. While it's a lofty expectation, Okafor has a chance to be near the very top of that list by the time he graduates from Whitney Young.

There are two attributes that make him so darn appealing as a prospect:

1. He knows exactly who he is as player and accepts it, which is a true, on-the-block, back-to-the-basket big man. And those players are nearly impossible to find today.

2. For his size and age, he's ridiculously polished, fundamentally sound and plays with a basketball knowledge that shows his maturity is well beyond his years.

While he's not an eye-popping athlete, Okafor is a dominant figure physically. Okafor establishes low-post position and combines advanced post moves with great patience, which results in quite an impressive package from a player with his size. His great hands not only allow him to catch difficult passes in traffic, but they also provide him with a soft touch around the basket.

Okafor talents were recognized early. He was first offered by DePaul in 8th grade. Now he has offers from Illinois, Tennessee, Connecticut, Arkansas, Georgetown and Ohio State. There will be offers coming in from all over the country over the next 12 months. While the list will grow, Okafor is in no rush.

"I will take my time, but Iike everyone I want to find a place that I feel comfortable," says Okafor. "And I definitely want to play with other top players, both in my recruiting class and those who are already in the program."

There is one player who Okafor says he would "love to play with" in college -- Tyus Jones, another highly-regarded 2014 prospect out of Apple Valley, Minn. The two played with one another on the U.S. National Team this past summer and hit it off as friends and teammates.

"I really would like to play with Tyus," said Okafor of Jones, who is a 6-0 point guard and one of the top players in the country in the sophomore class. "That would definitely be something [where Jones plays in college] I will look at."

Whitney Young coach Tyrone Slaughter says what makes his big man so special is when you get away from the obvious -- the size and strength, the large, soft hands and footwork in the post -- you see and appreciate all the attributes you can't coach.

"His attitude toward the game and life itself are pretty special," says Slaughter. "He was raised with great values and that has translated to the basketball end of things. He has respect for people, the game, opponents, life itself. And the game is so much fun for him. He wants to get better."

Okafor is well-mannered and respectful. When talking with him you forget he's so young as he's more mature than your average teen. He clearly has a great head on his shoulders and one that keeps him grounded and hungry to get better.

These are reasons why Okafor, much like Simeon's Jabari Parker, is such a rare commodity. We're talking the whole package, combining productivity at a young age with great size, tremendous talent, high character and zero baggage. When you blend and mix all those together, the hype and recruiting attention will come in waves. Yet Okafor continues to just take it all in stride.

"My dad and my family keep me humble," says Okafor. "I'm just a regular kid who just happens to be blessed with some God-given abilities. There's just no need to get caught up in what people are saying and writing. I love basketball and just want to get better."

Okafor says his dad continues to tell him to take some time off, that it's OK to get away from basketball here and there. That's just not happening.

"I love it [basketball] and there isn't anything else I really want to do with my time," says Okafor, who says his confidence level soared after playing with the U.S. National Team this past summer. "So I will just keep playing, try to get better."

The sensible, down-to-earth kid already has identified two areas he wants to improve on going forward -- conditioning and defense.

"To be play at the highest level and to continue playing at that level consistently and over long stretches, you have to be in great condition," says Okafor. "I also want to improve defensively, become a bigger and better presence on that end."

Okafor is just adding to the package.

Best big men "prospects" from Illinois in last 20 years
(Listed by the year they graduated from high school)

Anthony Davis, 6-10, Chicago Perspectives (Class of 2011). ... Maybe not a true "big man" but still 6-10 and the No. 1 prospect in the country. ... Will play at Kentucky this year. ... Projected as NBA Lottery Pick whenever he decides to come out.

Meyers Leonard, 7-0, Robinson (Class of 2010). ... Late bloomer who ended up as a top 50 national recruit. ... Led Robinson to Class 2A state championship as a senior. ... No. 2 ranked Hoops Report prospect in Class of 2011. ... Played limited role for Illinois as a freshman this past season.

Mike Dunigan, 6-9, Farragut (Class of 2008). ... Hoops Report's No. 2 prospect in Class of 2008. .. McDonald's All-American. ... Among top 25 high school prospects nationally. ... Left Oregon after a disappointing sophomore season. ... Played this past season overseas. ... Went undrafted in 2011 NBA Draft.

Michael Thompson, 6-10, Providence (Class of 2002). ... Yes, he was a consensus top 50 player in the country and a McDonald's All-American. ... Signed with Duke. ... During sophomore season transferred to Northwestern. ... Between Duke and Northwestern, Thompson only played in a total of 35 games.

Eddy Curry, 7-0, Thornwood (Class of 2001). ... Led Thornwood to state runner-up finish and was Illinois Mr. Basketball in 2001. ... MVP of McDonald's All-American game. ... Top-ranked prep prospect in the country. ... No. 4 pick in 2001 NBA Draft. ... A 10-year NBA career with a numerous personal off-court issues. ... NBA salaries have totaled nearly $70 million.

Darius Miles, 6-9, East St. Louis (Class of 2000). ... Not a prototypical "big man" but still a 6-9, highly-recruited combo forward. ... No. 3 ranked player in the country as a prep behind Zach Randolph and Eddie Griffin. ... No. 3 pick out of high school in 2000 NBA Draft. ... Played for four teams in seven NBA seasons but straddled with the "bust" label and controversy throughout career. ... Despite disappointing career, Miles totaled $62 million in NBA contracts.

Andre Brown, 6-9, Chicago Leo (Class of 2000). ... Highly-regarded coming out of Leo as a consensus top 15 player nationally. ... Sat out freshman year and had solid three-year career, averaging 12.5 ppg and 9.3 rpg over three seasons. ... Played in 75 NBA games (598 total minutes) over three seasons.

Steven Hunter, 7-0, Proviso East (Class of 1999). ... Consensus top 50 recruit nationally. ... Brief stop two-year stop at DePaul included averaging 8.5 and 11.4 points a game in two seasons. ... Has started only 130 NBA games in his career but totaled over $22 million in his 8-year NBA career.

Brian Cook, 6-10, Lincoln (Class of 1999). ... Hoops Report's No. 1 ranked prospect in Class of 1999. ... McDonald's All-American. ... Big Ten MVP at Illinois where he scored 1,748 career points. ... No. 24 pick by Los Angeles Lakers in 2003 NBA Draft. ... Totaled over $16 million in NBA salaries.

Leon Smith, 6-10, King (Class of 1999). ... Averaged 25.5 points and 14.5 rebounds a game as a senior and was Hoops Report Player of the Year. ... Top 20 player nationally. ... Selected by San Antonio Spurs with the No. 29 pick in the 1999 NBA Draft out of high school and traded to Dallas. ... Inked 3-year NBA contract for nearly $1.5 million. ... Played in a total of 15 NBA games.

Lance Williams, 6-9, Julian (Class of 1998). ... All-stater in loaded Class of 1998 in Illinois. ... A top 30 national recruit for DePaul. ... A four-year starter at DePaul, where he scored 1,170 career points. ... Has enjoyed a long overseas career.

Marcus Griffin, 6-9, Peoria Manual (Class of 1997). ... Helped lead Manual to four straight state titles. ... McDonald's All-American. ... JUCO All-American at Lincoln. ... Averaged 11.1 ppg, 5.5 rpg and 1.4 bpg in solid two-year career at Illinois.

Melvin Ely, 6-10, Thornton (Class of 1997). ... Played on loaded Thornton teams that went 96-4 in three seasons. ... Put together an outstanding career at Fresno State, including a big senior year (23.3 ppg, 9.1 rpg, 1.8 bpg). ... No. 12 pick in 2002 NBA Draft. ... Quietly has put together eight years in the NBA (5.3 ppg in his career) and has made over $13 million in his playing career thus far. ... Played in 30 games for Denver this past season.

Kevin Garnett, 6-11, Chicago Farragut (Class of 1995). ... Best big man to ever come out of Illinois after transferring in from South Carolina for senior year. ... Began preps to pros trend as he was No. 5 pick in 1995 NBA Draft. ... A 14-time NBA All-Star and 2004 NBA MVP. ... Future NBA Hall of Famer has made over $270 million in contracts.

Rashard Griffith, 7-0, Chicago King (Class of 1993). ... One of nation's top players as a prep, led King to unbeaten record and state title. ... Illinois Mr. Basketball and McDonald's All-American. ... Played collegiately at Wisconsin for just two seasons, where he averaged 13.9 and 17.2 points a game. ... No. 38 draft pick by Milwaukee Bucks in 1995. ... Long playing career in Europe.

Thomas Hamilton, 7-2, Chicago King (Class of 1993). ... Was a teammate of Rashard Griffith and led King to unbeaten state title season. ... Academics prevented Hamilton from ever being eligible collegiately. ... Played in 33 NBA games -- 11 games with the Celtics in 1995-96 and 22 games with the Rockets in the 1999-2000 season.

Juwan Howard, 6-9, Chicago Vocational (Class of 1991). ... McDonald's All-American. ... Part of Michigan's Fab Five recruiting class. ... After stellar three-year career at Michigan, Washington selected him No. 5 overall in 1994 NBA Draft. ... Graduated from Michigan on time with his class even after leaving college early for the NBA. ... Career average of 15 ppg in the NBA and two-time NBA All-Star. ... Just finished his 16th season in the NBA and his career earnings have topped $150 million.

NOTE: Recent St. Ignatius graduate Nnanna Egwu, who is a freshman at Illinois, would rate among the top big men in the last 20 years in the eyes of the City/Suburban Hoops Report. The Hoops Report had Egwu as the No. 3 prospect in the loaded Class of 2011. But the national recruiting services severely missed on this one. Thus, Egwu was not a "consensus top 50 player nationally" as the barometer for this story. He ended up No. 97 nationally by Rivals.com, No. 69 by ESPN.com and No. 67 by Scout.com.

To subscribe to the print edition of the City/Suburban Hoops Report, now beginning its 17th year of publication, email the Hoops Report at hoopsreport@yahoo.com

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28 Comments

I have watched all these cats on this list. This is just one mans rankings. But here is where i put them in order as prospects. This is when they were seniors. Not what they became afterward. 1. KG. 2. Juwan Howard. 3. Eddy Curry. 4. Rashard Griffith. 5. Anthony Davis. I know Griffith and T. Hamilton didn't do much afterward but they were both so talented. Sounds like Okafor kid has what maybe guys like that didn't have.

Great list! Walk down memory lane for 1990s hoop fans with those big men.

You also left off Michael Thompson from Providence who all the big scouting services, the McDonald's All-American selection committee and, more importantly, the Duke staff completely whiffed on. I always said Augustine was much better in high school :) No one has paid me for my opinion yet!

Anyways, How do you compare Okafor and Curry at the same stage? I'm tempted to say Curry moved a little bit better, but I trust your evaluation more. I know it's needless to say that Okafor has got a better motor - but how do they stack up offensively and defensively.

Wow. Did not realize some of those busts made THAT MUCH MONEY in their career you know? D Miles with $60 million in contracts? That is crazy. And I know Juwan Howard was NBA stud but $150 million is tall cash.

Great story on the Okafor kid. Seems like a terrific kid too. Like to hear and see that with players that are pumped up early and avoid the pitfalls of the Jereme Richmonds.

What this goes to show is that when there is a big man in Illinois worth a darn, Illinois and DePaul have to get them!!!!!! Cuz you aint gonna get one from out of state if you are the Illini or Blue Demons.

How about a story on ranking the players who have made the most coin in NBA history over their lifetime? Have to believe KG at $270 million and counting is at or near the top based just on player salaries and no endorsements. That's crazy money!

Two I think you forgot....Jerry Gee from St. Martin des Porres (was Illinois player of the year where he beat out Anoine Walker, was a McDonald's All-American and had a decent career at U of Illinois -still can't beleive he turned down Duke to go to Illinois) also Nazr Mohammed from Kenwood- went to Kentucky started on their National Championship team with Walker and was a 1st round draft pick in the NBA -still playing for the Thunder. Both these guys had better high school and post high school careers than many of the guys you mentioned.

If you include KG (1 year in Chicago), then you might as well include 7'0 Javale McGee (Hales) - 2008 NBA first rounder. Averaged 10+ pts last season (his 3rd in NBA) including a triple double. I enjoyed watching him at Hales. Keep up the great work.

What about James Augustine from Lincoln-Way Central (AAU was Old Illinois Gold? with Dee Brown) in the class of 2002? He was 6-10 and led the Knights to a Super-Sectional loss to Thornwood (Eddy Curry) his junior season, and went on to be a 4-year starter at Illinois. One of the few players in Big Ten history to amass 1,000 points and 1,000 rebounds in college. Apart of the 2005 Final Four Team. Drafted in the second round by the Orlando Magic in the 2006 draft. Succesful playing career in Europe for the past 3 years.

Seems as if there were a lot more true good big men back in the day, like in the late 1970s and through the 1980s. Where have they all gone? I think its that they all want to be guards and wings.

We can name big men all day here but the requirements in the story were players who were 4/5 men, true size at 6-9 or taller and consensus top 50 players in the national rankings. There are always going to be guys that were better down the road than other players were in high school. But James Augustine was nowhere near a top 50 player nationally in the rankings. Either was Javale McGee. Jerry Gee was about 6-6. Nazr Mohmmad? Come on man! You know how bad he was in high school? He was a project who made himself into a player.

Gee played the 5 in high school and the 4 for the illini. He was a back to the basket player in High School and a part time back to the basket player in college. He was 6'7. He was rated a top 50 player by Street and Smith and considered a Power Forward coming out of High School. Qualifies as a big man to me. Mohammed was All-Area and All Public League...was he as good at Kenwood as he ended up at Kentucky or in the league.. no but All-Area and All Public League means people though he was good in high school, he might not of been a consensus top 50 player but Gee definetly was and I have the streets and smith book to prove it. Plus the article also states that it s about the best big men the state produced. What the heck did Leon Smith, Thomas Hamilton or a few of the others do after high school....nothing. So what exactly did the state produce out of these cats other than failures???

Can Cliff Alexander make this list eventually too?

How highly regarded was Brian Carlwell? What about Marcus Griffin? Beau Smith from Peoria HS? Matt Moran from Pekin? J.R. Koch from Morton?

Yes I did miss J Gee's 8 points and 5 rebounds a game his senior year. The point of the story is not that these dudes were busts. But players like Rashard Griffith, Thomas Hamilton, Mike Dunigan were very highly regarded, highly recruited as high school prospects. Gee could be added to the list sure. But if Gee is Mr. Basketball in Illinois then the state of Illinois must have been in a down year.

The mighty Rich Beyers!!!!!!!!!!!! HA!

Yes. Many people missing the point on this story. Like another name would be Shaun Pruitt of West Aurora. Stock really, really dropped. He was still a consensus top 100, maybe even top 75 player by the time he graduated. But I remember he was not nearly as coveted as people thought. Had OK career at Illinois.

Gee beat out Anoine Walker for player of the year his senior year. Gee took his team down state 2 consequetive years in Class A. You contradict yourself saying he only averaged 8 points a game and then say the article is not about busts but about high school highly recruited prosepects which he was.....I am so confused. Actually the second time I read it Joe's article is confusing. Is he listing the top High School (high school performance only) list of big men or the best big men the state produced in the last 20 years who were highly regarded in high school as a criteria??? Again guys like Leon Smith, Hamilton, etc never did squat after high school so why are they on the list if its the best big men the state produce....my head hurts never mind.

What happened to your ranking of Paul White also 2014 6'8" Forward at Whitney Young?

What about Deandre Thomas, if my memory is correct wasn't he the Sun-Times player of the year in 2005.

I'm a historian so big George Wilson (6'9") of Marshall who won the first CPS state title should be listed as one of the best big men. Efrem Winters of King and 6'10" Terry Cummings of Carver should be rated among the best big men from Chicago also. They were 6'9" and 6'10".

I guess I missed that you guys were only going back 20 years. Wilson is from 50 years ago, and Winters and Cummings are from 30 years ago. Okay, Okay I'm a real old school guy.

Paul White is a 6'7 wing and Shaun Pritt did not have an OK career at Illinois... It was a mediocre one. I like Alex Foster a lot from De La Salle and Meanstreets 16U team. Look out for him.

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