By Joe Henricksen

If no Jabari, what would we be saying about Jahlil?

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When he was just a sophomore, he averaged 21.9 points, 12.3 rebounds and 5 blocks a game while shooting 61 percent from the field. As a sophomore! And against top-level competition.

No, no, no ... not Jabari Parker. ... Jahlil Okafor.

He's been the state's top-rated prospect in his class since the day he entered high school. He's a consensus top two or three player nationally in his class. He's been a part of a U.S. National gold-medal winning team. He's already projected as a top five pick in the 2015 NBA Draft.

No, I told you. It's not Jabari.

It's time we start celebrating and appreciating Jahlil Okafor, the enticingly talented big man from Whitney Young. Now! Before he's come and gone and we missed him.

Hey, it's not easy playing in the same city at the same time as the most celebrated high school player in Chicago hoops history. Especially when you're as freakishly talented, promising and likable as Okafor. However, Okafor has and is living in the large Parker shadow.

The ultra-respectful Okafor is fine with it. Having played AAU and on U.S. National teams the past two years with Parker, he has a close relationship with the senior star at Simeon, saying he looks up to him "like a big brother."

"We're very close," says Okafor of his friend, who does jokingly remind the big fella of the state titles he's won. "I like that he's a year ahead of me, takes a little of the individual pressure off and the lights are off of me and on him. I can just go out and play."

The lights have surely shined on the Simeon star. It's not what Parker ever asked for or ever cared about, but in this day of social media, the Internet, recruiting websites and endless avenues to throw attention towards prep basketball stars today, that's what Jabari Parker has become. He stands above them all in Chicago basketball lore when it comes to transcendent high school basketball figures. I'm surprised Parker hasn't been asked to endorse either Romney or Obama yet or had a guest appearance on Kelsey Grammar's Chicago-based "Boss" series.

It's more than the rankings, the state championships, the fact he was a National Player of the Year as a junior and the first non-senior in state history to win Mr. Basketball. It's way beyond that. It's the story behind the kid, the endless headlines, the too-good-to-be-true teen, the cover of Sports Illustrated, the television appearances (Hello, "Good Morning America!").

Plus, when it comes down to it, Parker has the wins, the titles, to validate it all.

But what if Parker's career didn't coincide with Okafor's career at all? In an alternative universe, what attention would be given to Okafor? How would he be viewed and hyped as he heads into his junior year?

Look how we followed and celebrated Eddy Curry during his four years. And Derrick Rose. Even the troubled Jereme Richmond received way more attention. Jon Scheyer, who was one of the state's all-time great prep players but a far inferior prospect than Okafor, had a cult-like following.

Okafor, who carries a 3.2 GPA at a rigorous academic high school and is a tremendous individual kid off the floor, is less worthy? No, it's just the circumstances, the timing. It's not as if he's been ignored and hidden, but he doesn't receive the praise other all-time greats have in this state. And make no mistake about it, Okafor will go down as an all-time great.

This must have been how Kareem felt in the final 10 years of his career playing with Magic in L.A. Even in Magic's rookie year when everyone was going ga-ga over him, Kareem averaged 24.8 points, 10.8 rebounds and a NBA-leading 3.4 blocks a game.

Even when Kareem put up 40 points on one leg (bad ankle injury) in Game 5 of the 1980 NBA Finals, he was upstaged just two days later by Magic's memorable series-clinching 42 point, 15 rebound and 7 assist performance. And from that day forward the 7-foot-2 goggled one would always play in the shadow of Magic.

Do I dare say it? I'm going to say it. It's going to sound foolish. But how does this sound: Jahlil Okafor is ... UNDERRATED?

Yes, underrated in the way Kareem was while playing with Magic; underrated in the way Tim Duncan is in his career, even with the four titles and two MVP awards; underrated in the way Al Pacino was in "The Godfather" as Michael Corleone when Marlon Brando, playing Don Vito Corleone, won the Oscar for Best Actor.

Okafor vs. Parker isn't a debate. They are completely different players at different positions and different ages. But the following could be said without sounding crazy: There is a better chance we will see a replica of Jabari Parker come our way before we see another Jahlil Okafor. That's just how rare a great, talented and, most importantly, a polished big man is at the high school level.

A 6-11 big man with a sophisticated game at the high school level? With superb footwork in the lane and soft hands to gather rebounds and passes in the post? With vision and passing ability? And an actual desire to be on the block with big-time productivity to boot?

Please try to remember, for a moment, what virtually all big men are at the high school level. Or even the college level. Even those we consider good. Then go and watch Okafor. We're not talking a Cole Adrich or Spencer Hawes stiffness or a Bismack Biyombo or Hasheem Thabeet raw projection.

Okafor wants to get better. And very much like Jabari Parker -- and unlike the aforementioned Eddy Curry -- isn't satisfied. He's the rare teen hoops star who looks at a story like this and remains unphased. This humble yet hungry hooper credits those around him -- his family, friends and coaches -- for keeping him grounded.

"Those people around me wouldn't let me be lazy," says Okafor. "My mindset is to never take a day off.'

No one ever roots for Goliath, which is another reason I feel for Okafor. In the high school game HE'S actually the one picked on, despite his massive, incomparable size. Referees don't know how to call a game with him in it. Refs allow opponents to defend him differently, with what seems to be like lilliputians hanging from his arms and waist. He takes it all in stride and still produces big numbers.

At the end of the day, it could be argued both Magic and Kareem were two of the top five players in NBA history. Might we say the same about Parker and Okafor in terms of the top prospects ever produced in Illinois? After all, with Andrew Wiggins reclassifying and now being the consensus No. 1 player in 2013 rather than 2014, it's Okafor who can now legitimately lay claim to being the Chicago kid ranked No. 1 in the class before he graduates. We could let Parker graduate and cherish Okafor as a player and prospect next year. But why wait?

Follow Joe Henricksen and the Hoops Report on Twitter @joehoopsreport

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1 Comment

Great column. I haven't gotten to see many Young games over the last two years, but when I have I always leave thinking Jahlil needed a lot more touches. I know the defense has a lot to do with that, but in some cases he had his man pinned on the block and the ball wasn't passed to him.

If I could nitpick, I think it's a little unfair to lump Aldrich and Hawes together. Hawes may not be a great athlete, but he's as skilled a big as you will find. He shoots out to 20 feet really well and passes as well, if not better, then any other center. He also rebounds it very well. Aldrich is just a lane-stuffer.

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This page contains a single entry by Joe Henricksen published on October 29, 2012 4:14 AM.

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High-major talent, depth highlights Class of 2014 is the next entry in this blog.

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