There is no shortage of legitimate Player of the Year candidates, both in the Chicago area and statewide. With a number of possibilities, the chase for the various POY awards and the coveted Mr. Basketball has been an intriguing subplot to the season.
Simeon's Jabari Parker, who won virtually every award possible last season as a junior, entered the season as the favorite. Marian Catholic's Tyler Ulis, Curie's Cliff Alexander, Belleville East's Malcolm Hill and Washington's Alec Peters all joined Parker and entered the conversation as the season has played out.
Yes, there are legit, worthy candidates. No disrespect to any of the players who have put together stellar seasons, but there is just one choice: Whitney Young's Jahlil Okafor.
The Hoops Report gives you 20 reasons why the 6-11 junior should be your 2012-2013 Player of the Year.
1. This one is pretty simple: Jahil Okafor is the best player on the state's No. 1 team, one that has been ranked among the top 10 nationally all season and currently sits No. 7 in the ESPN Top 25 Power Rankings and No. 8 in the MaxPreps.com Top 25 national rankings.
2. While maybe not worthy or even fair when it comes to POY requirements, Okafor plays for a high-profile program with legit state championship aspirations. Voters rarely lend themselves to players on middle-of-the-road teams, so playing on the big stage has only helped his profile and résumé.
3. Okafor is one of the most recognizable names locally and nationally. No, being ranked No. 1 nationally in the Class of 2014 -- or highly ranked, period -- shouldn't matter in any POY consideration. But he passes the reputation test for those that put stock into it and, most importantly, he's justified the enormous hype.
4. With a win over Morgan Park last Friday night, Okafor now has a city championship on his résumé.
5. Okafor provided monster, late-season performances in big games. In leading the Dolphins to their first city championship since 1998, Okafor was dominant. In the semifinal win over Orr he put up 26 points and 13 rebounds. For an encore he scored 19 points with 14 rebounds and controlled the game defensively with 7 blocks in the title game victory over Morgan Park.
6. Unlike the majority of the other top candidates, Okafor is the one player who doesn't have the ball in his hands whenever he wants it. Fans and media always like flashy guards more than productive, dominating big men. So as a non-perimeter player, others dictate when Okafor touches the ball and how many times he gets it. Yet ...
7. Even under the aforementioned circumstances, Okafor is putting up Player of the Year type numbers. On the season he's averaging 20.7 points, 8.8 rebounds and 2.8 blocks a game while shooting over 60 percent from the field.
8. More than any other Player of the Year candidate, Okafor impacts the game at a higher level on the defensive end. His massive size alone can disrupt an opposing teams' offense just by accident. He clogs the lane, takes up space and makes it difficult to score easy baskets at the rim when playing Whitney Young. While he's not an Anthony Davis-type shot blocker, Okafor still blocks nearly 3 shots a game and alters many more.
9. The in-state schedule. No player in the state produced at a higher level while playing the state's toughest schedule. Whitney Young will have played five games against teams ranked in the top 10 all season here in Illinois -- Simeon, Morgan Park, Orr (twice) and Benet Academy.
10. The out-of-state schedule. The Dolphins played a rigorous national schedule, which included a number of nationally-ranked programs and various state champions on the slate. Young won a highly-competitive Beach Ball Classic in South Carolina, beating nationally-ranked Bishop Gorman out of Las Vegas. The Dolphins also played in the country's premier event, the City of Palms Classic in Florida, where it faced Montervde Academy (Fla.), currently the No. 3 team in the country, Chester (Pa.), two-time defending state champs, and Omaha Central (Neb.), which has won four consecutive state championships.
11. A dominating and commanding presence. The likes of L.J. Peak, Paul White and Miles Reynolds have all had solid and consistent seasons for the Dolphins. A big reason why is Okafor. Whitney Young thrives on the attention Okafor draws, allowing others to flourish with constant double-teams and focus on the big man inside. And at no point will you find a teammate jeer or hiss, "I hate playing with this jag" or "He cares about himself more than the team." Okafor realizes it's a team game.
12. When watching Okafor, it's hard to find anything to complain about in his game these days. He's not a great free-throw shooter, but he's a respectable 64 percent. He's a better, risk-free prospect than Thornwood's Eddy Curry was a decade ago, so that makes Okafor the best true big man prospect out of Illinois since ...???
13. When it comes to star players, Okafor is about as unselfish as they come. He produces within the concept of his team's offense and game plan. The more and more you watch him, you see some of his best qualities in the game's subtleties and in seeking to guarantee team victory in a society which tends to focus attention on individual achiever.
14. He does a lot with little. Okafor doesn't get 20-plus shots -- or even 15. In the seven games played at the City of Palms and Beach Ball Classic, Okafor didn't have a single game where he had more than 14 shot attempts.
15. He's been a model of consistency. There's no Jekyll-and-Hyde with him. He didn't have any stretches where he struggled or slumped. Thus, he never took a serious hit to his POY campaign.
16. From the start of the Whitney Young season on Dec. 1 through last Friday's city championship game, no player has been as consistently productive against a better schedule than Okafor. He started the season with a bang, scoring 34 points and 9 rebounds against DeMatha Catholic and North Carolina State big man recruit, 6-9, 275-pound BeeJay Anya.
17. He brings zero baggage. He's the anti-prima dona. He respects the game, his teammates and opponents. Yes, high school kids SHOULD be this way. But more and more aren't. Hey, Jahlil! Stay this way! It's appreciated.
18. He's sharp, articulate and easy to like with traits that are appealing. Again, these might not be necessary to win an award that focuses on putting a ball in a basket, but Okafor is real. When the Chicago Sun-Times caught up with Okafor following the big win over Morgan Park and asked him if he is aware of all the attention he's garnered as The Next Big Thing, he answered honestly. "Of course I hear that, I'm on Twitter," said Okafor. Yes! Of course! He's a teenager! It wasn't a calculated, orchestrated answer.
19. Proven winner. It's not a lifetime achievement award, this Player of the Year deal. But he has a city title now. He also has a couple of gold medals while playing for Team USA in the FIBA World Championships, including being named the tournament's MVP this past summer. A state title is next on the to-do list. In time we will find out if Okafor is obsessed with winning with that over-competitive DNA, like so many of the greats are.
20. And here is the Hoops Report's biggest argument for Okafor as Player of the Year. Go ahead and take the other Player of the Year candidates and swap Okafor for each of them. If Okafor is on any other team in Illinois in place of any other POY candidate, that team's record is intact or may even be better. If you replace Okafor with any other player, with the national schedule Whitney Young plays, the Dolphins are not 23-3.
Follow Joe Henricksen on Twitter @joehoopsreport