When Jahlil Okafor was born in Fort Smith, Ark., Tim Duncan was nearly 1,000 miles away in the middle of his first of two All-American seasons at Wake Forest.
Less than two years later, in 1997, Duncan was selected first overall by the San Antonio Spurs, embarking on a Hall-of-Fame career that has included five NBA titles, two regular-season MVPs, three Finals MVPs and 15 All-Star appearances. And during throughout his historic career - one that is expected to continue as Duncan enters his 19th NBA season - Okafor watched from afar, growing to idolize one of the greatest players in NBA history.
Now ready for his own name to be called at the NBA Draft 18 years later, Okafor hopes to mirror what his idol accomplished for whichever team selects him as the face of their franchise Thursday night.
"I just love everything that he does and the way he carries himself on and off the floor, that's a guy I always look at," Okafor said of Duncan at Wednesday's draft media availability. "For as long as I've been alive he's been in the NBA. So he's been a consistent guy for me to look up to."
It's no surprise, then, that Okafor has drawn comparisons to Duncan. The Chicago native has been touted as having the best offensive post game seen in a college recruit since Duncan averaged 20.8 points on 60 percent shooting as a senior. Okafor, as a freshman with Duke, averaged 17.3 points on 66 percent shooting, using a variety of lethal inside moves and soft finishes that made him look more like a 10-year NBA veteran than a kid a year removed from his senior prom. Okafor said he has no doubts about his ability to score at the next level and he's an apt passer, too, making the right decision when double teamed in the post by averaging 1.7 assists.
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The consensus All-American averaged 15.0 points on 63 percent shooting in six NCAA Tournament games, and though he was limited by foul trouble against Wisconsin in the national championship game he went back to that inside scoring prowess late, hitting a pair of layups in the final 3 minutes as the Blue Devils pulled away to win the program's fifth national title.
In an era where stretch forwards and small-ball are quickly transforming from trend to the norm, Okafor proved in his lone season there's plenty of value in a back-to-the-basket center who can score from the low block. It's why he's confident in his own abilities, whether he's able to show them off in Minnesota (first pick) or with the Lakers (second pick).
"I think there's always a place for a dominant big man," he said. "I'm a basketball player and I think I could fit in anywhere."
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And yet, for a player touting such an impressive skill set offensively, questions still surround the 6-foot-11, 270-pound center. His defense was put under a microscope all year long, as he struggled in pick-and-roll situations and, despite averaging 1.4 blocks per game, isn't considered a leaper with true rim-protector capabilities. He shot just 51 percent from the free throw line, and at this point in his young career hasn't had to expand his shooting range as he'll have to do at the next level.
But Okafor, playing in Durham for a year, is used to the nitpicking. And he believes some good will come out of it when he finally settles in to his NBA home.
"The best guys in the NBA still get criticized, (and) I'm not on their level, so I expect it," he said. "Especially playing at Duke, one of the biggest platforms in college basketball, the attention we get definitely will benefit me going up to the next level."
Okafor certainly will have personal goals at the next level, and his ability to score from Day 1 will make him a popular pick for Rookie of the Year. More important to him, however, is that he becomes the kind of player Duncan was, and not just in numbers and championships.
"I would like to be considered a true professional, one of those guys like a Tim Duncan, somebody who never really had any problems off the court," he said. "When people ask me what's the one player I'm looking forward to playing against I say Tim Duncan. I idolize him."
And in a few short months, the ultra-talented Okafor will get his chance.