Going by the calendar, Jahlil Okafor is only four months into his first NBA regular season. Going by his own experiences, it seems like much longer.
“It feels like I’ve been doing it for a whole year,” Okafor said. “It’s been a long process. I feel like we’re traveling so much and practicing so much and playing so many games, it feels like I’ve been here for a while.”
Okafor has been preparing for the NBA for as long as he can remember. He was highly touted as a teenager, went to a top basketball program at Duke and was a lock for being a lottery pick.
There was little question Okafor would make it to the pros. Once he got there, he had to learn the nuances on the court. Okafor is averaging 17.1 points, first on his team and among all rookies, along with 7.4 rebounds (team-high) and 1.2 blocks per game. Aside from the X's and O's, there is a change in pace, competition and each team's system.
“(The biggest surprise has been) how fast the game is,” he said. “I expected it, because you always hear how fast it is, but when you finally get to experience it you realize it.”
Being the youngest player (he turned 20 in December) on a young team, Okafor has sought out advice from veterans and retired players. In addition to having Sixers teammate Elton Brand around, Okafor reaches out to Quentin Richardson when he has questions. The two went the same high school, Whitney Young, in Chicago.
This season, Okafor also has been able to pick the brain of one of basketball icons, Tim Duncan. While Okafor is just beginning his career, the five-time champion is in his 19th year.
“I talked to him before the game we played him here,” Okafor said. “I had a chance to sit down with him and talk for 20, 25 minutes. It was a really cool experience. I talked to him after the game we played in San Antonio, back and forth a little bit during the game. My head coach was his assistant coach in San Antonio, so I think Coach (Brett) Brown told him a few things about me.
“That was a lot of fun because he’s somebody that I idolized and respected him. ... I got a chance to tell him he’s my favorite player, so that was cool.”
Okafor entered the draft after one season in college. He began tailoring his diet during that year and has stuck to avoiding certain types of food.
“Make sure you eat the right things to refuel your body, recover the correct way,” he said. “What I’ve been trying to do, I’ve been pretty consistent at it, is staying away from fried foods. Once you go on the road it’s pretty easy.”
After participating in the Rising Stars Challenge this weekend, Okafor returned to Duke and saw the Blue Devils' last-second victory over No. 7 Virginia. While he still thinks about his days back on campus — “I miss it a ton,” he said — his attention is zoned in on just one thing now that he’s in the NBA.
"My sole focus," he said, "is just basketball."