Jahlil Okafor

Wisconsin v Duke

Jahlil Okafor reflects on his one season at Duke

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Jahlil Okafor won a national championship, was a first-team All-American and in June could become the top overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft. Not bad for someone who was graduating high school this time last year.

Duke relied on freshmen this past season, with three in the starting lineup and another one, Grayson Allen, providing major contributions during the team’s NCAA Tournament run.

In the video above, Okafor discusses his lone season in Durham, his relationship with Coach K and the team’s chemistry, which helped a team with only eight scholarship players cut down the nets in Indianapolis.

Duke commit Luke Kennard responds to Tyus Jones’ departure

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NEW YORK – On Wednesday morning, Tyus Jones, the Final Four Most Outstanding Player, followed in the footsteps of teammates Jahlil Okafor and Justise Winslow, becoming the third Duke freshman to enter his name into this year’s NBA draft.

In light of the news of Jones’ decision, lone Jordan Brand Classic Duke commit Luke Kennard, a 6-foot-5 shooting guard from Franklin, Ohio, was repeatedly asked to address the state of the post-champion Blue Devils, whose key components have been stripped down and shipped to the NBA.

Kennard, who made waves earlier this season by passing LeBron James on Ohio’s all-time scoring list, acknowledged that, prior to the season, he assumed Okafor would likely be NBA-bound regardless of the season’s result. He also stated Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski explained, when it came to Jones and Winslow’s respective futures, the determining factor would be their late-season performances.

Even with the idea of all three breakout freshman jumping to the NBA implanted in the back of his mind, Kennard made it clear it was still a pill he had to choke down.

“It kind of stinks that they’re leaving, they’re great players,” Kennard said. “I played with Justise and Tyus on the USA Team, U-18, this past summer. It’s going to be tough but we’re ready to come in and just play good and prove [ourselves].”

The departure of Jones leaves the Blue Devils without a point guard to their name, just a season after playing with two — Jones and senior Quinn Cook — in their starting lineup. With the tarp officially being torn off the gaping hole, Krzyzewski is trying to convince either, or both, of 2016 targets Derryck Thornton and Jamal Murray, to reclassify and join Duke a year early.

However, if those plans end up fizzling, Kennard may be the Blue Devils’ fall-back to run the offense next season. Kennard, who played some point in AAU, as well as high school, told SNY.tv that assistant coach Jon Scheyer reached out to him and told him to, “keep working on that ball-handling,” because they may need it sooner rather than later.

If anyone knows about converted point guards, it’s Scheyer. After playing off the ball his first three years at Duke, Scheyer moved to the point in the midst of his senior season and led the Blue Devils to their fourth national title.

Kennard also admitted that, even though his sales pitch may not be as polished as Kryzyewski’s, he’s been doing some recruiting of his own. And while his efforts to lure Caleb Swanigan to Durham proved futile, Kennard said him and fellow Duke commit — as well as future roommate — Chase Jeter have been “going hard” at Brandon Ingram about joining them next season.

Ingram, ranked by Rivals as the No. 19 overall player in the 2015 class, would be a tremendous signing for Duke, but, as a small forward, he would not be the answer to their point guard woes.

While the final recruiting picture remains blurry, one thing is for sure: whether it’s from the two, off the bench, or as the starting point guard, Duke will need some major contributions from Kennard, along with the rest of their incoming class.

Duke’s Jahlil Okafor officially enters 2015 NBA Draft

Wisconsin v Duke
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In a move that comes as a surprise to no one, Duke freshman big man Jahlil Okafor announced Thursday afternoon that he will forego his final three years of eligibility and enter the 2015 NBA Draft.

“As early as I can remember, I’ve fantasized and dreamed of the day that I could play professional basketball,” Okafor said in the release. “I recall at the age of six, promising my mom and dad that when I made it to the NBA I would buy them both different colored trucks. They would laugh with me in support and encouraged me to dream big and work hard. With that being said and now at the age of 19, my dream is still alive!

“My freshman year has been an amazing experience to say the least. It exceeded my expectations! I love Cameron and Duke University,” Okafor continued. “I can’t thank my coaches, teammates and family enough for making this year so special and helping me grow on and off the court. With Coach K’s and my family’s blessing I will be fulfilling my life-long dream and proudly entering my name into the NBA draft.”

Okafor’s lone season in Durham was a highly productive one, as he helped lead the Blue Devils to their fifth national title while winning ACC Freshman and Player of the Year honors. The only debate regarding Okafor when it comes to the NBA is whether he or Kentucky’s Karl-Anthony Towns will be the top pick in late-June’s draft.

As for how it impacts Duke, this was a scenario all involved expected before the season began. Amile Jefferson and Marshall Plumlee will both be seniors next season, and Rice transfer Sean Obi will be eligible after sitting out the 2014-15 campaign. Duke also adds five-star big man Chase Jeter, who committed last August.

There are still two important decisions to be made for Duke, with point guard Tyus Jones and forward Justise Winslow yet to announce whether they’ll follow Okafor to the NBA or return to campus for another season.

Jahlil Okafor’s dad dances with Ninja Turtles (VIDEO)

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Chucky Okafor, the father of Duke freshman center Jahlil Okafor, is one of my favorite people in the world. This video gives you an idea why.

Turn Down For What? #FinalFour2015

A video posted by Daniel Poneman (@danielponeman) on

(H/T: Dan Poneman)

Michigan State gears up to slow down Jahlil Okafor (and his teammates) the second time around

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INDIANAPOLIS — Michigan State knows they need to slow down freshman center Jahlil Okafor in order to beat Duke on Saturday.

Putting a roadblock down in front of the potential No. 1 pick in the 2015 NBA Draft isn’t some kind of Earth-shattering game plan, but Okafor’s opening flurry against Michigan State in the Champions Classic in November left the Spartans staggering and they never recovered. Okafor scored eight of Duke’s first 14 points in the game’s opening 4:30 in the November contest — also in Indianapolis — and found Amile Jefferson for an assist on another bucket.

Only first-half foul trouble slowed down Okafor and the Spartans never held a lead during the Champions Classic after taking the first punch and dropping to one knee. Okafor finished with 17 points and five rebounds, but he was 8-for-10 from the field and Michigan State did little to slow him down.

With two of Duke’s premier perimeter threats, senior Quinn Cook and freshman Tyus Jones, struggling to shoot in football stadiums during the 2015 NCAA tournament — as Saturday’s Final Four will be played in the domed Lucas Oil Stadium — the Spartans expect Okafor to get active and involved early just like he did in November.

“That’s where he made his money last time, so I wouldn’t see why they wouldn’t try that again,” Michigan State junior big man Matt Costello said of Okafor setting the tone early.

It might seem easy for Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo to throw on the tape from November and see what the Spartans did wrong against Okafor, but both teams have evolved and adapted from the beginning of the season. The Spartans are more at full strength after early-season injuries to guards Bryn Forbes and Alvin Ellis and Duke has also shortened its rotation after booting Rasheed Sulaimon from the program.

Michigan State has watched some film from the Champions Classic loss but they’ve mostly focused on tape of Okafor from the end of the season to get a clearer picture of how Duke is using him differently within its offense.

“They’re a very different team now. Maybe you can watch some of [Okafor’s] individual moves because they haven’t changed that substantially, but as far as the team? They’ve changed a ton since we’ve played them,” Michigan State junior Colby Wollenman said. “They’re almost a completely different team.”

With Duke opting to go small and starting Matt Jones as another perimeter threat, instead of Amile Jefferson, it changes how often teams can collapse on Okafor with the smaller lineup. The Spartans have also noticed that Okafor has looked even better with the additional spacing than he did earlier in the season.

“We watch a lot of film [on Okafor]. Just the different things we’ve picked up: he’s much more aggressive, much more confident in what he’s doing. We have to take that away,” Costello said.

Costello and sophomore big man Gavin Schilling will be a key in Michigan State’s game plan on Okafor. The Spartans opted not to double team him that much in November and they hope that they can get away with a similar defensive style at times on Saturday. With so many shooters on the floor for Duke, Michigan State is keenly aware that Okafor can score in single digits and Duke could still win.

“We have to be careful of that,” Costello said of the shooters. “But coach has a game plan and if we stick to that plan we have a chance to win.”

With Duke inserting Matt Jones into the starting lineup instead of Jefferson, it’s also made freshman wing Justise Winslow another unique matchup problem for Michigan State. Cook and Tyus Jones are a combined 12-for-37 from the field and 2-for-11 from the 3-point line in the two games Duke played in football stadiums in the NCAA tournament, so it makes Winslow’s recent stretch of strong play that much more important for the Blue Devil offense. Winslow’s power drive game helped close out the Spartans in November as the Houston native had 15 points and six rebounds — going 6-for-9 from the free-throw line.

“A lot of [Duke’s offense] starts with [Okafor] but Justise Winslow has been playing much better throughout the tournament,” Wollenman said. “He was very young at the time [of our first game]. There’s a chance they try to put us in foul trouble with [Okafor], but they do have so many weapons.”

Duke’s offensive firepower lies in the balance of its offense, but Izzo can say the same for his defense, which has greatly improved, from an overall team perspective, since November. Individually, Michigan State offers little resistance to stop future pros like Okafor and Winslow, but as a team, they believe their defense gives them a chance.

“We weren’t real physical. We weren’t as strong as most of my teams have been. We just kind of rallied around,” Izzo said of his team’s defense. “My assistants did a great job of getting guys to buy into the team — team defense. You always play some team defense, but we’re almost strictly team defense. Individually we’re average.”

A group of “average” individuals for Michigan State are going to have to collectively form an elite defense to slow down a couple of future lottery picks. Given Tom Izzo’s track record of teams peaking in March, would it shock anyone if it happened?

How Duke fixed its defense in the NCAA tournament

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source: AP
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Prior to the start of the NCAA tournament, I did not think that Duke belonged in the same conversation as Kentucky, Wisconsin and Arizona when it came to talking about national title contenders.

They were as good as anyone on the right side of the bracket — in that same conversation as Gonzaga, Virginia and Villanova when it came to the favorite to get to the national title game — but the consistent lapses that Duke had on the defensive end of the floor were too much to ignore.

We’ve been over those defensive lapses quite a bit in this space, but to make a long story short, Duke’s perimeter defense was far too porous, they had no intimidating shot-blocking presence at the rim and their ball-screen defense was, to put it nicely, really, really bad. Entering the NCAA tournament, the Blue Devils were right around 60th in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to KenPom.

Things have completely changed in Duke’s four NCAA tournament games. Duke has yet to allow more than 0.89 points-per-possession in any of their four games, posting defensive numbers that are more or less on par with what Kentucky has done all season. Seeing the Blue Devils dominate Robert Morris and San Diego State on that end of the floor is not all that surprising, but watching Utah and Gonzaga, who entered the Elite 8 as the nation’s fourth-most efficient offense, struggle against these Blue Devils was quite unexpected.

Duke now enters the Final Four ranked 18th in adjusted defensive efficiency.

What happened? How did Duke go from a defensive liability to a team that is very tough to score on? I watched every possession that Duke played defensively last weekend in Houston, and here’s what I can come up with:

Quinn Cook’s ability on the ball makes Duke very good vs. teams with dominant PGs: One of the most impressive in-season improvements that we’ve seen this year is with Quinn Cook, a guy that has gone from often being a defensive liability to one of the nation’s better on-ball defenders. He’s certainly the best that Duke has in their back court, and he’s proven it over and over again. He took away Jerian Grant and Marcus Paige in wins over Notre Dame and North Carolina this season, and he did much of the same to Kevin Pangos and Delon Wright this weekend. Wright was 4-for-13 from the floor with just two assists and two turnovers, while Pangos was 2-for-8 from the field with no assists and three turnovers.

“I’ve always taken pride in outscoring whoever I was matched up with,” Cook told the News & Observor. “I’ve never taken pride in shutting someone down. I’ve learned to like playing defense.”

Both Wright and Pangos are key facilitators that create a ton of scoring chances for their team and run their respective offenses. Cook’s ability to give them fits was a major reason that Duke’s defense was so effective.

Justise Winslow is a bad man: Winslow is an awesome defensive player, and his particular skill set makes him so valuable to the Blue Devils given the way they like to defend. He’s big, strong and long enough to defend most power forwards at the college level, but he’s also quick and athletic enough to defend just about any perimeter player. What that means is that when Winslow is at the four with three guards on the floor — the starting lineup that Coach K has been using since late February — they can switch 1-through-4 defensively while staying in a man-to-man defense, which is an easy way to take an opponent out of what they want to do offensively.

Duke’s 2-2-1 press caused some problems: Duke showed a 2-2-1 press against both Utah and Gonzaga in certain situations — usually after a made free throw — that caused some problems for their opponents. A 2-2-1 is not like ‘Havoc’ or ’40 Minutes of Hell’, it’s used more to chew up clock and to bait impatient teams into throwing dangerous passes. Both the Utes and the Zags had a couple of turnovers when Duke threw the 2-2-1 at them.

The Dome probably helped, too: Call me a hater if you must, but both Gonzaga and Utah missed a number of jumpers that they usually hit. Both the Utes and the Zags shot better than 40 percent from beyond the arc this season, and combined, they were 6-for-26 from three in Houston. This is the same dome where Butler and UConn had that horrid, 53-41 national title game. Maybe there’s something to that?

As did Jakob Poeltl and Przemek Karnowski: Neither Poeltl or Karnowski can shoot from the perimeter, meaning that Okafor could just hang out in the paint and provide help. He’s not a great shot blocker, but when he’s standing in front of the rim instead of chasing big men that can shoot out to 15 feet, he does have an affect.

But mostly, it’s just execution: After watching around 120 possessions of Duke’s defense from last weekend, I can definitively tell you that Coach K is not re-inventing the wheel here. This isn’t a gimmick, it’s not him shocking the world with a 2-3 zone like he did at Louisville. It’s not as simply explained by shooting in the Dome or that the matchup, one with a dominant point guard that Cook can takeaway, was good for the Blue Devils.

As weird as this sounds, the biggest change may simply be that Duke is just playing better defensively.

It’s little things, simple executions on defense that they had issues with earlier in the year. They’re communicating better on their switches. For example, if a guard gets switched onto a power forward, he’s able to front in the post and he’ll have help on a pass over the top. This is such an important part of what Duke does defensively. They play an extended man-to-man and have been switching all exchanges 1-through-4, meaning that any screen involving two players that aren’t the opposing team’s center is an automatic switch. This makes it very difficult for an opponent to run their offense and puts a priority on the ability of playmakers in 1-on-1 or ball-screen actions.

Which brings me to my next point: They’re doing a better job icing side ball-screens and forcing the ball-handler to one side on high ball-screens. They’re also doing a better job of playing to the scouting report, something as simple as going under a ball-screen if the dribbler is a poor shooter. This was the biggest issue for Duke earlier in the season. They would force a team into ball-screen actions and then get lit up because they couldn’t defend those ball-screens.

Well, now they are.

Could this really be as simple as Duke finally figured out how to play defense?