HERE FOR THE TAKING
Jahlil Okafor says he loves L.A. So all that’s left is to see his name when Lakers make the No. 2 pick.
The dreaming can start now.
On the first day of the next chapter, the giant kid with the huge hands and deep voice showed up loaded for Laker.
So, Jahlil Okafor, what do you think about the pressure of being the Lakers’ probable No. 2 overall draft pick? “Being here in Lakerland, walking around, a lot of Lakers fans say they want me here, telling me they want to win,” he said. “I love it.”
So, what do you think about the pressure of following in the historic footsteps of past Lakers big men?
“They were all about winning, and when they came here, they won,” he said. “I’ll have some big shoes to step into, but I’m ready.”
OK, so can you turn this dreadful team into a winner?
“Not by myself, not on this level, not coming right in,” he said. “That’s why we have Kobe Bryant here.”
Smart answer. Sharp kid. He loves the pressure, embraces the expectations, and is savvy enough to pay homage to the one guy who can make his life miserable. Jahlil Okafor is not here yet, but he will probably soon be, and as consolation prizes go, this could feel a whole lot like first place.
The 19-year-old center on Duke’s national title team showed up at El Segundo for a workout Tuesday in advance of the June 25 NBA draft in which he is expected to fall to the Lakers,
who would be out of their minds not to snap him up.
The Minnesota Timberwolves are expected to select Kentucky center Karl-Anthony Towns with the first overall pick because he’s considered better defensively with deeper potential. That would leave the draft’s other big headliner for the Lakers, which would be an absolute gift for a team that was supposed to pick fourth and a reviving jolt for a franchise that has spent two years dead asleep.
Okafor is 6 feet 11, 270 pounds and, while he doesn’t play defense like Towns, he is a big-city scorer with big-time cool. With his giant hands, deft touch and nimble footwork, he could probably knock down 18 in an NBA game right now. He has been compared to a young Tim Duncan, which means nothing before he’s banked in his first pro shot, except that he does have that Duncan thing for winning.
Okafor won a high school state championship last year in Chicago, a national college championship with the Blue Devils, and a bunch of international USA basketball championships. He is now seemingly intent on winning the draft, which, to him, means coming to the Lakers, and he’s not shy about saying it.
So, what do you think about the prestige of being the first overall pick?
“I’ve already said, being the No. 1 pick is not that important for me, it’s more so for the fan base,” Okafor said. “I just want to be in right position with a team that wants me.”
When have you ever heard a potential No. 1 disown the idea of being No. 1? When he wants the No. 2 team to take him, that’s when. Okafor appears to want to play for the Lakers so badly, it’s as if he’s ready to cede the draft title to Towns right now.
“He’s obviously a great player, he’s definitely deserving of being the No. 1 pick,” Okafor said of Towns.
So far, it appears Towns is ready to accept that crown and go to Minnesota. He is the only potential top-four pick who has not yet worked out for the Lakers, and they have had difficulty in pinning him down for a visit, which could mean that he already knows he’s going to join the Timberwolves, so what’s the use?
Okafor suffers from no such uncertainty, saying, “I’m coming from Duke University … where the entire atmosphere is about winning. … That’s what the Laker organization is about, that’s what I want to be part of.”
When this columnist had the nerve to ask about his defensive deficiencies, Okafor had the wit to fire back.
“I hear the criticism, but we won a national championship at Duke, so it wasn’t that bad,” he said, grinning. “Coach K was fine with the way we played defense.”
He later acknowledged that he needs to work on all aspects of his game, and that he would love to learn about the mental edge from Bryant, and that maybe some of those famous big guys would show up with pointers.
“Shaq was my favorite, then there’s Kareem, I would love to be here, to have an opportunity to learn from all those guys,” he said.
Here’s guessing that despite all of his calculated public waffling, Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak has also learned from those big guys and won’t even be tempted to use the second pick on trendy cool Ohio State guard D’Angelo Russell. Kupchak was quick to mention how today’s NBA now seems to be dominated by the smaller guys who control the ball. But he was also quickly reminded that when the Lakers have won championships, it’s always been on the backs of a big man, a fact that surrounds Kupchak every day.
“That’s an argument, and that’s a good argument, we’ll have to see how that plays out,” Kupchak said Tuesday. “We have a lot of photos in this building, a lot of those jerseys of big men that we retired.”
Kupchak paused. “But … it’s debatable.”
Is it? If there’s one commodity that is impossible to find in today’s NBA, it’s big men. If there’s one draft where two big men need to be taken immediately, it’s this one. True, point guards run the game, and the two teams in the NBA Finals have centers who have been mostly afterthoughts, but remember how the Lakers found potential star guard Jordan Clarkson in the second round last year? Great guards can be found anywhere. Great centers can be found almost nowhere.
“No, you can not get a big man like him [Clarkson] in the second round,” said Kupchak, referring to Clarkson’s impact.
Watching Jimmy Buss tug on his baseball cap and confer with Kupchak during the end of Okafor’s workout Tuesday, it was comforting to realize that no matter what happens, it will be nearly impossible for the Lakers to mess this up.
As Okafor’s sweaty presence in a Lakers practice jersey confirmed Tuesday, go ahead, it’s all good, the dreaming can start now.
JAHLIL OKAFOR, who won a high school state title and an NCAA championship at Duke, isn’t intimidated about the Lakers’ history of big men and isn’t worried about being the No. 1 pick.