According to ESPN's #NBArank, 76ers rookie Jahlil Okafor will be the 90th best player in the NBA this season. In an era when small ball is as sexy as Rihanna, a typical old-school, back-to-the-basket player at the 5 spot has less value these days. Which makes the 19-year-old center a new yellow cab in an Uber-driven world.
But there's still something to be said -- and behold -- about a gifted player with size and ambition who could change the populous thought process. There's always that one player who makes all of the experts and know-it-alls rethink everything. Ladies and gentlemen, I introduce to you, The Anomaly.
Scoop Jackson: You've talked in the past about how big men still matter in the NBA. What makes you believe that?
Jahlil Okafor: I just know that for a fact. I think this is the first time that guards dominated the NBA Finals and the result was them winning, but prior to that, it was all big men leading teams to victories, playing a vital role in doing so. I've always been in that situation. Even when I decided to go to Duke, they were saying: "Duke isn't a big man school. No big man can [succeed] at Duke," and all that stuff. So I'm used to it. But I just really believe bigs are still important.
Scoop: Do you think the game is changing in that direction, or do you think there aren't as many big men balling as in the past?
Okafor: I think a lot of big men now are just becoming stretch guys and want to prove that they can shoot, so I think it's a little bit of both. I think a lot of big men now like the idea of facing up and shooting jump shots and being more of a guard.
Scoop: What have the Sixers told you about their method to their perceived madness in drafting so many young bigs?
Okafor: I think that was just the result of them thinking they are just drafting the best player that was left on the board. It wasn't them going in there with any attempt to draft a big man. At least, that's the message I've gotten. Right now, we are a very young team, trying to build a championship atmosphere and have a better team than last year.
"I'm definitely not the caliber player that LeBron is, but I find it funny how people can criticize him and the way he plays the game. So it's pretty easy to criticize me if they are still able to criticize LeBron." Jahlil Okafor
Scoop: From high school at Whitney Young to Duke, you are used to winning. Some people say the Sixers will lose a lot. I'm not going to predict that, at least not to your face, but are you prepared for the toll a lot of losses may take on you, especially since you haven't had to deal with that before?
Okafor: There's no way I can really prepare for it. I've just been getting advice from my coaches, prior coaches, Coach K [Mike Krzyzewski] Coach Ty [Slaughter], on keeping a winning mentality. I mean, if we do end up struggling this year, just stay positive, keep trying to do well, keep trying to play well, try to keep the team together. That's the best way I know how to prepare for it, and that's what I'm doing.
Scoop: Critics have put your defensive ability into question. Does that bother you, or are you able to ignore it?
Okafor: It doesn't bother me, I wouldn't say it motivates me, either. That's their jobs, to go out there and write about stuff. Do what they do, and I'm going to do what I do.
Scoop: Have you done anything coming into this season to change that perception?
Okafor: Nope. I'm just doing what I've always done, and that's do what the coaches ask me to. At Duke, my situation was to try to stay out of foul trouble, do my role and don't make anything easy [for the opponents]. I'm going to try to stay out of foul trouble this year, they are giving me their defensive schemes and I'm just going to do what they ask.
Scoop: Did you think that winning a championship would shut up a lot of the people who had critical evaluations of your game when you came into college last year?
Okafor: That wasn't my thought, that if I won a championship I wouldn't get any criticism. I just think that playing in a championship game and playing in every game in March Madnessb that's just more time for critics to watch you and more time for them to nitpick at what you don't do well or what they feel you don't do well.
During the whole season, they said our team didn't play defense, that our team was one of the worst defensive teams in Duke's history, but somehow we still won the national championship, so I'm going to let the experts do their thing.
Look, I'm definitely not the caliber player that LeBron is, but I find it funny how people can criticize him and the way he plays the game. So it's pretty easy to criticize me if they are still able to criticize LeBron.
Scoop: Good point. Did you see that you came in 90th on ESPN's NBA rankings?
Okafor: I have not seen the yet.
Scoop: That's three places above Kobe. How does that sit with you? Especially since you haven't played a single game yet?
Okafor: Jeez. [Laughs] ... Uh ... [Silence] ... I don't want that pressure on me. I'll let you all do that [rankings], I have nothing to say about that. I would not rank myself higher than Kobe. I have a lot of work to get to that point. I'll be the first to say it, regardless of how they came to that conclusion: Kobe Bryant? No, we are not in the same category right now.
Scoop: Do you feel any pressure/responsibility to live up to the recent Chicago legacy of greatness?
Okafor: I wouldn't call it pressure. There's a lot of pride I have coming from Chicago because so many great players have done so many great things in the league. I definitely want to keep that tradition going. So yeah, I want to represent Chicago in the best light possible.
Scoop: What's the straight-up best advice Coach K has given you?
Okafor: Just stay true to myself, who I am. Make sure my heart stays in it. He told me if my heart was in it that's when I'm at my best. That's the best advice he's given me.
Scoop: Which players do you look up to/try to learn from?
Okafor: I watch a lot of guys. But the one specific guy I've always looked up to is Tim Duncan.
Scoop: So what are your expectations for this season?
Okafor: Love to make the playoffs this year. I've talked to a few people in my circle about a few other things I've put on my radar, like making the All-Star team my first year. I set really high expectations.
Scoop: So when we talk this time next year, how much different do you think your life will be?
Okafor: I think the only thing different may be more notoriety. Playing a full year in the NBA, that's probably going to be more visibility. More people probably know about you. Other that that, nothing. Hopefully I'm going to be the same guy and still have the same circle of people in my life.