The IZOD Center is not an exciting looking arena by any measure.
Trapped in a maze of New Jersey interstates and a prison of parking lots, it's easier to compare it to a gigantic shoebox than a basketball and concert venue. There are no stores or restaurants around the perimeter in the style of other new entertainment complexes, no outlet malls a short walk from the entrance in order to supply families with a place to bide their time before the beginning of a concert. It's not the home arena of any team from the four major sports, instead welcoming mostly concerts and special events such as WWE matches in addition to the handful of sporting events it hosts every year. Compared to MetLife Stadium, looming over IZOD as part of the same complex just across the NJ border from New York City, it's practically nondescript. The only thing that sets it apart is the vaguely creepy ads for IZOD clothing draped on the outside of the building and in various places inside. All of this taken into account, IZOD Center does its job as a venue exceedingly well. The small scale of the building actually aids in the experience of watching a game because no seat is a bad one; overhanging balconies or bulky columns don’t impede sight lines. It accomplishes what it's designed to do better than many other comparable arenas.
HE SEEMS DISINTERESTED IN BEING ANYONE’S BRAND.
All of this to say that even though this cookie-cutter arena in the suburbs of New York City doesn’t have a unique bit of flash to it or amazing amenities to draw attention to, it's a more than competent and successful setting to watch a basketball game. It especially is a perfect place to watch freshman Duke star Jahlil Okafor, a player who accomplishes so much on the court through refined skill without having to resort to the flashiness similar to other heralded college players of recent years. The metaphor may be forced when drawing comparisons between “Consensus Future No. 1 Pick in the NBA Draft Jahlil Okafor” and an inanimate New Jersey arena, but it makes sense on some level because they share the understated ease that allows them to stand out from their peers without having to do much at all.
Okafor, an All-American in high school and considered one of the best players in the country in his age group for the last half decade, has already been dubbed the next big thing to enter the NBA. The presumed first pick in the draft, he's hoped to be the person who will deliver Duke basketball a return to the Final Four after years of disappointing tournament finishes. If the Blue Devils are lucky, maybe even their first National Championship since 2010 (a team with quality players like Kyle Singler, Miles Plumlee, John Scheyer, and an ineligible Seth Curry but no true stars). Despite averaging more than 18 points and nearly nine rebounds a game, Jahlil Okafor doesn’t seem to want to become an overnight sensation in any areas besides his basketball talents. In other words the 6’11’’, 270-pound Okafor has no desire to be the next “Brow” or part of a freshman college basketball boy band as seen at Kentucky last year. He seems disinterested in being anyone’s brand.
Exploding for 25 points and 20 rebounds in the game against Elon prior to the UConn matchup, Okafor doesn’t seem to care what the pundits have to say. His drive for greatness comes from his own lifelong pursuit of perfection, not from outside encouragements or an influential entourage egging him on. Multiple times earlier this season teammates had to remind Okafor not to pass the ball when he had an open shot; such is his selflessness on the court. In a world where Andrew Wiggins is just starting to live up to the years of hype on a 7-35 Timberwolves team, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist has seen his average minutes, assists, steals, and blocks decline over his three seasons in the league, and Harrison Barnes is finally being allowed to settle i to a career being measured by the proper expectations rather than the overblown predictions that saddled him in his early years, Okafor’s ability to manage expectations has kept him grounded as the whirlwind of fame surrounds him.
Based on their abbreviated college careers his closest analog is Jabari Parker, who's out with a torn ACL that ended what was amounting to a superb first season. Okafor isn't manufacturing his personality specifically for a billboard in New York City a half-decade down the road, nor is he using half his brain power to design shoes or prep a major sponsorship deal or get distracted by whichever scouts may be present at a particular game. This isn’t to say that does not think about these things at all, naturally every gifted young athlete imagines the perks that come with their hoped for success. But from the outside looking in, Jahlil’s targeted focus on the game appears to consume so much of his attention that he doesn’t have time to worry about what he might be omitting when it comes to crafting his public persona.
Okafor’s disinterest in all things “personal brand” extends to both of his social media accounts—Instagram and Twitter—the pair of which are decidedly not self-centered in any way; they mostly serve as sounding boards for admiration of his Blue Devils teammates. On Instagram, one of his most recent posts is a picture of two adorable little girls, his niece and little sister, each dressed as a Duke cheerleader. Beyond those, one has to go back to early October to see a picture or video that does not have the Duke insignia or basketball involved in some way. Even then the exception is a throwback video thanking his father for his support on the eve of the season-opener.
On Twitter, too, things are all about the team. Even on his birthday in December, his 19th, he thanked the team and the fans for making the night special after the Elon win; the only mention of his ungodly stat line was in a retweet from a teammate. In fact, his feed is largely made up of retweets, preferring to serve as a mirror of the press the Blue Devils receive rather than a look into his personal life or time off the court. Okafor doesn’t ever brag about a game or his in-game performance, but he will share or re-post articles profiling his rise to the top of the college game indiscriminately, especially those from the official Duke basketball account. His reticence to boast about his basketball prowess is unique in the college game right now, a place and an era in which most players are more than happy to show off a certain swagger on the court while acknowledging freely how good they are off of it. Maybe Okafor is doing all this as a way to subtly craft a persona without actually crafting one. However, his continued unselfishness on the court as well makes this hard to believe.
In the rivalry matchup against unranked UConn, Okafor was more poised and confident on the floor than anybody else out there, including the junior and senior talent on both teams. He understands all of his teammates’ skills well enough already that he knows exactly who to pass to at any given moment without his thought process taking even an extra second to delay the execution. Before the game, at a local sports bar mostly packed with UConn fans, the conversation centered around Okafor and his supposed dominance. One fan, thoroughly unimpressed with the hype, declared, “The real Okafor played for UConn, we can handle whoever this guy thinks he is just by taking him out of the game.”
This strategy turned out to be easier said than done, with Okafor taking UConn’s important big men out of the game by drawing fouls early rather than the other way around. Even so, he was held to a 12 and 8 night, which is far below what "Jah" might have accomplished were it not for UConn’s bench players exceeding expectations in relief appearances while double and triple-teaming the Chicago-bred freshman.
The genuine focus Okafor exudes when speaking with Coach K showcases the same mental intangibles. Each mistake he made on the court over the course of the game was followed by the utmost concentration during the subsequent timeout or courtside chat with the Duke coaching staff. Even with Duke up by double digits late in the game, Okafor was absorbed in everything Coach K said during timeouts, soaking in as much knowledge as possible before his next shift on the floor. His game progressed in tandem with these moments of advice; by the second half he was making powerful, pointed passes off the post to an open teammate clear across the court. He called for the ball emphatically. At one point in the second half he smoothly executed a spin move and dunk over a defender that was a spot-on impression of a Mack truck going up against a Fisher-Price car. He's a player who clearly is not comfortable making the same mistake twice, wants to learn as much as he can in his abbreviated stint in the college game, and trusts the leadership around him to guide him through difficult stretches.
Okafor was more poised and confident on the floor than anybody else out there, including the junior and senior talent on both teams.
Which, judging by the pieces of his game that did struggle against the Huskies, may become more frequent than he expects in the NBA. Consistently, his travels were called as defensive fouls against UConn and he was able to get away with throwing dubious elbows when he had possession under the rim purely because of his size. Multiple times, even in his much-improved second half, he got his pocket picked by UConn players that resulted in an easy basket for the Huskies. He relies on his size more than strategy or his skills because it's the path of least resistance. The NBA guards will be more talented, the referees for the most part less forgiving, and the pace much faster, all things he showed he might not be able to handle without putting in the appropriate work in the next few months.
Which brings us back to how he portrays himself in the media. Analogous players on the college hype scale, such as Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Andrew Wiggins, kept things relatively concentrated on college basketball social media wise during their freshman seasons, but were far more willing to post about their personal lives. As soon as both announced their intentions to enter the draft, they almost instantaneously transitioned to becoming branded, fame-intense players. MKG embarked on a signing tour in malls across the Midwest, which he endlessly promoted on Twitter; Wiggins embraced his newfound ability to associate with brands like PlayStation, Adidas, and Beats without the NCAA influencing these relationships. After being told they were the next big things for so long, shedding the strict rules of the college game was obviously high on their priority lists.
Conversely, this freedom also means devoting brain power to things other than basketball.
This is of course not out of the ordinary in the NBA. Most players supplement their salaries with appearances and endorsements, and on the whole it doesn’t affect their progression as players. But how much faster would players mature, adapt to the league, and improve if they weren’t distracted by so many responsibilities off the court? Okafor's present disinterest in all things hype could present itself as an unforeseen blessing should it keep him focused solely on ball.
And if this strategy of separating his personal life from his career does help him acclimate to the NBA, it could go a long way towards establishing a correlation between spurning publicity in college and later success.