We sit in a cramped room with a dozen people in what may be the nicest hotel in Chicago, the city where just two years ago Jahlil Okafor was one of nearly 400,000 high school students.
Granted, he was no ordinary student. As a freshman he was already ranked on ESPN’s recruiting site. As a sophomore, Sports Illustrated called him a “future game changer,” proclaiming him the brightest young talent in the game. As a senior, he was the consensus top high school player in the country who committed to Duke in front of his high school, Whitney Young, as well as a national audience tuning in on ESPNU.
That hype carried into his first college season where he was a preseason All-American, and was picked by several major media outlets as the preseason Player of the Year. He was named the ACC Player of the Year, a consensus first-team All-American, and anchored Duke's run to its fifth NCAA championship. After a single season as a Blue Devil he entered the NBA Draft and was taken by the Philadelphia 76ers with the third overall pick.
Achieving milestones like these isn't something that's easy to do before you turn 20, but that's the type of basketball fast track Okafor has been on, a track that has him on one of the top floors of a five-star hotel in the ritziest neighborhood of Chicago.
Okafor is back in his hometown, fresh off a plane that brought him from Duke University's campus in Durham, N.C. where he's been hitting the books and working on the degree he put on hold last year when he declared for the draft. He explains that his quest to graduate is to fulfill a promise to his aunt Chinyere, who earned her PhD and is currently employed as a principal of a Chicago elementary school on the city’s west side.
“I got a long way to go, I figured I would get the ball rolling as soon as possible,” says Okafor. “My entire family—they’re all educated. My dad has his master’s. My uncle has his master’s, so I’m just trying to do my part.”
The reason for leaving Duke after just one season was obvious and never questioned. But the commitment to continue his education during his career—when he otherwise could be partying and living the high life of a young, rich athlete—shows a level of maturity.
But mature or not Okafor is still just 20 years old, and he’s got to have a fresh cut before getting his picture snapped. Enter Fred Da Barber, a man who has cut Okafor's hair since he was seven.
Though we’re not there to watch the cut, there are pieces of hair on the rug beneath our feet as we sit down to talk. Okafor takes a seat on a couch wearing a “Duke Vs All” shirt, proudly displaying the school he helped lead to that aforementioned national championship.
“There are guys like Chance the Rapper. Jabari Parker, Anthony Davis, Dwyane Wade. There’s just a bunch of people that I know that are doing positive things For
Transitioning from Big Man on Campus to a potential franchise player for a team where the motto “Trust The Process” has made them both a grand experiment and an NBA punch line has been difficult. Quite the adjustment for a guy who spent his early basketball life winning a high school state and collegiate championships. Luckily, Okafor anticipated these challenges. “It wasn’t a shock,” says Okafor of the Sixers' abysmal 10-72 season. “I knew we weren’t going to make the playoffs or anything like that. I was just trying to get better.”
Despite rumors circulating that he may be traded, Okafor’s face genuinely lights up when asked for his thoughts on Ben Simmons, perhaps because he’d seen the news that Philadelphia was going to select the Australian born LSU product with the first overall pick. “I was able to play against him throughout high school,” says Okafor. “He played for the Australian national team, and I played for the U.S. national team. Right away you could see he was really talented.”
Just a year ago Jahlil was in the same position as Simmons, prepping for the NBA Draft. He left Duke to train in Santa Barbara, Calif., but before he hit the floor Okafor yearned to adopt a dog. Which is not really a surprise for a kid who once had his sights set on becoming a vet.
To get what he wanted he knew he had to use leverage. “I told [my trainers] I wouldn’t start working out until I got me a puppy," he says. "I kinda just stayed inside the house. And then, finally, they delivered the promise and I started working out the next day.”
He ended up getting a Rottweiler pup that was only a few weeks old, giving it a name that makes as much sense as any dog's name. “Natty…as in Natty champs.”
From there it was time to adjust to the NBA, playing for a franchise that could most politely be described as going through growing pains. The biggest adjustment to pro ball for him was the grueling traveling schedule. “Of course in college you’re traveling, especially when you’re with Duke basketball, but in the NBA it’s on a whole entire level,” he says.
As part of his new environment, Okafor had to work into a few new routines. One he quickly settled on was visiting the cinema. “Every time we went to a different city I would go see a movie.”
And now that it’s the offseason, how will he pass the time?
“Probably watching TV. I just started Game of Thrones,” says Okafor. “That pretty much just took over everything I’ve been doing. It keeps me up at night because each episode is an hour, so you watch three episodes you’re up three hours. That’s what I’ve been doing with the majority of my time.”
He also expresses a distinct fondness for food. He loves it, just like the rest of us, but that doesn’t mean he makes it. As he puts it, “I am a foodie [but] I don’t cook.” Lucky for him his father, Chuck, who can cook, is often nearby. Or his sister can quickly whip something up for him since they are roommates.
“I call my dad, he doesn’t live too far from me. He’ll cook for me,” says Okafor. “I live with my sister, she’ll cook for me. I have people around me that keep me fed.”
Of course, a guy with some money in his pocket and a taste for the good life loves to eat out, and Chicago’s got some of the best restaurants in the world. When asked to rattle off his go-to restaurants in his home city, he’s quick to respond with a list of his top three: RPM Steakhouse, Giordano’s, and Harold’s Chicken.
Okafor is also looking for ways to contribute to the community in a city that continues to make national headlines for all the wrong reasons. He hates that Chicago’s rep is being tarnished by rampant violence. So to understand how he can help, he’s drawing inspiration from other notable Chicago natives who have made a difference in their hometown.
“There are guys like Chance the Rapper, I’m a big fan of his. Jabari Parker, Anthony Davis, Dwyane Wade,” says Okafor. “There’s just a bunch of people that I know that are doing positive things for the city. That doesn’t get shown enough.”
He’s beginning to do his part. He’s back in town to pick up an award from the Boys and Girls Clubs of Chicago, a major off-the-court milestone he hopes to replicate in Philadelphia. One of his fondest memories from this past season last December, the day before his 20th birthday. The Sixers were in town to play the Bulls and Okafor treated 100 kids to an afternoon of running around a local gym where they “listened to music [and] all got free haircuts. It was really fun.”
He hopes to build on the good vibes fostered by that experience and others like it to further influence the kids of Chicago—and Philly—and show that he's no different than they are. He's one of them.
“Being from Chicago, an inner-city kid, I’m fortunate enough now to be able to help the kids here when I come back, when I’m in town,” says Okafor. “Now I’m in Philadelphia, another big city, so I’ve been able to help the kids out there.”
His desire to give back to the community was inspired by his own experiences as a youth, attending LeBron James’ camp and getting to watch his heroes do their thing. “I remember my first camps when I was in high school, freshman year," Okafor says. "I did a LeBron James camp and I thought that was the coolest thing ever."
In the immediate future, when he's not studying, Okafor plans to spend his summer rehabbing the knee injury that cost him the final 23 games of his rookie season. Once he’s ready for full workouts again, the talented offensive player who averaged 17.5 points, 7.0 rebounds, and 1.2 blocks per game—pretty good numbers for a rook—will go to work on refining his skills to mimic those of his favorite player, Tim Duncan.
Even more immediately, though, the focus in the hotel room shifts back to some of Chicago’s finest food—specifically pizza. Hopefully the Giordano’s around the corner has a table that can fit a 6'11" basketball star.