Jahlil Okafor has yet to play a game for Duke. The hype surrounding his arrival is all pegged to potential and what he accomplished against high school players.
Had he come up in another era, Okafor would have stood no shot at being named a preseason All-American. Projections weren’t nearly enough for voters to put a freshman on their ballots.
Times have changed.
Following the precedent set by North Carolina’s Harrison Barnes in 2010, Okafor has become the third freshman in the past five seasons to be named to The Associated Press’ preseason All-America team, released Monday.
“I just have to realize that it’s just the preseason expectations and to try to live up to those expectations during the season,” Okafor said.
The rest of the AP’s preseason team has a little more experience: North Carolina junior point guard Marcus Paige, Wisconsin senior forward Frank Kaminsky, Louisville junior forward Montrezl Harrell and Wichita State junior point Fred VanVleet.
Paige was the leading vote getter, named on 58 ballots from the 65-member national media panel, two ahead of Harrell.
The 6-foot-1 Paige took a huge leap from his freshman to sophomore seasons, doubling his scoring average (to 17.5 points per game) while becoming one of the nation’s best crunch-time players — once he gets going.
A notoriously slow-starter, he spent a good portion of last season pouring it on late: 31 of 35 points and the game-winner against North Carolina; 11 of 17 points in overtime against Davidson; 11 of 13 in the second half of a win at then-No. 1 Michigan State, 21 of 23 after halftime against Kentucky.
His goal this season is to do it for an entire game, not just the second half.
“Obviously, my teammates know I need to be more aggressive and assertive this year, and it kind of starts with me,” Paige said. “So I’m really worried about what I need to do team wise and I feel the individual stuff that comes with it will take care of itself if I do that.”
Harrell, who received 56 votes, was a role player during Louisville’s national-title run in 2013, taking a backseat to players like Russ Smith and Peyton Siva.
He’s expected to hoist the talented Cardinals on his broad shoulders this season.
An athletic, 6-foot-8, 240 pounds, Harrell was a handful for opposing teams last season, averaging 14 points and 8.4 rebounds while shooting 60 percent from the floor. After bypassing a shot at the NBA, he spent the offseason working on his midrange game, making him even tougher to stop.
“Montrezl is everything a first-team All-America should be,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. “He’s worked at making his game better and I’m real proud of him.”
Kaminsky turned himself into an All-American in his three years with Wisconsin.
The 7-footer was little more than a role player his first two seasons in Madison, averaging 4.2 points as a sophomore. He made one of the most dramatic improvements in the country last season, becoming a nightmare matchup with his ability to score inside or out and swat shots away on defense.
Kaminsky led the Badgers to their first Final Four since 2000 and spurned a chance at the NBA in hopes of getting them all the way to a championship this year.
“Going as far as we did and being so close is obviously painful,” he said. “And it’s tough to block that out of our mind when you were so close to getting to the championship game, and you’re one possession away. That’s been pretty motivating for me.”
VanVleet had a difficult road to get here.
His father, Fred Manning, was shot and killed in 1999 when he was 5, so he and his brother Darnell were raised their mother, Susan.
The hard-working VanVleet made the most of his opportunities and received on-the-job training from senior Malcom Armstead during the Shockers’ Final Four run in 2012-13 as a freshman. Last season, he blossomed into one of the nation’s best point guards, averaging 11.6 points, 5.4 assists and 4.02-to-1 turnover-to-assist ratio.
“It’s nice that such a great player and great representative of our program is being honored in such a way, but it’s ever more special the quality of individual he is,” Shockers coach Gregg Marshall said. “He’s a great, great young man, he’s persevered and overcome some tough circumstances early in his life to be an exemplary college basketball student athlete.”
Okafor has just started his life as a college athlete.
The 6-foot-11 forward from Chicago was the MVP of the McDonald’s All-American game and was considered by many recruiting services as the No. 1 overall player in his class. Okafor has a wide wingspan, good footwork, and arrives in Durham with a polished game and an NBA-ready body.
He just hasn’t played a college game.