The further Jahlil Okafor leads Duke in the NCAA Tournament, the more he proves how symbolic this season has been.
What’s most significant about this Duke team – besides being one of Mike Krzyzewski’s best so far – is that it revolves around the freshman Okafor. The Chicago product has become an immediate star in the college ranks, a sentence we’ve all read and heard before.
But after Kyrie Irving, Austin Rivers, and Jabari Parker-led Duke squads fell early in March, it seems that even Krzyzewski has adjusted to the ways of a “one-and-done” driven college hoops world.
Kentucky’s slew of freshmen talents has helped them kick the shit out of nearly everyone they’ve played this season, but there isn’t a single freshman that has made the kind of impact that Okafor has. If it weren’t for Frank Kaminsky, he’d have Player of the Year locked up – or the first freshman to do so since fellow Chicago native Anthony Davis.
All things considered, it’s easy to conclude that these super freshmen are locks to succeed and propel programs deep into March. But while Okafor is trying to add a Final Four to his growing list of achievements, another elite recruit from Chicago’s Public League is having the exact opposite season.
His name is Cliff Alexander. Remember him?
Another blue-blood program that’s had a fair share of “one-and-done” players in recent seasons, the Kansas Jayhawks are watching the Sweet 16 from the couch after Wichita State took their lunch money last weekend. Alexander, however, was watching from the sideline.
KU’s prized recruit has been ineligible since late February for an investigation into improper benefits.
Okafor was the unanimous number one overall recruit out of Whitney Young. But Alexander wasn’t very far behind after his stellar career at Curie, ranked as the third overall prospect in the country. Both were participants in the McDonald’s All-American Game at the United Center last year.
The story practically wrote itself: One Public League big man at Duke, another at Kansas.
Both would help the powerhouses make a deep run in March, with Chicago’s well-known reputation for top talent again shining on the big stage.
Then perspective kicked in.
Even before the suspension, Alexander had struggled to keep a consistent role in Bill Self’s rotation. Instead of boosting KU, he left a large hole on a team that couldn’t make it out of the first weekend of the tournament.
Here in late March, Okafor is still doing something truly remarkable. He practically carried Duke to a top seed, and potentially a shot at a national championship.
This comparison highlights that the precious and volatile art of college recruiting is still a crapshoot.
Some top prospects pan out, and others don’t.
Not to mention, it brings to light the ongoing issue of whether these players should be allowed to jump straight to the NBA from high school. At this point, I’d have to imagine Cliff Alexander’s family thinks so.
It’s tough to say how things will end up for Alexander long term. He still may get taken in the first round of the NBA Draft and have a decent professional career ahead of him. One thing is certain: his NBA stock only worsened since he arrived in Lawrence, Kansas.
On the other hand, Chicago comrade Jahlil Okafor is a virtual lock to be the top pick in June a year after being the nation’s top recruit. The “one and done” system couldn’t have worked more in his favor.
And despite all the similarities between Okafor and Cliff Alexander on the surface – hometown, pre-college hype and physical stature – the two couldn’t be more different in the area that counts most.
(Featured Image courtesy of Cliff Alexander’s Twitter)