LOS ANGELES — Not everybody wants to play with Kobe Bryant. Some players see him dominate the ball for long stretches of the game, followed by overcompensation with overpassing — followed by frustration from him if this strategy doesn’t work. He’s demanding of his teammates and himself. That has worked to the tune of five titles, but it can wear guys down. So some choose to play elsewhere.
Jahlil Okafor is not going to have a choice — he is a borderline lock to be selected by Kobe’s Los Angeles Lakers with the No.2 pick in Thursday night’s NBA Draft. (He’s their guy, unless the unlikely happens and the Lakers trade the pick.)
Okafor is pumped at the idea of spending a season (or two, or…) learning from one of the game’s greats.
“I think I can learn a ton,” Okafor told NBCSports’ ProBasketballTalk. “He’s been in the NBA a while, he came into the league early — I think he was younger than me when he came into the league — so I want to pick his brain and learn as much as I can….
“It’s all about he wants to win. So do I.”
Okafor has had two pre-draft workouts with the Lakers, and both reportedly went well.
“I like the staff, I like the coaches, I like Mitch Kupchak, it was a great vibe…” Okafor said of the workouts. “I saw a fit (with the Lakers), but I saw a fit with all the teams in the top five, the top six.”
The one thing that came out of workouts, both with the Lakers and other teams, is that Okafor has slimmed down and looks more mobile and lighter on his feet. Okafor confirmed he’s dropped some pounds.
“When my ankle got 100 percent healed — throughout the college season I was not 100 percent … I was playing on a bad ankle — when that healed, I was able to pick up my workout regimen more than when I got hurt,” Okafor said “I was able to work out three times a day, and, as a result, my weight went down.”
Okafor is sharing his story heading into the draft as part of the American Express Home Court Advantage Rookie Draft Desk Series. That is done in partnership with the NBA and includes Okafor, Karl-Anthony Towns, D’Angelo Russell and Frank Kaminsky. The best part of the page is the roundtable, where all four sit around and talk about their stories and how they got to the cusp of the NBA Draft.
“It was a great opportunity for myself and with the three other guys I was with — Frank, D’Angelo, Karl — it’s great to share our stories and really let the fans see us, and present us as we really want to presented,” Okafor said. “I really enjoyed it and the other guys did as well.”
The one knock on Okafor heading into the draft has been his defense at Duke. This has morphed online for some fans who now think he’s terrible on that end, which is not the case. He does need work, but there are mitigating factors. Besides the ankle injury, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski wanted to run the offense through Okafor, so at the top of his list of instructions was to stay out of foul trouble. That does not lead to aggression.
Okafor isn’t worried about his defense.
“I thought I played well on both ends of the floor,” Okafor said. “My coaches did as well, they didn’t have any complaints and we won a national championship. I was so a bad defensive player, Duke was a bad defensive team too — that one was put out there — but somehow we win a national championship.”
As PBT’s Draft Expert Ed Isaacson noted during our draft podcast, if you have someone with the footwork of Okafor there is no reason to think he will not be able to defend. It’s just a matter of focus and practice, but the work ethic and fundamentals are there.
“That’s something Coach K said, I move my feet so well that I could definitely handle the defensive end,” Okafor said. “As the season progressed I improved, and Coach K was happy with me.”
And the Lakers and their fans will likely be very happy with him, too.