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Okafor puts greatness on display in Blue Devils' win at Syracuse

Known for dominating offensively, Jahlil Okafor showed his greatness with some key defensive plays to lead his team to win No. 22 on the season.
Known for dominating offensively, Jahlil Okafor showed his greatness with some key defensive plays to lead his team to win No. 22 on the season.

SYRACUSE, N.Y.—Greatness.

It's a word that gets thrown around a lot in sports, whether it be for an individual performance or a three-game stretch like the one Syracuse forward Michael Gbinije has had, scoring 23.7 points per game on 67.5 percent shooting. But there are very few players that exhibit greatness every time they perform.

Saturday night at the Carrier Dome, after Gbinije exploded for 19 first-half points and five first-half triples, one of those few took over and quieted 35,446 people in a matter of minutes. After Jahlil Okafor scored eight points in 3:40 to cap Duke's 26-7 game-changing run and give his team an eight-point lead after it trailed by 11 just 7:59 of game time earlier, one thing became clear—the Blue Devils' latest great player is getting even better.

“Jah is a special player. As big as he is, he’s light on his feet," head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "He can move, he’s athletic and he has finesse. He’ll be an outstanding college player, but eventually he’ll be a great, great player as he grows into being a man.”

Krzyzewski's good friend and counterpart Jim Boeheim concurred after watching Okafor go 7-of-7 from the floor in the second half to finish with 23 points and 13 rebounds. It was the Chicago native's eighth game with at least 21 points and eight rebounds this season.

“He’s a tremendous player, he’ll be the first pick in the draft. He’s got the best footwork of any big guy that I’ve seen [in a long time]," Boeheim said. "They did a great job finding him against the zone down there and he’s a great finisher around the basket."

It was business as usual for the 6-foot-11, 270-pound center Saturday night, but before the game many were questioning how the matchup against Syracuse's vaunted 2-3 zone and star center Rakeem Christmas would play out.

At 6-foot-9 and 250 pounds, Christmas entered Saturday's game averaging 18.5 points, 9.5 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game. With Christmas, Gbinije and power forward Tyler Roberson—who combined for eight blocks against the Blue Devils—manning the back line of the zone and Christmas attacking Okafor's feet on the other end, the Preseason AP Player of the Year said he knew he would have his work cut out for him in his 25th collegiate game.

“I know going into every game every big man sees an opportunity when I’m guarding them to have a big game because of the attention I receive," Okafor said. "I was just trying to be physical with [Christmas].”

After becoming the first player in Duke history to ever shoot 75 percent or better in 10 games in a season Monday against Florida State, the eight-time ACC Rookie of the Week continued his scoring onslaught while playing some of his best defense of the season.

Christmas started the game 2-of-12 shooting and finished just 5-of-17 with 11 points. Perhaps more importantly, Gbinije was held scoreless for the first 7:20 of the second half and the second-leading scorer for the Orange—sharpshooter Trevor Cooney—made just one of his last 13 shots after starting the game 3-of-3, including two triples.

Okafor made the game easier for his teammates on the defensive end—something he normally does on offense—when he needed to most, helping turn the tide of the game. Syracuse went 1-of-11 from long range in the second half after starting 7-of-11 while the Blue Devils took advantage of successful defensive trips to shoot 61.9 percent in the period.

“That’s the most [Okafor has] been challenged defensively and I thought he responded really well," Krzyzewski said. "One of the reasons Christmas is so good is because of Cooney because you have to stay with Cooney all the time. When Gbinije is playing the way he is, it opens up space where you can’t help as much. That’s why Jah’s defense was even better because we were not able to give him as much help.”

As Okafor said, Christmas and company did Duke a few favors by missing some looks they normally convert. At the other end, many of the freshman's baskets were set up by effective passes to the short corner in the zone from Blue Devil guards and swingman Justise Winslow.

But for the 25th time in 25 games, the 19-year old that has already drawn comparisons to Hakeem Olajuwon, Tim Duncan and Elton Brand—just to name a few—found a new way to be great for his team. And as is the case with most great players, it's getting easier and easier to take Okafor's dominance for granted.

So try to enjoy his last seven regular season games, Duke fans. You're watching one of the great ones.


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