Okafor looks to leave his mark on Elite Eight matchup against Gonzaga

Jahlil Okafor committed multiple turnovers against the Utah double-teams Friday and will face a tall Gonzaga frontcourt Sunday.
Jahlil Okafor committed multiple turnovers against the Utah double-teams Friday and will face a tall Gonzaga frontcourt Sunday.

HOUSTON—Swept up in the wake of Justise Winslow's dominant performance in Duke's Sweet 16 victory against Utah was an unusually quiet performance from the player who has typically been the team's center of attention.

Facing waves of consistent double-teams from the Runnin' Utes—as has been the norm during his freshman season—ACC Player of the Year Jahlil Okafor posted an inconspicuously quiet six points on 3-of-6 shooting from the field and grabbed eight rebounds in 32 minutes. After watching Okafor tie his career-low in scoring and fail to crack double figures for just the second time in his collegiate career, Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski was not shy about what he expects from his star center as his team prepares for its South Regional final matchup with second-seeded Gonzaga Sunday at 5:05 p.m. at NRG Stadium.

"We need Jahlil to score more than six points," Krzyzewski said. "Hopefully Jahlil will score more than six points on Sunday."

Reflecting on his performance, Okafor was quick to defer to his coach in regards to the impact of scoring on Duke's success.

"If Coach said it, I definitely agree with it," Okafor said with a smile. "I know I'm going to have to try to dominate as much as possible—try to be sharp on both ends of the floor. Especially if they're playing me with one guy, I'm going to have to make them pay."

Okafor was just one of Duke's key rotation players who struggled on the offensive end against Utah. Aside from Winslow, the Blue Devils failed to achieve a real offensive flow against the Runnin' Utes. The team's starting backcourt of freshman Tyus Jones and senior Quinn Cook combined for 26 points, most of which came from the free-throw line in the game's closing minutes.

The issues with Okafor's performance Friday may not have been his lack of scoring, but rather a lack of aggressiveness. The 6-foot-11 freshman appeared more content to back away from double-teams than lower his shoulder and take them head-on. Okafor's usually-pinpoint passing out of the post was off the mark, causing the Chicago native to turn the ball over four times without recording an assist.

Okafor could face his toughest test of the season Sunday, taking on a Gonzaga front line that features 7-foot-1 center Przemek Karnowski and 6-foot-10 forward Kyle Wiltjer, with 6-foot-10 forward Domantas Sabonis coming off the bench. As the Bulldogs prepare for Okafor, they understand that the Blue Devils are at their best when the team's offense runs through the ACC Player of the Year.

"[Okafor is] one of the best big men in the country. He's mobile, agile, he's long, strong," Karnowski said. "I think when Utah doubled him, they were just trying to be really high with their hands, and Okafor couldn't skip the ball to the other side for the open shot. I thought that's what they did really well."

Krzyzewski isn't wrong—Okafor will likely have to score more than six points if the Blue Devils want to beat the Bulldogs Sunday and earn their first trip to the Final Four since 2010. But Okafor doesn't have be Duke's leading scorer for the Blue Devils to be successful.

Okafor has scored an average of 22.0 points per game in Duke's four losses this season. In the 31 wins in which Okafor has played, he averages just 17.2 points. What creates offense for the Blue Devils is not necessarily Okafor's back-to-the-basket prowess, but his ability to react to a second defender and hit his teammates for easy buckets when he isn't getting good looks at the basket.

"He impacts the game in so many ways where he doesn't have to score," Cook said.

What Okafor's actual scoring threshold is to guarantee the Blue Devils a victory remains to be seen. So how does Okafor remain an offensive weapon if Gonzaga's big, bruising front line prevents him from getting chances at the rim? He said communication is the key.

"The main thing is talking," Okafor said. "When I'm being double-teamed and people are trying to prevent me from scoring—if I'm talking, I'm still connected with my teammates and my mind is still in the game."


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