MANY TIMES, usually at the end of practices, Jahlil Okafor will playfully palm the head of someone in the 76ers organization as the players gather for some words from coach Brett Brown before they head to the foul line to get in their final work of the day. Because his hands are so enormous, his grip usually encompasses pretty much the whole head, no matter who it is.
Okafor is every bit of a man-child. The man part is obvious, from his hulking 6-11, 270-pound physique and booming voice, which sounds as though it is being electronically enhanced, like someone who wants to remain anonymous in an interview.
When he shakes hands with a reporter, his middle finger practically touches the reporter's elbow.
The child part goes directly to his being only 19 years old, which should make him still getting used to college life and what it's like to be away from home.
It's also evident when he's asked what he would be doing if he weren't one of the foundational pieces being relied on to pull the Sixers out of their losing hellhole.
"Something to do with animals, maybe a veterinarian," Okafor said with a wry smile, dipping his head as he thought of another profession. "I've always loved animals. I had the Sixers set up some stuff for me, so, a few weeks ago, I went to the zoo and fed the giraffes. I've always been a big animal guy, ever since I was a little kid. My favorite movies always had animals in it - 'The Lion King,' 'Air Bud.' I just always loved animals."
Perhaps unfairly, Okafor has never really been a little kid. He not only grew quickly, he also had to grow up fast. Okafor's mom, Dacresha Lanett Benton, died when he was only 9, when she contracted bronchitis and passed two weeks later because of a collapsed lung. Okafor had been splitting time at his mom's home in Oklahoma and his dad's in Chicago before her death. Afterward, he moved in permanently with his dad, Chuck.
It was then that Okafor started to prosper as a basketball player. He shot up to 6-5 in the seventh grade. A year later, he was recruited to play in college. And so the whirlwind began, which led to just about every conceivable accolade at Chicago's prestigious Whitney Young High School and then one season at Duke, where he was a first-team all-America and ACC player of the year for a team that won the national championship. He was gladly scooped by the Sixers with the third overall pick in last June's draft.
"I didn't know anything else when I was young; it just kind of became who I was and a part of my life that I was a basketball player who was supposed to do some great thing in the future," Okafor said after a recent Sixers practice. "It's just kind of something that I accepted, and it became a part of me.
"My mother and father both played, and it was always in my family. I didn't know anything else, it was just always what I wanted to do and I loved playing. I always played - during recess, after school, before school, going across the street to the park and just shooting all day. I played all the sports, especially in junior high. You know, you play all the sports then, and I was competitive. I always have been. So when my friends played, so did I. I played soccer, volleyball, softball, a little football. Whatever was in season. Basketball was always my favorite sport, though.
"I really didn't like always being the biggest kid, especially all the attention that came with it. I can recall everyone thinking that I was older than my age because of how big I was. People would accuse me of being 9 when I was, like, 5 or 6. I remember parents asking me when I was 9 years old if I was really 13. When I got older, I just laughed about it."
But he was serious enough about his game during his early run in AAU basketball that he started to get noticed by colleges before most of his peers even had hair under their arms.
"My first scholarship offer was when I was in eighth grade, from DePaul University," Okafor recalled with a laugh. "I remember playing AAU when I was 9, 10 or 11, and always being bigger than everyone else, and all the parents and grown-ups telling me that I wasn't supposed to be playing against their son, because 'you're not the same age.' My coach had to carry my birth certificate around with him. It was just annoying, because I was a little kid and I was being harassed by these adults. It was kind of tough, but my dad was there for me. All these parents thought their son was the next great player, which is respectable, but it was strange."
Many think Okafor's game, with his nimble feet, enormous but soft hands, terrific footwork and scoring ability, translates perfectly to the NBA. Others worry about his apparent deficiencies at the defensive end and in rebounding.
"I'd plug him into my team and be happy for the next 10 years," one NBA executive said. "He may not reach some expectations, but he's going to be a good pro for a long time."
"I'm not so sure about him," an NBA scout said. "He plays so below the rim that I'm not sure if that's going to work in this league. If they could sprinkle a lot of really good shooters around him and he's going one-on-one most of the time, then he's in a good spot. But I wonder about when he gets doubled. Plus, I think he's far below average when it comes to rebounding and defending."
That is the dynamic of Okafor's game coach Brett Brown must figure out. The plan is to pair Okafor with Nerlens Noel; both are nearly 7 feet tall. It is not the direction the NBA is moving in as far as style of play. It has become more of a running and shooting league than one in which you dump it down low.
Brown knows the importance of keeping his team among the league leaders in pace, but still knows Okafor will command the ball.
But it's more than X's and O's for Brown and his new, young center. He just sees a kid - and, at 19, that is what Okafor still is - who has greatness ahead of him.
"No doubt. No doubt," Brown said, when asked whether he thought Okafor had NBA star potential. "I think his greatness is going to be relative to his body. I feel like where I can help him the most is continuing to remind him of how important it is to be in career best shape, to really pay attention to his diet, to take his physical gifts and streamline them. And so, from a health perspective, keeping him in the league for a long time and understanding how to take care of his body, I think, will be in direct proportion to his success. Because he is a legitimate low-post target. He is a far better free throw shooter than people think. And if we can continue almost to set goals to just getting him (to the foul line) six to eight times a game, that in itself is a hell of a first year, because it reflects a mentality. But I think that he is a certain longtime NBA player.
"Above all, and I mean this, he is a good person. He wants to please people. He wants to be coached. With those words right there, I'm confident he'll be a stud."
Okafor is insightful, aware of his surroundings, and has that "it" factor many are drawn to. He was smart enough to wear an Eagles sweater when Brown took him to the home game against Dallas. His college choice of Duke wasn't solely because of the chance to win a national championship, but also because "one of the things that was different about Duke was that everyone there is doing something special."
"Being unique at Duke is kind of making you the same, because everybody there is unique," he said.
Local pro basketball fans are counting on him being just that in the NBA. With Joel Embiid's future uncertain because of his recurring foot injury, the burden of being this city's next great big falls to Okafor. Whether it happens or not remains to be seen. But Okafor seems to possess the ability to handle anything.
He has great support from his father, who lives near him downtown. He shares a house with his older sister and niece downtown, along with his pet Rottweiler Natty - a reference to the national championship.
"I'm trying to get adjusted as fast as I can," he said. "I wouldn't call it overwhelming. There is a lot. But if you say it's overwhelming, that means you can't handle it. I'm able to handle it, and that makes it fine."