Okafor's goal: 'Best of all time'

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Okafor's goal: 'Best of all time'

Jahlil Okafor has been asked a lot of questions by media, coaches, recruiting analysts and fans since he emerged as one of the most celebrated high school basketball players in the country. But Whitney Young's 6-foot-11, 265-pound center had never been asked anything like this.

Would you rather be (1) the best basketball player who ever played the game, (2) President of the United States or (3) the richest man in the world?

The 16-year-old sophomore didn't hesitate to respond.

"I want to be the best basketball player of all," he said.

"President doesn't appeal to me, all that pressure, people loving you and hating you. And being the richest man doesn't mean you are happy.

"But if I'm the best basketball player, I'd be happy. I would take great joy in it. That's what I want to be."

Okafor said Michael Jordan is the best basketball player he has ever seen. But Tim Duncan, Shaquille O'Neal and Hakeem Olajuwon are the three best big men he has seen. Each of them has been important, influential, motivating and inspirational factors on his life.

"Duncan was so skilled, the first big man I started to watch in fifth grade. People said I looked like him so I started to watch him. Hakeem was so skilled on the block. He had great post moves, what I try to have in my game. Shaq was so dominant on the floor, what I want to be. He overpowered people."

What is so amazing about Okafor is he has accumulated scholarship offers from more major Division I programs and is rated more highly than Simeon's Jabari Parker at the same stage. Yet, like Parker, he remains down-to-earth and grounded with a degree of maturity that turns critics into believers.

"He is the same person he was when he came in as a ninth grader -- except he is three inches taller," Whitney Young coach Tyrone Slaughter said. "His demeanor and the way he handles himself haven't changed.

"It has to do with his upbringing. His father has done a phenomenal job. He has great values. He is positive, very respectful. What is important to him? Having fun and being able to play. He recognizes the enormity of his skills and the opportunities ahead of him."

Okafor credits his father, his aunts and uncles and his family for keeping him grounded. "They keep me away from all the media and the hoopla. I'm aware of it but my dad keeps me away from it. They make sure I don't get big-headed. My dad tells me: 'The taller they are, the harder they fall.' They try to keep me humble," he said.

He admits he has been awestruck only once, when Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski walked unannounced and totally unexpected into Whitney Young's gym at 6:00 a.m. to observe a preseason workout.

"I take everything in stride," Okafor said. "But I was surprised when coach K. came to the school to see me play in open gym at 6 in the morning before the season began. I wasn't expecting him to come. I felt good about myself. I was humble to see him watch me play. No, I wasn't nervous. It was just basketball. I don't get nervous on the court. It said to me that he wants me to go to his program, that he thinks I'm a pretty good player."

But Okafor also admits that it didn't dawn on him that he had a big-time future in the game until he finally defeated his father in a one-on-one duel when he was in eighth grade. His father Chuck, who is 6-foot-5, played at Bowen and Western Arkansas, a Division II school.

"The NBA has always been my main goal," he said. "In third grade, the teacher asked: 'What do you want to be when you grow up?' I said I want to be a NBA player. In eighth grade, when I started to think I could play in the NBA, there was no doubt in my mind that I could achieve my goals.

"In eighth grade, when I beat my dad 21-8, something I had been trying to do for a long time, it boosted my confidence. I was 6-foot-8 at the time. I couldn't guard him when he went to the rim. He was too strong for me. But, that time, when he went to the rim, I blocked his shots and tried to put a whupping on him. I felt if I could beat my dad I could beat anyone."

Okafor doesn't have to impress anyone anymore. "He is the quintessential post player. He is running the floor on offense much better, from block to block, with a greater level of efficiency. Now he is starting to focus on defense and rebounding, to be more mobile than before," Slaughter said.

He has scholarship offers from Illinois, DePaul, Duke, North Carolina, Florida, Arizona, Michigan State, Ohio State, Nebraska, Iowa, Connecticut, North Carolina State, Georgetown, Arkansas and...well, the list just keeps getting bigger. Kentucky and Kansas also are expressing interest. Remember, he has two more years to impress recruiters. And he has no timetable.

"I'm not in a hurry. I'm taking it all in, taking my time, making sure I make the right decision," he said. "What am I looking for? I want to go to the NBA. I want to make an impact right away. I want to have great players around me. I want to be Player of the Year and win a national championship. Then I won't stay for another year."

He doesn't take losing lightly. Last year's 16-9 finish, despite injuries to key players and a schedule that would be the envy of an NBA team, Okafor was disappointed that Whitney Young didn't play up to expectations. He vows to bolster his production in 2012-13 and is determined to improve all aspects of his game.

"Last season was very frustrating. We played great teams. We could have easily won all the games we lost but we made minor mistakes and turnovers and missed free throws," he recalled.

"It taught me that you must expect the unexpected, that I have to take a huge role when players are hurt. I'm a lot more serious this year. I want to average 13 or more rebounds and 5-6 blocks per game. I want to block a lot more shots than last year. My scoring will come. I can score on the block whenever I want to. I'm focusing on defense.

"To me, basketball is a lot of fun. I don't see it as a job now. I see it as being my job of the future. I take it seriously. My dad says when I don't want to play basketball I can stop. He will support me no matter what. If I didn't play basketball, what would I do? I'd like to be a veterinarian. I like animals a lot. I used to have a Great Dane. And I always watched the movie Lion King. But basketball is something I want to do now."

After seeing Jabari Parker on the cover of Sports Illustrated, Okafor added another goal to his list.

"I'm happy for him. I would like it to happen to me," he said. "My family warns me that there are a lot of bad temptations out there in the world. I don't know what to expect. I know I have to make the right choice."

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AP

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White Sox willing to overlook 'rough' patches as healthy Carlos Rodon returns

White Sox willing to overlook 'rough' patches as healthy Carlos Rodon returns

The two fastballs that soared to the backstop on Wednesday night should give you a strong indication that Carlos Rodon was far from perfect.

But in making his first start of the 2017 season, the White Sox pitcher also offered his team plenty of signals that his health isn’t going to be an issue.

Rodon returned to the mound for the first time since last September and brought the goods that made him one of baseball’s top pitching prospects several years ago. Given he’d missed three months with bursitis in the left shoulder and the potential value he offers to a franchise only half a season into its first rebuild in 20 years, that was plenty for the White Sox to overlook the rust Rodon showed in a 12-3 White Sox loss to the New York Yankees at Guaranteed Rate Field.

“He started a little rough early obviously, got some high pitch counts,” manager Rick Renteria said. “And then he kind of settled down.

“Having him back in the rotation and getting him back out there on the big league field, coming out of there feeling good, healthy. I'm sure he will continue to get better as he continues to get out there and move forward.”

Renteria said he wasn’t surprised that Rodon struggled with his command as much as he did against the Yankees. The issues the pitcher displayed in uncorking a pair of wild pitches, walking six batters and throwing strikes on only 41 of 94 pitches were also present during Rodon’s four rehab starts in the minors.

But as long as the stuff was there, the White Sox would be OK with any issues that accompanied the performance. Rodon began to alleviate those concerns immediately when he earned a called strike on the game’s first pitch with a 93-mph fastball to Brett Gardner. Featuring a four-seamer with an absurd amount of movement and a nasty slider he struggled to control, Rodon checked all the boxes the White Sox hoped for from a pitcher they believe will be a frontline starter for years to come. Rodon also was pleased by how he felt before, during and after the contest.

“I was pretty excited,” Rodon said. “I was going a little fast in the first. But it was good to be out there. Next time out, it’ll hopefully be a little better. Arm feels good, body feels good, all you can ask for.”

Well, it’s not ALL you can ask for, but it’s pretty damn good out of the gate given how slow Rodon’s return took. His four-seam fastball averaged 94.9 mph according to BrooksBaseball.Net and touched 97 mph. His two-seamer averaged 94.4 mph and touched 95. And his slider, though he couldn’t control it, nor locate it for a strike, averaged 86 mph.

“You could see (Omar Narvaez) going over to try to catch some balls that were having tremendous run,” Renteria said. “That's (Rodon). He's got some tremendous life, he's just trying to harness it the best that he can and being able to execute where he wants to get as many strikes as possible.”

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The strikes were about the only thing Rodon didn’t bring with him. He walked Gardner to start the game and issued two more free passes after a Tim Anderson error allowed a run to score and extended the first inning. Rodon threw 37 pitches in the first, only 15 for strikes.

He also reached a full count to each of the batters he faced in the second inning. Rodon walked two more with two outs in the third inning after he’d retired six batters in a row.

And there were those pesky first-inning wild pitches that resembled something out of ‘Bull Durham.’

But all in all, Rodon and the White Sox ultimately saw enough in the first outing to be pleased.

“Great stuff, great life, but the goal is to put it in the zone and let them swing it to get guys out early,” Rodon said. “That’s not what happened. I’ll get back to that.”

“It’s a tough loss, but it’s better to be with the guys out on the field grinding than sitting on the couch and watching, for sure.”