Jahlil Okafor Hoping For Second USA Basketball Selection
Whether he makes the 2012 USA Basketball Men's U17 World Championship Team or not, Jahlil Okafor (Whitney Young H.S./Chicago, Ill.) already has improved his basketball skills this week during training camp at the U.S. Olympic Training Center (USOTC) in Colorado Springs, Colo. As if two sessions each day for the past five days weren't enough to wear you out, Colorado Springs sits at 6,035 feet above sea level, and the players feel the effects of "thinner" air.
"One thing I learned already is just to fight through being tired," Jahlil said of training camp. "They keep telling us, 'don't let tired be the seperator,' so that's one aspect of my game I think I've improved."
Training camp began on June 15 with 28 players competing for 12 roster spots. Fourteen finalists were named to the team on June 17, and the official roster is expected to be announced later today.
"It's still competitive because they are still making cuts, and there are a lot of players at my position, so it's very comptitive and you have to fight," Okafor said of practice. "It just makes you keep playing hard, so I think it's good for everybody. You can't let up because they are still making selections."
Like many of the 14 finalists, Okafor is participating in his fourth USA Basketball training camp, so he knew what to expect regarding the altitude and the competition.
"I was in pretty good shape," Okafor said of his condition coming into training camp. "I knew the altitude was going to get me either way, so I was prepared to fight through it."
The 14 finalists are some of the most talented players in the entire country in their age group, and they at least have basketball in common.
"It's kind of hard not to enjoy yourself," Okafor said of his current USA Basketball experience. "You try and tell yourself it's about business and making the team, but with everybody around you, so close to everybody, it's hard not to have fun."
After training camp in June of 2011, Okafor was named to the 2011 USA Basketball Men's U16 National Team that helped the USA qualify for the 2012 FIBA U17 World Championship with a 5-0 record and gold medal performance at the 2011 FIBA Americas U16 Championship in Cancun, Mexico. Okafor started in all five games for the USA and averaged 14.6 points and 9.2 rebounds per game, which ranked eighth and third, respectively, among all tournament participants in the eight-team tournament. He also shot a tourney second-best 71.1 percent from the field. When you ask Okafor about his trip to Mexico, however, it's the fun he had with his teammates he says that stuck with him.
"It was a lot of fun," Okafor said of the 2011 FIBA Americas U16 Championship. "Of course when we were on the court, we competed, but off the court was the best part -- hanging around with your teammates in the hotel, just laughing and having a good time."
Very few basketball players get the chance to play for USA Basketball, but it just so happens that one of Okafor's Whitney Young High School classmates, Linnae Harper, played for the 2011 USA Basketball Women's U16 National Team, and she will once again represent the USA in the 2012 FIBA U17 World Championship for Women later this summer.
"We talk about it," Okafor said of his shared USA Basketball experience with Harper. "We were friends before, but I think we probably did get closer after playing for USA Basketball. We both had a great experience that most other players don't have."
While Harper has made the final 12-member roster for the USA Basketball Women's U17 World Championship Team, Okafor hasn't yet. He does, however, have a focus during training camp.
"I need to just keep being dominant in the post and try to get more offensive rebounds, and I think I could be ok," Okafor said of the upcoming team selection.
"Usually I'm representing Chicago or the state of Illinois, but when you are playing for your country, you're representing all 50 states, and it's just an amazing feeling."
In addition to representing his country, competing for a gold medal and the possible payoff of standing atop the podium at a World Championship, there is another reason Okafor hopes to make the team, and it's a personal one.
"I know I would be a much better player," Okafor said. "I remember last year, after I got back home, I was a much better player. So, I just know if I was fortunate enough to go to Lithuania, it would be a really great opportunity for me."