They have roots in the same state and played against some of the same teams – though never against each other until earlier this season – but Jahlil Okafor and Frank Kaminsky, separated by three years and an unquantifiable amount of hype, took vastly different roads to the national championship game.
First, though, the similarities between Okafor, the Duke freshman, and Kaminsky, the Wisconsin senior. They’re similar in that they’re two of the best post players in the country and because they’re the face of teams that will meet Monday night for the title.
They’re similar because both are considered favorites to win the various national player of the year honors. And because they’re both tall – 7-foot, in Kaminsky’s case, and 6-foot-11 in Okafor’s. They’re similar because they’re the centerpieces, literally and figuratively, of their team’s offense.
Yet that might be where the comparisons end between Okafor and Kaminsky, who are coming together in the most intriguing big man championship battle in recent memory.
Okafor arrived on campus as one of the most heralded prospects in his class – a can’t-miss star who’d stay for a year and become a top pick in the NBA draft. He’s on schedule for that.
Kaminsky, meanwhile, arrived on campus as more of a project than a prospect. Few major-conference programs were interested in him, and he averaged 1.8 points during his freshman season and 4.2 as a sophomore.
“And I read something last night, I think he maybe started like two games his first two years,” said Duke assistant coach Jeff Capel. “Two or three games his first two years. And all of a sudden he’s the national player of the year.”
Capel became a Duke assistant in the spring of 2011, when Kaminsky was a senior at Benet Academy in Lisle, Ill. In the months before that Capel had been the head coach at Oklahoma. In all his years of recruiting and traveling to watch high school prospects, he said Sunday he’d never seen Kaminsky.
“I never saw him as a high school prospect,” Capel said. “So I don’t remember Kaminsky until last year.”
Last year, his junior year, Kaminsky established himself as one of the best players in the Big Ten. After he led Wisconsin to the 2014 Final Four, where it lost in a national semifinal against Kentucky – the team it beat Saturday to reach the championship game – he could have elected to leave school.
Instead he did a rare thing: He came back.
Okafor, who is from Chicago, has vague recollections of watching Kaminsky when he was in high school when Kaminsky’s Benet Academy team played against Simeon Career Academy. That’s where Jabari Parker played before spending his lone college season at Duke.
What made more of an impression on Okafor, though, is that Kaminsky turned down the chance to play in the NBA. The assumption is that Okafor will depart after one season. Kamsinky will have spent four seasons at Wisconsin before moving on.
“What he’s done for college basketball is amazing,” Okafor said Sunday. “For him to give up going to the NBA, which he could have easily done last year, and to come back for his senior year, that was really selfless on his part.
“And it’s paid off for him. He’s in the national championship game, so that’s pretty cool.”
Kaminsky never came close to winding up on Duke’s recruiting radar. His other scholarship offers included ones from Southern Illinois and Northern Illinois and Bradley and DePaul. Northwestern recruited him, but outside of it and Wisconsin, major conference schools mostly stayed away.
Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan and members of his staff, though, saw something they liked. Kaminsky’s height was one thing. His passing ability was another.
“His ball skills for his size looked pretty good,” Ryan said. “I like that in a big man. And he loved playing the game. It seemed like it mattered to him whether or not he won a game or lost a game. In some people, when you watch them play, you just never get that sense.”
Even so, it took a while. In today’s age of college basketball, when teams often change identities year to year, when the most talented freshmen so often leave after so little time on campus, Kaminsky’s development resembles a story from a different era.
“You see so many guys right now that if it’s not working for them, they leave,” Capel said. “They transfer. Very few guys want to stick it out. And fight, and go through the process what used to be kind of the norm. Every one now wants it to happen so fast.”
For Kaminsky it took years. While he slowly progressed in his first two years at Wisconsin, Okafor developed into the best high school prospect in his class. His recruitment was the opposite of what Kaminsky experienced.
It was publicized and scrutinized and followed nationally. His commitment to Duke, which he made along with point guard Tyus Jones made national news in college basketball.
Okafor’s success has surprised nobody. He was supposed to be among the best players in the country from the moment he arrived in college, and he has been.
Kaminsky’s journey has been different. Duke senior point guard Quinn Cook also graduated in 2011. Cook, who said Sunday that he’s “a big fan of basketball” who can recite where high school players wind up in college, said he had heard of Kaminsky, and he knew he’d gone to Wisconsin.
“And I can admit that I didn’t think he was going to be as good as he is now,” Cook said. “And it’s a tribute to him, and how hard he works. And hard work can pay off.
“I think he averaged one point as a freshman – one-point something? And to fast forward three years later and be national player of the year says a lot about him.”
It says something about Ryan, too. He saw something in Kaminsky that others didn’t.
He saw a player who, despite his size, could step out on the perimeter and make a 3-pointer. And one capable of penetrating a defense from the wing.
“A special player,” Okafor said, describing Kaminsky.
Their journeys to this point have been as different as their playing styles. Kaminsky is something of a hybrid between a shooting guard and a traditional center. Once, in high school, he ran his team’s offense as the point guard.
Then there’s Okafor, whose skill set is more traditional for a player of his size and stature.
“I’m more comfortable in the post,” he said.
In the first game between these teams, an 80-70 Duke victory at Wisconsin on Dec. 3, Okafor finished with 13 points and six rebounds, while Kaminsky finished with 17 points and nine rebounds.
Kaminsky guarded Okafor and Okafor did his best to stick with Kaminsky. Wisconsin often made that difficult.
“The way their offense is set up,” Okafor said, “they’re constantly screening for each other and you always get mixed up in a mismatch.”
Okafor and Kaminsky both spent some time Sunday praising each other. They received question after question about what it would be like to face the other – about the contrasts between them, and the similarities.
Okafor arrived in college surrounded by hype and expectations. This was among his goals, to play for a national championship. Kaminsky arrived at Wisconsin with something to prove. Now their roads intersect.
“It should be interesting for purists of the game to watch two bigs like that go against one another,” Ryan said.
Moments earlier, Kaminsky sat to his right and said, “To be the best, you’ve got to beat the best.”
He was talking about Okafor, in the same way that Okafor could have been talking about him.
Ready for Round 2
Frank Kaminsky outscored Jahlil Okafor 17-13 in their first meeting, an 80-70 Duke win at Wisconsin in early December. Here’s how they stack up:
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