Strong bond ties top recruits Tyus Jones, Jahlil Okafor together
NORTH AUGUSTA, S.C. -- Tyus Jones was sitting in a hotel lobby texting away, so he barely looked up from his phone as he slapped five with a buddy who had come over to say hello. The exchange was pleasant enough, but the other fellow felt it was insufficiently enthusiastic.
"That's all the love I get?" Jahlil Okafor asked. Whereupon Jones put down his phone, smiled, stood up, and gave Okafor a proper bro-hug.
This was a reunion not just between good friends, but between two of the consensus top five high school seniors in America. Jones is a 6-foot-2 point guard from Apple Valley, Minn., who was competing with his Howard Pulley squad at the Nike Peach Jam, one of the most prestigious tournaments of college basketball's summer evaluation period. Okafor, a 6-10 power forward from Chicago, was playing for the Mac Irvin Fire. Jones and Okafor live in different states and play different positions, but they are so simpatico that they talk almost every day -- including early this month, when Okafor was in Prague helping Team USA win the gold medal at the FIBA Under 19 World Championships. "My body was messed up with the time change," Okafor says. "I'd be up at 4 a.m., so I called him because I knew it was daytime where he was."
Given how seamlessly these two congenial teenagers interact in a hotel lobby, it's not hard to imagine them making a similarly simpatico pair on the basketball court. Jones is a smooth, pass-first point guard; Okafor is a fundamentally sound, seal-and-pivot post player. Both play with a cerebral efficiency and evince a team-first ethos. Most important, they like and trust each other, which has been evident whenever they have played on the same team. "I'm a point guard that loves picking apart the game from a mental standpoint," Jones says. "He knows how to seal his man, he knows how to get in the right spot, he knows how to roll. That just makes it a lot easier to get him the ball."
"When he says something on the court, I trust him," Okafor says. "He always puts me in a great situation, so it's easy to follow his lead."
Not surprisingly, there are many top college coaches in America who have no trouble imagining Jones and Okafor playing together. While it is not unusual for coaches to try to recruit clusters of high quality players, what makes this tandem different is their commitment to attending the same college. For more than two years, Jones and Okafor have made clear their intentions to be what is commonly referred to as a "package deal." They want to go to the same college -- for a year, at least -- and see if they can get to a Final Four. Their desire to play together is not a Miami Heat-style marketing ploy. Rather, it stems from a deep and abiding friendship that sprung from the hardwood. Call it "Love and Basketball," bro-mance style.
This appears to be a recruitment without precedent. Elite prospects often talk about wanting to play together, but in the past they have always hedged their bets, and they often wind up at different schools. Players of recent vintage who stuck to the plan have been either teammates in high school or AAU ball, or actual brothers like the Collins twins (Jason and Jarron, who went to Stanford); the Lopez twins (Robin and Brook, who also went to Stanford); and the Harrison twins (Aaron and Andrew, who will be freshmen at Kentucky next season). "I can't think of another example of two players of this stature doing this," says recruiting analyst Bob Gibbons, who has published his All-Star Sports Report since 1977. "They're from different states. One's a point guard, one's a center, they're arguably the two best players in the country. I believe they're going to go through with it. Why else would they make that statement?"
Indeed, the question of whether Jones and Okafor are actually going to seal this package has burned up the summer recruiting circuit. The two of them are asked the question several times each day. While they are realistic enough to acknowledge that there are no certainties in life, their commitment to each other has never wavered. If anything, it is strengthening by the day. "There's always a chance that it won't work out, but we feel like it's going to happen," Okafor says. Adds Jones, "We look for the same things, the same coaching styles and philosophies. We both like the same type of stuff. That's why we figure we want to go on this journey together and try to make something special happen in college."
The tightness of their bond off the court is what makes this scenario so conceivable. Jones and Okafor first started to click while participating at USA Basketball's Developmental mini-camp in October 2010, the summer before their freshman years of high school. As they got to know each other, they figured out that they had actually met once before, when they were elementary school kids playing in an AAU tournament in Orlando. "He was staring at me in the bathroom," Okafor recalls with a chuckle. Jones does not deny it. "He was, like, 6-feet tall in the third grade," he says. "We had already started a friendship and a bond at the tryouts, so it was kind of ironic that we remembered that."
A few months later, Okafor and Jones ran into each other at a mall in Los Angeles during a tournament, and they learned that they had both been invited to try out for Team USA's Under 16 national team the following spring. When they both made the squad that competed at the FIBA Americas championships in Mexico, they realized just how alike they were outside of basketball. "We weren't roommates, but we hung out the whole time in each other's rooms," Okafor says. "Both of our families are very strict. We both have small circles and we enjoy the same things. We don't like going out and being in crowds. We just had a lot in common."
One day during that trip, all the players on the team started playfully suggesting that they should go to college together. The rest of the guys let it drop, but Okafor and Jones kept talking. "The more we talked about it, the more serious we got," Jones says. "We thought about the opportunities we could have at the next level. Since then, that's what we decided we're going to do."
Their friendship continued to develop through daily phone calls, texting and Facebook messages. Last summer, Jones and Okafor teamed up again to help the U.S. win a gold medal FIBA Under 17 World Championship in Lithuania. Their closeness with their families is the strongest tie that binds them. For Okafor, that perspective was shaped by tragedy. When he was nine years old, he was at home with his mother in Arkansas when she was overcome by a fatal attack of bronchitis. Several months later, Okafor and his sister moved in with their father in Chicago, but it took many years for him to move on. "For a while I blamed myself for it, because I watched it happen," he says. "My family was basically telling me it was God's plan and there was nothing I could have done. It's definitely a lot better now than when I was at an earlier age."
Jones is just as tight with his family, so much so that when his grandfather was diagnosed with cancer in June, he decided to stay home and be with him instead of trying to play for the U.S. at the Under 19 Championships. (Jones says his grandfather is doing better now and is out of the hospital.) That meant Okafor had to play without him -- and he played superbly. Okafor was the only high school player on the team, yet despite ranking ninth in average minutes, he was the Americans' second-leading scorer (10.8 ppg) and third-leading rebounder (4.8) while shooting a team-best 77.2 percent from the floor. One coach involved in Okafor's recruitment called him "the best big man in the world who's not in the NBA. The thing that's great about him is that he knows who he is. He likes to be physical."
Jones, meanwhile, has such an innate feel for the point guard position that he has elicited frequent comparisons to Chris Paul. Listening to the two of them banter and tease each other, it's hard to tell whether they are close buddies or an old married couple. "He's like the little brother 'cause he's always trying to mess with me, but when I get serious he stops," Jones says. Okafor counters that "I'm the big brother that bullies the little brother." The chippiness really comes out whenever Howard Pulley and the Mac Irvin Fire square off. When the teams played each other in a tournament in Dallas last spring, Jones and Okafor jabbered so much that the referee, who was unaware of their relationship, told them to knock it off. So who is the better trash talker? "I don't know," Jones says. "We're both kinda weak."
Earlier this spring, Jones and Okafor hosted the exact same five schools for in-home visits -- Baylor, Duke, Kansas, Michigan State and Ohio State. They have taken an unofficial visit to Duke together, and they are both scheduled to go to Baylor on the same weekend in late August. Though Jones and Okafor will not necessarily take all five of their allowed official on-campus visits together, they will act as each other's eyes and ears. "You know if you visit one, he's going to call the other and tell him about it," says another coach involved in their recruitment.
Lately, some other top players have hinted that they'd like to be a part of this package. "I get texts all the time. Guys are like, 'Can you tell his coach to hit me up so I can go to school with you guys?' " Okafor says. Most recently, Justise Winslow, a 6-6 forward from Houston who is ranked No. 16 in the Class of 2014 by Rivals.com, has said he wants to make this duo a trio. Jones and Okafor say they would like to play with Winslow or other top players, but they are not ready to make the same type of commitment. "We would like [Winslow] to go to school with us, but it's so hard to find three different families and have all the situations add up," Okafor says.
There is much speculation on the recruiting trail that other schools will try to break Jones and Okafor apart in an effort to get into the mix. The players insist that's not likely, but they are equally insistent that even if they did go their separate ways, it would not change the dynamics of their relationship. Besides, at least one if not both will probably have the option of turning pro after one year of college, and they will almost certainly have to play for different teams in the NBA. That's why to call this a "package deal" is to undersell what's inside. There's a lot more love in there than basketball. "It's a brotherhood," Jones says. "That's really the cool thing about it. The way I look at it is, regardless of what happens, I got a best friend out of basketball."