At some point, the comparison becomes inevitable. While the country watches Jared Sullinger transform into a national player of the year candidate, on the grassroots front we get to watch his successor. Jahlil Okafor (Chicago, Ill./Whitney Young) is a 6-10, 270 pound beast in the paint and would pass for Sullinger's brother. Okafor has the baby face and like Jared, he’s trimmed up the baby fat. Sullinger's a sophomore in college but Okafor is merely a sophomore in high school.
So that brings me to the crux of my comparison and the real question: is Okafor the next Sullinger or at least a close approximation of him?
My answer at this time is yes.
Sullinger, as a sophomore in high school, was a better rebounder than Okafor and Jahlil’s a good one. However, Sullinger was elite. Guys peeled off him when he went up for boards. He’s wider than Okafor and believe me, he wasn’t afraid to use it. I can never recall a rebound eluding his grasp once he got his paws on it. Okafor did show signs of becoming more comfortable rebounding outside his area, however, this is an area where Sullinger has the clear advantage.
Okafor evens the score with Sullinger in the athleticism department, plus he’s taller. He’s also more apt to dunk with guys around him (at the same stage). Neither one of these guys are great athletes but the slimmer Okafor moves better. Whereas Sullinger was powerful and moved well, Okafor isn’t as big and has the feel of a guy who will be the better athlete. He may be closer to Carlos Boozer than Sullinger in this area.
And now for the similarities. When it comes to touch, Sullinger would get the slight advantage but both big men are superior in terms of their touch and finishing ability. Neither is a great shot-blocker and Sullinger may have longer arms, but Okafor seems more inclined to be a factor on the defensive side. Either way, it’s close. As a passer, Sullinger evolved. Okafor sees the floor, hits cutters and doesn’t flinch if he can’t score in the paint.
However, the big reason why Okafor isn’t Sullinger yet: winning mentality.
In high school, AAU and now in college, Sullinger is the definition of a good, old-fashioned American winning machine. He cultivated a reputation for finding the winner's circle. Granted, he always had talent around him but when it came to playing for championships he rarely disappointed. Whether it was a camp or team setting, he found the winner’s circle and that’s where Okafor has work to do. He’s in position to win, and win big, in high school and AAU but until he carves out enough wins, Sullinger will always get the nod in that category.
“Sully” was also one of a kind with his personality. His father once wore a lime green shirt on TV for an ESPN game and he passed on the gift of gab to his son. Whether he’s singing on YouTube or cracking jokes with his guys, Sullinger has the kind of personality where instead of high-fiving him you’d rather bear hug the big fella. Okafor is becoming comfortable in crowds. A well-spoken, intelligent big man, he can hold his own with the media and a dozen microphones in his face.
Overall, Okafor has big shoes to fill but so far he’s lived up to the advanced billing. Along the way, he’s going to receive guidance from one of his good friends: Jared Sullinger. “He calls me his little brother,” Okafor said.
The apprentice saw something this month that he wants to take from Sullinger and put in his game. “His leadership is something I want to take from him. When he was hurt the way he was with his teammates, I want to be like that.”
The Ohio State Buckeyes want Okafor, but so does Illinois, Arizona, North Carolina, Duke, Michigan State, DePaul, Marquette and NC State. However, Sullinger isn't persuading Okafor to pick the Buckeyes.
“We rarely talk about basketball but he does tell me how much he likes it," Okafor said.