Top NBA Draft prospect and recent NCAA National Champion Jahlil Okafor’s life is about to change forever — from life off the court, to the game on the court and beyond. One of the game’s most respected veterans, Steve Nash, sat down with Okafor ahead of this biggest night of his young life — the NBA Draft — for an honest and wide-ranging conversation about what to expect on the road ahead.
Steve Nash: It’s a big week for you. Is it overwhelming? Do you feel calm? Where are you at mentally with Thursday night and the draft?
Jahlil Okafor: I’m ready to get to Thursday night. Just being unsure about where I’m going to live is just something different for me because the whole college recruiting process was just last year for me. I’m excited, I’m nervous, I’m a little scared. Going to the next level has been my dream my entire life, so you’re hoping that you’re good enough, and it’s more exciting than anything.
S: What do you feel anxiety over or nerves about?
J: Just hoping that you’re good enough. My dream my entire life for as long as I can remember has been to go to the NBA, and you hear all these stories about people who are the No. 1 player drafted out of high school and weren’t good enough. And it’s not that I’m not good enough — I can be as successful as I dreamed of.
S: So you feel pressure not to be a bust? Is that what I hear?
J: Yeah, that and I just always wanted to be the best. I just always set my standards to be extremely high, and sometimes I get scared, but for the most part I’ve been successful.
S: How old are you now? 20?
J: I’m 19.
S: 19 … I just retired, and when I came into the league you weren’t even born yet. But the league has changed a lot. I think a lot of guys put their guard up right away, and I know looking back on my career, I built walls all the time, like nothing bothered me. From my perspective, telling you at this stage of your career, it’s OK to have nerves and anxiety, and I think the more you acknowledge them, you can deal with them, and they’ll be out of your way quicker. It really does come down to hard work. How do you approach trying to get yourself to improve every day?
J: Well, since I left college it’s been a little different since my only priority right now is working on my craft. For like a month and a half to two months, I’ve been doing pretty much three workouts a day.
S: That’s great. And what do your three workouts look like?
J: My first workout is usually just a light lift with one of my trainers. Second, I’m just working on explosiveness, becoming a better athlete. Pretty much doing everything I can off the court that will help me on the court. Then my third workout is when I focus on my basketball skills.
S: I think it’s important to establish your standards and demands for yourself. A routine and a philosophy that you’re not leaving anything to chance — and everything is by design. Where is my game? Where is my athleticism? Where is my body injury-wise? What am I good at? What am I not good at? When you look at your career going forward, do you have a vision?
J: I’ve had a vision throughout my high school career. It was to win a state championship. Be a McDonald’s All-American, which I did. Go to college. Win Player of the Year. Win a national championship. Be a No. 1 draft pick (which I realize doesn’t matter now). Rookie of the Year. All-Star. And eventually, win an NBA championship. I have a long way to go as well, but I’ve had this vision for a while.
S: What are your visions or expectations? You’re going to get drafted. You’re going to go to the city. You’re going to do a press conference. You’re going to meet everyone. Then you’re going to get to work. What does that look like?
J: I don’t know what it’s going to be like. I’m just ready to know what city I’m going to and then getting to see my new teammates who — I respect them — are going to be much older than I am. I heard about the rookie treatment. Some of them might be older than my dad.
S: How old’s your dad?
S: Well, I’m older than your dad. From my perspective, I wouldn’t worry about the rookie treatment. The one thing that teammates respect is someone that’s genuine and is able to be themselves and doesn’t walk into a locker room and try and change to fit it. And guys notice when you try and give it everything. They’ll be like, Hey, big fella works. I played with a vet named Joe Klein, and he told me my rookie year, “Rook, always be able to laugh at yourself.” You’ll be fine in this league if you can laugh at yourself. What do you look forward to about playing in the NBA?
J: Well, that being my job. Being paid to play the game that I’ve loved my entire life. I’m just excited about it. I’ve watched so many guys who I’ve admired growing up, and to be able to step on the court and play against them — like Tim Duncan. He’s been my idol for as long as I can remember, for as long as I’ve been alive.
S: That’s a great answer. One, Tim Duncan has been the best role model you could ask for. Unbelievable player. Unbelievable pro, teammate. Great competitor. Champion. But also, the other part of your answer was being able to play against the best. That’s what I miss. At this stage of my life, I don’t want to go play at the park or at the gym. I love the game of basketball. I don’t feel the urge the play pick-up basketball because I just want to be out there with the best. You know, to really challenge yourself every day. You can’t re-create that. I’m glad to hear you say that.
J: You know, I never thought about that, but I’m glad you said that because it got me more excited.
S: Well, that’s kind of the design of this chat. You can put me back to where I was. I remember back on draft night … all my friends came to New York, and we went out every night. And they were as excited as me. You don’t know where your life is headed.
J: Yeah, well I’m from Chicago and I flew some of my guys out and they should be getting here today. We’re all excited we’re going to be hanging out. We’re going to see Lion King on Broadway and a bunch of other things.
S: You should really try to enjoy it and remember it, because it’s only going to happen once. And as you know, very few people get to experience this, and you’re representing your city.
J: That’s pretty much the same for me, especially because I’m from Chicago and it’s a huge basketball environment and we got guys like Derrick Rose, Anthony Davis, Jabari Parker — and there’s all this hype around the city about how many great players have success in the league, so that’s a little bit of added pressure to myself.
S: For sure, that’s a pretty good list.
J: What are you doing right now after you retired? Because we always hear you should have a plan after you play basketball because you still have 30, 40, 50 years of life to live. Are you doing what you thought you would be doing?
S: Not really. But I think the key part of what you’re saying is that you should be cognizant of that it’s going to end one day. Hopefully you’ll play 10-20 years in the league, but whenever it is, it’s going to end one day, and it’s really hard to understand that when you’re your age and in your position. Because you feel like your whole life is ahead of you and you kind of feel like you’re going to do this so long that you won’t even know what it’s like for that to end one day. Save your money. Take care of your body. Always think things through. Make good decisions for the future. You don’t have to know what you want to do, but start learning about different things, whether it’s in the media or coaching. Or going back to school. Or maybe you have an interest in music or fashion or whatever it may be. And you could have another career that’s maybe better than your NBA career because you had the opportunity to.
J: So I’ve heard about your horror stories and things people have messed up with. What is the biggest mistake you think you’ve made?
S: The thing I had the hardest time with was really believing in myself on the court early. So my advice to you would be: When you feel good, go for it. Believe in yourself and try things. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. All of us do. If I could go back, I would’ve believed in myself. I would’ve been less afraid to fail early in my career instead of taking two to three years to get confident. Especially in the fourth quarter. I think for most of my career I was known as a clutch player or a fourth-quarter player, but it took me a while, and it didn’t need to. This is fun for me. I feel a little bit of excitement for the position you’re in, having been through it. You’re a great guy.
J: Thanks a lot. I appreciate you. I’m a big fan.
S: Thank you. Likewise.