Tuesday , March 18, 2014 - 1:46 PM
Even when more than 1,000 miles from home and sharing a court with the top high school players in the nation, it doesn't take long to realize Jabari Parker and Jahlil Okafor could be the future stars of USA Basketball.
With a towering 6-foot-9 frame and hands so consuming they could likely palm a watermelon, Okafor - a cousin of NBA forward Emeka Okafor - has the touch around the rim to take advantage of his dominating physical presence. Parker, the 2012 Gatorade National Player of the Year and the unanimous class of 2013's No. 1 recruit, possesses the rare ball skills and pure jumper that leaves college and NBA coaches drooling.
But they share more in common than a hometown (Chicago) and their elite status on the recruiting circuit. Playing together as early as middle school and starring at the FIBA U16 Championships last summer, Parker's and Okafor's bond extends beyond the hardwood.
"He's one of my best friends, my big brother," said Okafor, the third-best recruit in the class of 2014, according to Rivals.com. "We're always together, we're both on the same AAU team so we play against each other every day in practice and we're always hanging off the court together."
Though there are 31 players trying out at Colorado Springs' Olympic Training Center for a team that will be trimmed to no more than 14 players, the Windy City duo have all but locked up a spot.
"He's a very well-defined player skill-wise, I think he's going to get a lot better," coach Don Showalter, who guided the 2010 U17 national squad to the gold in 2010, said of Parker. "I think another two or three years, he's going to be a much different player than he is right now."
That's a scary thought for international opponents. The 17-year-old, 6-8 guard-forward posted 15.4 points per game for the U16 squad on his way to earning USA Basketball Male Athlete of the Year honors.
But Okafor, a year younger than his teammate, is not far behind. Slamming down a thunderous one-handed dunk when he found an open lane and kissing a back-to-the-basket floater off the glass for a game-clinching basket against Parker's team in a scrimmage Saturday, the center may be Showalter's go-to big man.
Team USA is the overwhelming favorite to capture its second U17 World Championship title in two tries, and Showalter says success hinges on players taking advantage of their athleticism and versatility. It's a role Parker has no problem assuming when he pulls on a No. 52 jersey with "USA" scrolled across the front.
"You have to adjust to everything that comes your way," he said. "As a basketball player, I'm comfortable enough to change up my game in order for the team to win."
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