Hours before the Miami Heat took on the New Orleans Pelicans, two former teammates prepared on opposite ends of the court.
On the Pelicans side, center Jahlil Okafor, in his first season with New Orleans, worked his way around the perimeter in a series of drills, knocking down jumper after jumper. A slimmer Okafor worked up a sweat during his pregame routine of jump shots, short hooks and turnaround jumpers.
On the other end, Heat forward Justise Winslow worked on floaters around the basket and perfected his triple threat, with a pair of wireless headphones draped over his dreadlocks, a different hairstyle from the one he sported at Duke three seasons ago.
Ninety minutes before tip-off, Okafor and Winslow, the pillars of the Blue Devils’ last title team in 2015, went about their business like they didn’t even know each other, locked into their respective routines.
Okafor, the No. 3 pick of the 2015 NBA Draft, now with his third team, finished his workout first, then found a seat in the stands at American Airlines Arena, about eight rows behind the Pelicans bench. About 10 minutes later, Winslow, the No. 10 pick in 2015, made his way over to Okafor, sans headphones, and the Duke reunion was on, if only for a few minutes before the former teammates went to battle.
A happier Jahlil
Since they entered the NBA, Winslow and Okafor’s careers have taken different paths, perhaps unexpected ones. Okafor was the star of that 2015 team, with Winslow and fellow freshman Tyus Jones also in starting roles, but not the focal point like Okafor.
Okafor was a top three pick, but things didn’t work out in Philadelphia - injuries and a suspension after a fight with a fan outside a nightclub in Boston - over shadowed his time in the city of Brotherly Love and he was traded to the Brooklyn Nets in December2017.
Last August, Okafor signed as an unrestricted free agent with New Orleans, but has appeared in only 11 games this season. Against the Heat, Okafor was done after his pregame warm up, logging a DNP, while Winslow registered 23 minutes and 10 points in Miami’s 106-101 victory.
“Yeah, he’s had his ups and downs, but he’s just happy that a team has embraced him and he has embraced them back,” Winslow said about his former running buddy after the victory. “Everything that we’ve talked about, he loves New Orleans, you know he’s a big guy and he likes to eat, and he talks about the food and how it taste good, and it’s tempting sometimes with his diet.”
Okafor has dropped nearly 20 pounds since entering the NBA. And even though he doesn’t play as much as Winslow, the Heat swing man said Okafor has a positive mindset that has rubbed off.
“He’s in a much tougher situation not playing consistent minutes and I might get down about shots or whatever, but I’m playing consistently,” Winslow said. “Just talking to him and him helping me put things in perspective has been helpful.”
The 2014-15 Blue Devils
Duke’s 2014 signing class featured Okafor, the top recruit in the country, and Jones in a packaged deal since the duo had been friends since early in their prep careers. The first of the group to commit, Grayson Allen, turned out to be the last to leave Durham. Winslow was the final player of the class to verbally commit to the Blue Devils and all four participated in the McDonald’s All-American game that spring, with Okafor taking home MVP honors, while Allen won the dunk contest.
Hours before the Heat and Pelicans game, Allen and the Utah Jazz landed in Miami, preparing for a game against Miami the following night. Winslow said he had already reached out to Allen, now a rookie with Utah.
According to Winslow, the 2015 team doesn’t have a group text chat anymore, but they are in constant communication with one another.
“I hit up Tyus, Quinn (Cook), Amile (Jefferson),” Winslow said. “It’s definitely a brotherhood and a family.”
Jones, the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four in 2015, was selected with the 24th pick of the 2015 draft and is a backup point-guard for his hometown Minnesota Timberwolves.
Cook, after bouncing around the NBA and several G-League teams, has found a home in Golden State, winning a title last year with the Warriors. Jefferson is on a two-way deal with the Orlando Magic.
From city to city it’s hard to keep in touch as often as they like, but Winslow said they make it work.
“Weekly. My guys, I pretty much talk to them weekly,” Winslow said. “With all the new apps and stuff out it’s pretty easy, you just comment or you say something and a conversation starts. Between social media and how much we travel and play other Duke guys, pretty weekly I talk to the Duke family.”
The 2018 Class
This summer Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski welcomed one of his most anticipated freshmen classes to Durham.
Number one recruiting classes are nothing new to Coach K, but this one featured the top three players in the nation - R.J. Barrett, Zion Williamson, Cam Reddish - and Tre Jones, the younger brother of Tyus. Fayetteville’s Joey Baker reclassified, giving the Blue Devils five super freshmen, raising expectations that rivaled any class that’s ever stepped foot on campus, even Winslow’s 2015 class.
With another Jones and and three players who are expected to move onto the league - Reddish, Williamson, Barrett - after one season, the comparisons to the 2015 group are hard to ignore.
“They definitely deserve it,” Winslow said when asked about the comparison between the 2015 group and this current one. “The one thing I see with that group is they play for each other and I think that goes a long way. With the guys, the freshmen, you can just see the passion that they play the game with and the unselfishness. Those guys are confident in themselves.”
The current group faced unreal expectations after their season-opening 118-84 blowout win over Kentucky. Some talking heads said this group could win an NBA game, or perhaps defeat the first ‘Fab Five,’ Michigan’s famous group from the early 90s, what Winslow called the “incomparable comparisons.”
There are realistic ways to compare the current group and title group of 2015.
Though eight games, Duke is 7-1. Through eight games in the 2014-15 season, Winslow and company were a perfect 8-0, jumping out to a 14-0 start, not losing their first game until a January setback at N.C. State.
After the Kentucky win last month, speculation began that Williamson and Barrett could lead this year’s Blue Deils to an undefeated season. But that was off the table after an 89-87 loss to Gonzaga in the Maui Invitational finals.
Winslow said the “barbershop debates” are fun and there is no real way to compare his Duke team to the current one.
But it still happens.
“Whether it’s fair or not it’s going to happen and it’s going to continue to happen for them,” Winslow said. “They are going to get compared to everybody past, present, future, but they deserve it.”