Jahlil Okafor (15) and Frank Kaminsky (44) battled for Duke and Wisconsin respectively in the 2015 NCAA championship game, but their NBA careers haven’t gone as expected. David J. Phillip AP
Jahlil Okafor (15) and Frank Kaminsky (44) battled for Duke and Wisconsin respectively in the 2015 NCAA championship game, but their NBA careers haven’t gone as expected. David J. Phillip AP

Charlotte Hornets

Where are the stars of 2015 NCAA title game? Not where you might have expected.

March 08, 2018 11:18 PM

For a couple of minutes, the two men talked.

Soon the music would blare and the arena lights would dim and they, as they did three years ago, would have to go their separate ways. Fine. So be it. For now though, they could chat. Laugh. Reminisce, more than anything.

About three years ago, Frank Kaminsky and Jahlil Okafor met on a very different basketball court under very different circumstances. Rather than a half-enthused, half-empty crowd at the Spectrum Center, their first meeting was in front of a packed Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. Dozens of stories were written about that game, the 2015 NCAA championship matchup between Okafor’s Duke Blue Devils and Kaminsky’s Wisconsin Badgers.

If they’re lucky, a half dozen will be written about Thursday’s contest.

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But no matter. Times change. Just in this case, in more unexpected ways than either player could have imagined.

Three years ago, these two were college basketball. Kaminsky was named the National Player of the Year – unanimously. His Badgers knocked off then-undefeated Kentucky in the Final Four to deter any team from reaching 40-0.

Okafor wasn’t far off. He led a heralded freshman class at Duke – along with Justice Winslow, Tyus Jones, and current Blue Devils star Grayson Allen – that epitomized the one-and-done era. He collected awards as readily as rebounds: ACC Player of the Year, National Freshman of the Year, First-Team All-American.

That they met in the championship game was what college basketball fans deserved.

There, Okafor’s Blue Devils got the better of Kaminsky’s individual excellence. The stretch forward from Wisconsin finished with 21 points and 12 rebounds, but Duke eventually won 68-63.

After the season, as the two did talk shows and interviews together, they developed a friendship that has endured.

“We got close, were working out together, going Jet-Skiing – things like that,” Okafor said. “He’s one of my good friends.”

Jahlil Okafor, left, and Frank Kaminsky, right, have battled before on the NBA level, but Thursday Okafor, a former No. 3 draft selection, didn’t play a single minute.
Chuck Burton AP

They would go No. 3 and No. 9 in that summer’s NBA draft, Okafor first to Philadelphia and Kaminsky later to Charlotte. Okafor was billed as a can’t-miss, NBA-ready big man even before he ever set foot in Durham. Kaminsky’s standout senior season caused his stock to skyrocket, and the Hornets drafted him for his work ethic and floor-stretching potential.

Now three years later, it is fair to ask: how did each of those selections turn out?

Not nearly how anyone might have expected.

First Kaminsky. The 7-foot, 242-pounder has developed into the stretch forward the Hornets anticipated. He averages 11 points and 3.5 rebounds off the bench for a 28-38 Charlotte team, after Thursday’s 125-111 loss to Brooklyn (although he missed all five of his shots and didn’t score in 22 minutes against the Nets). He remains an important component of Charlotte’s second unit.

“He has (been good), but I think he has a lot more,” Okafor said. “He’s going to have an amazing career. He’s done an amazing job with his body, and that’s something I’m really happy to see. The transformation he’s made with his body is inspiring.

“He’ll continue to improve and do great things.”

Then there’s Okafor.

The 7-foot-1, 275-pound center, living up to his billing as NBA-ready, started 48 games his rookie season. He averaged 17.5 points and 7 rebounds per game for a Philadelphia team desperately needing any identity it could find.

And then... well, then purgatory.

Okafor’s old-school, back-to-the-basket style of play didn’t suit the modern NBA. He couldn’t shoot 3s. He couldn’t defend on the perimeter. He couldn’t run the floor like the ultra-athletic centers of the future.

That made him obsolete. The 76ers parked Okafor on their bench and threw away the key. The next two seasons, his minutes dropped from 30 to 20 to 12 a game. His points, rebounds, everything followed suit.

He played two games this season. Twenty-five minutes. Ten points.

That college production was gone.

“Yeah,” Kaminsky said when asked if he was suprised at how Okafor’s NBA career has begun. “Just how well he played his rookie year and then the whole situation with Philly. And then where he is now, it’s obviously been frustrating for him. You can just tell. But he’s got good spirits about it, and he knows that when his time does come, he’ll be ready for it.”

Brooklyn traded for Okafor at the February trade deadline, but he hasn’t played much more in New York. Thursday was another DNP, coach’s decision. His attitude and effort are still there. So too is the talent.

Just not any playing time.

Before Thursday’s game, the two met at midcourt to take photos with a young fan. Then they hugged, bro-style, patting each other’s backs. They moved off to the side of the court and out of the way of pregame workouts.

What did they have to say to one another?

Just normal things. They talked video games, specifically the new online game, Fortnite (Okafor just won his first solo game, so Kaminsky – the superior gamer of the two – congratulated him and gave him some pointers).

But there was more than that, too. There was positivity. Encouragement – the things you do for friends.

“It’s obviously been frustrating for him so far, but once he finds that right place, I’m sure he’ll really take off,” Kaminsky said. “I want the best for him. You just want to see your friends, and people you’ve gotten to know pretty well, succeed.”

Brendan Marks: 704-358-5889, @brendanrmarks