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Best Freshman Performances by Duke Big Men

Where does Jahlil Okafor stand when you compare him to the greats?

On offense or defense, Jahlil Okafor has proved a formidable presence in the paint.
On offense or defense, Jahlil Okafor has proved a formidable presence in the paint.
Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports

A good friend made an argument the other day that Jahlil Okafor is the best offensive freshman center in ACC history. Quite a compliment, whether true or not. We'll probably never get to know whether he might be the best sophomore center the league has ever seen, or the best center, period.

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A bit more modest in our speculation, we've focused here only on the best freshman low-post players at Duke since their class became eligible for varsity play in 1972-73.

We won't argue that anyone at Duke, or most anywhere in the ACC, has ever been more agile, smooth, fleet, or offensively polished than the 6-11 Okafor right out of the gate. Perhaps Virginia's Ralph Sampson, a three-time ACC player of the year, came closest as a freshman in 1980, and he wasn't as facile a passer or as imperturbable on the court.

You can throw into the conversation UNC's Sam Perkins, ACC rookie of the year in 1981, or Brad Daugherty in 1983. Joe Smith, not a true center but another ACC rookie of the year, made an impressive debut at Maryland in 1994. So did Elton Brand at Duke in 1998 before he was injured. And don't forget Tim Duncan at Wake Forest in 1994.

That's about the extent of the list of obvious contenders.

Restricting the roster to Duke big men -- either natural centers like Okafor and Brand or focal forwards such as Danny Ferry and Christian Laettner who played nearest the basket -- the candidates again narrow considerably.

Okafor after 13 games has the best scoring average of the group, per game and per minute. He had the second-best field goal accuracy, after Laettner; the worst free throw accuracy; the No. 2 rebound average behind Mike Gminski. He's on pace to be the second-best freshman shotblocker among Duke bigs.

You can argue Okafor is needed first and foremost for his scoring rather than his defense. In that case, or in most any other case other than blocking shots or making free throws, he responded admirably during nonconference competition.

The Chicagoan showed striking improvement in his weakest areas in his ACC debut against Boston College: 14-17 from the foul line with four blocked shots in 30 minutes. His previously unseen accuracy on free throws will give pause to opponents who, like BC, send him to the line rather than allow a good shot.

Okafor also had 28 points and eight rebounds against the Eagles.

Best Freshman Performances by Duke Big Men
(Listed Alphabetically, Okafor Stats Through Jan. 3, 2015)
Player Year Min Per G FG% FT% Reb/Min
Per Reb
Blocks Pts/
Min Per
Carlos Boozer 2000 23.7 .614 .742 6.3/3.8 23 13.0/1.8
Elton Brand* 1998 23.5 .592 .604 6.3/3.2 27 13.4/1.8
Danny Ferry 1986 22.8 .460 .628 5.5/4.1 9 5.9/3.9
Mike Gminski 1977 34.7 .515 .703 10.7/3.3 90 15.3/2.3
Christian Laettner 1989 16.9 .723 .727 4.7/3.6 28 8.9/1.9
Jahlil Okafor 2015 28.8 .682 .573 8.7/3.3 22 19.5/1.5
Shelden Williams 2003 19.2 .516 .625 3.9/3.3 52 8.2/2.3
* Missed 15 games with broken left foot.