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Player of the Week

Jahill Okafor, Duke

Jahlil OkaforJahlil OkaforGenerally, I'll make it a point to keep things fresh in this blog. To that end, I may sometimes use the Player of the Week award to highlight somebody that hasn't necessarily been the top statistical performer; perhaps someone that led his team to an important victory, or even a steady role-player. This week is not one of those weeks. Jahill Okafor has forced himself into a second Player of the Week award. He's been absolutely dominant in Duke's two games this past week, averaging 25.5 points on 82.1% shooting and 8.0 rebounds. Though Toledo and Wofford aren't the toughest competition, Okafor's improvement compared to earlier in the season is apparent. The touch and skill-level have always been present; what's changed is his aggressiveness. He seems to be making decisions faster, as he'll promptly pass out of the post if there's not an easy scoring opportunity, but make a quick move to the basket if he has position. This added aggressiveness has manifested itself into more free-throws (3.1 FTA through his first eight games, 8.3 FTA over his last four), which is a welcome improvement (particularly to NBA scouts) in spite of Okafor's less-than stellar ability to make them (50%). Whether this development was comfort/experience related or a strategic counter to how teams have been attempting to defend him, it's producing results. Okafor is now leading all ACC players in points per game, averaging 18.8 on the season, and he's doing it as a freshman. If he keeps adding to his game (maybe we'll see him start running the fast break more?), you can expect to be reading even more about him.

Hot

Rakeem Christmas, Syracuse

Speaking of retreads, Rakeem Christmas followed his holiday hotness by playing even more hot. I featured him here last week, noting his super consistency and dramatic improvements from a season ago. He followed that distinction by averaging 21.5 points (73.9% shooting), 9.5 rebounds, and 2.0 blocks in Syracuse's two victories this week. While those numbers are exceptional, the figures that really stand out when considered together are the 35.5 minutes and 1.0 fouls per game averages. Christmas is top five in the ACC in points (17.3), rebounds (8.8), blocks (2.2), and field goal percentage (63.2%), and is considered one of the top big men in the conference; but he's been incredibly foul-prone this season. He's had at least four fouls in seven of his 13 games this season, and both games he's fouled out of have resulted in losses for the Orange. That's why the team has to be thrilled that Christmas played 37 minutes against Long Beach State and committed no fouls. It's the first time since March 21st, 2013 that Rakeem has managed to play in a game without picking up a foul, and the first time in his career that's he's played at least 20 minutes without picking up a foul. Obviously conference play is going to be physical, but even if Christmas has only acquired the discipline to stay on the floor a few minutes longer, it's wonderful news for Syracuse.

Jaron Blossomgame, Clemson

Jaron Blossomgame's game has really started to *cough* develop. The sophomore forward is leading the Tigers in both points (13.7) and rebounds (8.6) per game, and recently took the Oakland Golden Grizzlies for a career-high 26 points on 8/10 shooting. A season ago, Blossomgame was primarily a role-player, averaging just 4.9 points and 5.0 rebounds, but provided the team's starting unit with energy and athleticism. Jaron's development into more of a scorer was one of necessity, as Clemson needed somebody to replace the departed production of KJ McDaniels. Blossomgame does most of his work around the rim. He puts himself in the paint with aggressive slashing and is capable of finishing over defenses with his length and leaping ability. He's subsequently draws a lot of contact; shooting an average of 5.7 free-throws per game. His perimeter shooting ability has improved from a year ago, though his 23.1% three-point shooting certainly leaves something to be desired. While Blossomgame has NBA tools, he fits the tweener mold to a tee. He lacks the size and strength to play in the post at the next level, but lacks the kind of perimeter skills that he'd need to play on the wing. Fortunately, he's got plenty time to develop further. If he can do that, and stay healthy, he should get some attention from NBA teams.

Cold

Chris Jones, Louisville

Non-conference play was not terribly kind to Chris Jones. Though wasn't known for being a very efficient scorer coming into the season, he's only managed to shoot a paltry 30.8% from the floor through Louisville's first 13 games. The senior has clearly been struggling all season long, and it was brought to something of a climax this past week in Louisville's defeat against Kentucky. Jones put up 15 shot attempts and only made three of them. That single shooting performance could have been overlooked, as the Wildcats have a suffocating defense which held the Cardinals to 25.9% shooting, but Jones shouldered a lot of heat following the game from coach Rick Pitino and fans alike. The senior point guard only dished out one assist (granted, it was the only assist the team had in the game), and was criticized for not looking to get the ball to Montrezl Harrell enough. He also flopped at one point in the game, hitting the deck hard and acting as though he took an elbow to the face. Replays showed that there was no contact on the play, and Pitino was furious that he would not only flop, but continue to act as if he was in pain after the no-call. In Louisville's following game against Long Beach State, Jones was removed from the starting lineup and scored no points in nine minutes. Yeah, tough week for the kid. He's still an excellent defender, and can provide value to the team. I expect to see him back in the starting lineup when the Cardinals begin conference play on Sunday against Wake Forest.

Top 5 NBA Prospects in the ACC (Midseason Rankings)

1. Jahill Okafor, Duke - If there's a favorite to be selected at the top of the 2015 draft, it's this guy. I've said it before, but his combination of size; skill; and basketball IQ gives him elite prospect status. One can argue that his rebounding (8.8 RPG) and shot-blocking (1.5 BPG) abilities are a bit underwhelming for someone with his size, but there's little doubt that he's going to be a major scoring threat in the post at the next level.

2. Justise Winslow, Duke - Coming into the season, the primary knock on Winslow was his lack of perimeter shooting ability. He's answered this concern by shooting 38.5% from outside on 3.3 attempts per game this season. Provided these numbers don't fall off a cliff, I can't imagine he doesn't land in the lottery come draft night. How often do teams get the chance to add a player that can defend, pass, shoot, and slash? Winning does wonders for the draft stock of "team players", so if Duke can make some noise in the postseason, it will help Winslow all the more.

3. Montrezl Harrell, Louisville - People will question whether or not Harrell has the profile of an NBA starter until his mid-range jumper becomes a consistent weapon. How close teams think he is to getting there will likely determine his draft position. He's been spotty from mid-range this season, but has shown improvement from a year ago. Fortunately, I imagine he'll get plenty of chances to show this off during predraft workouts. Like Winslow, a strong run with his team in the postseason would only help his stock.

4. Chris McCullough, Syracuse - McCullough is one of the most exciting prospects in the ACC. He's a tremendous athlete, with excellent length, and a lot of potential. However, as I noted last week, his scoring production has completely fallen off as of late. He's still stuffing stat-sheets with rebounds (7.5 per game); assists (1.3 per); blocks (2.2 per); and steals (1.9 per), so he's remained helpful as far as the Orange are concerned. His draft stock, however, is likely to slip out of 2015 lottery discussions if he doesn't start picking things up soon.

5. Terry Rozier, Louisville - Rozier stands 6'2", which would be great size for a point guard, but there's some debate about whether or not he'll be able to carry out that role effectively. Though he's been playing off the ball most of the season (he did start at the point against Long Beach State), teams may still be concerned that he currently averages more turnovers (2.3) than assists (2.2). Of course, he's already an excellent scorer, rebounder, and defender. All of that combined with his physical tools may be enough to get him in the lottery regardless in spite of his A/TO ratio.

Notes: Coach K's win total is now at 995. Assuming the Blue Devils continue to dominate, he'll get a chance at win 1,000 at Louisville on January 17th... Aaron Thomas has reportedly signed with an agent, and will consequently not be allowed to return to Florida State... Anthony Gill had himself a career night in a Virginia victory against Davidson, putting up career-highs of 25 points and 13 rebounds... Among ACC teams, only Duke and Virginia remain undefeated heading into conference play... Happy New Year, everyone!...

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