Pact between Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones withstood many obstacles

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As they celebrated demolishing Argentina by 40 points to win the FIBA U-16 Americas tournament four years ago, the stars of a talent-laden U.S. team also felt a twinge of sadness at having played their last game together.

They joked about how much fun it would be to enroll en masse at the same prep school the following year and steamroll every opponent who dared schedule them.

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For a speedy pass-first point guard from Minnesota and a powerful 6-foot-10 center from Chicago, the idea of sticking together was more serious than for the rest of their peers. Tyus Jones and Jahlil Okafor came home from that trip convinced teaming up would be their best chance to win a championship in college because of how well they had worked with one another during practices and games and how quickly they had bonded off the floor.

"It started off with basketball, with us wanting to win a national title," Okafor said. "He's a point guard, I'm a big man and we complemented each other really well when we were on the same team in practice. Then we also got extremely close off the floor and he became like my brother. I've always said if you take basketball out of the equation, I'd still want to go to college with Tyus."

In an era when package deals in recruiting often prove too complicated to execute and almost always result in a messy breakup, the Okafor-Jones partnership is an exception to that rule. They grew to be best friends during the recruiting process, they jointly committed to Duke in Nov. 2013 and they've thrived alongside each other as freshmen, leading the Blue Devils to a 29-4 record and a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

One big reason the arrangement between Okafor and Jones did not crumble the way so many others have is how mutually beneficial the pairing was to both of them. Whereas other package deals have featured players whose redundant skills made them destined to cannibalize one another's playing time or scoring chances, Jones' knack for feeding the post and Okafor's willingness to pass out of a double team enable them to create shots for each other.

The tight-knit friendship between Okafor and Jones was also key.

Jahlil Okafor (15) reacts to a defensive play by guard Tyus Jones (5) against NC State. (Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports)
Jahlil Okafor (15) reacts to a defensive play by guard Tyus Jones (5) against NC State. (Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports)

Even though they lived more than 400 miles apart and often went weeks without spending time together in person, the two highly touted prospects spoke as often as friends who live next door to one another. They updated each other via call or text after conversations with college coaches and were conscientious enough to remove a school from consideration if its style of play, roster makeup or coaching staff was a better fit for one of them than the other.

The mutual trust between Okafor and Jones also extended to their families, who already knew one another well from spending many an afternoon together in the stands during AAU events or USA Basketball tournaments. Tyus' mother Debbie Jones and Jahlil's father Chukwudi Okafor felt comfortable having both families make joint visits to schools and chatted frequently to keep one another in the loop.

"Constant communication was the biggest thing," Debbie Jones said. "It involved a lot of conference calls with me and Chukwudi, me Chukwudi, Tyus and Jahlil and then even my sister and Jahlil's aunt. We had lots and lots of discussions about the whole process and what we were looking for. We just made it work."

If the past decade of recruiting coverage has taught us anything, it's that a successful package deal isn't nearly as easy Okafor and Jones made it look. For every success story like Greg Oden and Mike Conley (Ohio State) or Marcus Smart and Phil Forte (Oklahoma State) there are numerous others that have fallen apart when the two prospects couldn't agree on a school.

McDonald's All-American Avery Bradley confirmed in spring 2008 that he and best friend and high school teammate Abdul Gaddy were a package deal, gushing to the Tacoma News Tribune, "We're perfect together." Within six months, Bradley had signed with Texas and Gaddy was headed to Washington.

Class of 2013 standouts Cat Barber and Troy Williams discussed jointly selecting the same school for months until one landed at NC State and the other at Indiana. Mississippi native Malik Newman and Wisconsin native Diamond Stone publicly proclaimed they were "100 percent" a package going into last summer, but by mid-July the two elite class of 2015 prospects acknowledged they were parting ways.

"Every year we hear about guys that want to be package deals, and more often than not it never works out," Rivals.com recruiting analyst Eric Bossi said. "Until they start happening with regularity, I'm of the opinion that you kind of need to prove to me that it's going to happen before I believe it. By and large, when discussing package deals, I take them with a huge grain of salt."

The checkered history of package deals is a huge reason many were skeptical of Okafor and Jones when they first publicly revealed their plans to attend college together. What the naysayers may not have realized, however, is the two top prospects had known each other since third grade when their AAU teams faced off at a tournament in Orlando.

Tyus Jones attempts a shot over Jahlil Okafor during an AAU game when both were in third grade (via Debbie Jones)
Tyus Jones attempts a shot over Jahlil Okafor during an AAU game when both were in third grade (via Debbie Jones)

They first made eye contact in the bathroom before the game when Okafor caught Jones staring at him. Okafor was already 5-foot-9 and towered over other players his age.

"The first thing I thought when I saw him was, 'How is he the same age I am?'" Jones recalled. "He was extremely big and he grabbed all the rebounds."

The relationship between Okafor and Jones blossomed into a friendship when they were together at grassroots tournaments and as USA Basketball teammates. They bonded over their common experiences in basketball, similar family values and fierce competitiveness.

Any chance he gets, Okafor is quick to bring up his 3-1 record head-to-head against Jones in AAU competition. One of those matchups featured so much trash talk between the two future Duke teammates that the referee actually briefly stopped the game.

"The referee told us to calm down," Okafor said, laughing. "He didn't realize we were real-life brothers off the floor. He wanted us to have better sportsmanship, so we had to tell him we were good."

When Okafor and Jones revealed they intended to jointly select a college, it was a discouraging development for schools who either had a closer relationship with one than the other or only had a starting job available for one. Duke assistant coach Jeff Capel believes that led some of his competitors to go to great lengths to try to break up the package deal.

"People tried to divide them," Capel said. "I'd read these stories that they're not as close as you think, and I'd be talking to them on group chat and they'd be laughing at it. They would make fun of the stuff that's out there."

The Duke coaching staff was initially skeptical the Okafor-Jones package deal would ever come to fruition, but the more Capel got to know the two players and their families, the more clear it became to him the arrangement was legit. As a result, he formulated a plan for the unusual recruitment, communicating with Okafor and Jones via group text, inviting them to visit campus together but also pursuing them as individuals too.

With Jones, Capel pointed out Duke hadn't offered a scholarship to any other class of 2014 point guards and emphasized that he was a top priority whether Okafor came too or not. With Okafor, Capel was proactive in addressing Duke's reputation for running a guard-oriented offense that seldom prioritized playing through the low post.

"One of the scare tactics other programs use against us for bigs is they'll tell them, 'All you're going to do is screen and rebound,'" Capel said. "We knew Jah was hearing that, so we tried to combat it early. We told him, 'This is what you're going to hear. When we've had guys like you, we threw the ball to Mason Plumlee when he was a senior. When Elton Brand was here, he got the ball. The offense ran through him.' I think we got through to him and I also don't think it hurt us that we had Tyus helping us, talking in his ear."

Tyus Jones and Jahlil Okafor dressed as Run DMC for Halloween (via Okafor's instagram)
Tyus Jones and Jahlil Okafor dressed as Run DMC for Halloween (via Okafor's instagram)

Capel felt good about Duke's chances of landing Jones from the end of his sophomore year until he committed. Okafor was more coy but he too eventually favored Duke over fellow suitors Kansas, Baylor and Kentucky.

"We fell in love with Duke when we first came on campus," Okafor said. "It fit both of us and it fit both of our families, so we felt very comfortable."

The inspiration for Okafor and Jones since they arrived at Duke has been to try to win a championship together, the same goal that motivated them years ago to make plans to attend the same college and to try to buck the star-crossed history of package deals.

Okafor has met sky-high expectations as a freshman, solidifying himself as a contender to be national player of the year and the No. 1 pick in this year's NBA draft by averaging 17.7 points and 9.0 rebounds despite frequent double teams. Jones has shown poise, leadership and a knack for big-game heroics while tallying 11.6 points and 5.8 assists per game.

Their chemistry on the floor is remarkable for two guys who really only played together sporadically prior to arriving at Duke, but their bond off the floor is even stronger. They live together. They have their own handshakes. They even both dressed as rappers from Run DMC for Halloween.

At a postgame dinner with their families a few weeks ago, someone passed around a photo of Jones attempting a floater over a towering Okafor from the AAU game in Orlando the day they first met. To everyone at the table, the photo was a symbol of how far Okafor and Jones had come since that time.

First opponents. Then teammates. Then friends. Now brothers.

"We're really one big family now," Jones said. "That's what we've come to be the last few years. His dad is just another dad to me and my mom is just another mom to him. That's how close we really are."

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Jeff Eisenberg is the editor of The Dagger on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at daggerblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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