DePaul offers 8th-grader scholarship

Updated: February 15, 2010, 3:13 PM ET
By Scott Powers | ESPNChicago.com

DePaul's future is uncertain.

[+] EnlargeTracy Webster
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesTracy Webster offered a scholarship to eighth-grader Jahlil Okafor after the Blue Demons' narrow home loss to Syracuse on Jan. 30.

Tracy Webster could shed the "interim" label and be promoted to full-time head coach, or he could be replaced. Oregon State's Craig Robinson has been mentioned as a possible replacement, as have a number of former DePaul players, including Tyrone Corbin and Rod Strickland. Just recently, former DePaul great Mark Aguirre and former UCLA coach Steve Lavin expressed interest in the position.

While the Blue Demons' administration won't make that decision until after the season, the program continues to chug along. There are still Big East games to be played, and there are spots to be filled in future recruiting classes. Although Webster may have an interim title, he and his staff continue to recruit as if they expect to be at DePaul for years to come.

"The recruiting business still has to get done," DePaul athletics director Jean Lenti Ponsetto said Thursday. "When you're in Tracy's situation, it's Tracy's opportunity to prove at this point he can do this job. He gets the advantage that he gets to serve as the interim coach. Part of the job is to coach the team, but to recruit as well."

For DePaul to continue to recruit with an interim coach isn't out of the ordinary, according to ESPN national director of basketball recruiting Paul Biancardi.

"I think it's very ambitious and hard-working to be recruiting," Biancardi said. "I think you have to recruit as an interim coach as if you're the full-time head coach."

What Biancardi doesn't agree with is Webster's recent offer of a scholarship to an eighth-grader.

Twelve-year-old Jahlil Okafor stood shoulder to shoulder with his 6-foot-5 father, Chuck Okafor, when they were measured on Thanksgiving in 2008.

Time has passed, and while Chuck has been done growing for years, his son continues to sprout. Today, son towers over father. Jahlil stands 6-7½, and there's potential for him to grow to 7-3, according to his doctor.

Jahlil turned 14 on Dec. 15, and he is already impossible to miss among his eighth-grade peers at Rosemont Elementary School District 78. But put him on a basketball court, and the separation is even greater. Like his distant cousin, NBA center Emeka Okafor, Jahlil has no trouble dominating inside, grabbing rebounds easily and throwing down dunks.

[+] EnlargeJean Lenti Ponsetto
Amy Sussman/Getty ImagesDePaul athletics director Jean Lenti Ponsetto said she hopes the Blue Demons' current staff will be kept on regardless of who is the head coach.

As Rising Stars AAU coach Mike Weinstein recently said, "He's a for-sure no-brainer."

Webster saw the same potential, and he offered Jahlil a scholarship to play for the Blue Demons in 2014. The offer came after DePaul's narrow home loss to Syracuse on Jan. 30. According to Chuck, Webster said to him and his son, "We'd really love for Jahlil to play for us."

Chuck didn't take it seriously until ChicagoHoops.com reported Wednesday that DePaul had made Jahlil an official offer. After reading the story, Chuck called Webster, who confirmed the offer.

On Thursday, Ponsetto confirmed it to ESPNChicago.com.

"This is a young guy we've been talking with for a long time, and who has been to games and we have a relationship with because his uncle works for the Rosemont Police Department," Ponsetto said. "I think it's a prospect who has grown up around DePaul basketball. I think he's probably a fan and someone who has been a fan for some time, since we have played in Rosemont for the last 30 years."

Chuck was taken aback by it all.

"He's so young," Chuck said with a laugh. "We've seen a couple games, but a formal offer? That's crazy. I'm still stung. Man, it's great to have someone recognize you at that early of an age. Man, it's shocking. I think it's something we can use as motivation."

More and more schools have turned to making kids early offers. Illinois coach Bruce Weber turned around his recruiting by going after younger players. Waukegan senior Jereme Richmond, who was named a McDonald's All-American on Thursday, committed as a freshman.

Still, Biancardi doesn't agree with it.

"For anyone to offer an eighth-grader in this day and age is dangerous," Biancardi said. "There are so many things that can go wrong.

"It shows a great work ethic, and it's great to identify young players, but in the reality of it all, to offer anybody as an eighth-grader or even a freshman is far-fetched right now. There are so many changes in today's day and age in the market of coaches. You don't know who will be where. You also don't know how that person will develop or they'll still want to go to DePaul in the future."

Regardless of who is DePaul's head coach next season, Ponsetto hopes the entire staff, which includes Billy Garrett, David Booth and Tom Kleinschmidt, is kept on board.

"I think it's reasonable to expect anyone who walks in to keep the staff intact from a continuity standpoint -- from a recruiting perspective, and the relationships they have with the current student-athletes and the incoming ones," she said. "You see it more and more when you see coaching-staff changes. All of our coaches have connections to Chicago and DePaul."

It doesn't appear that Jahlil will be Webster's first commitment. Chuck was flattered by Webster's offer, but he didn't foresee Jahlil's making a decision anytime soon. First things first: Jahlil has to pass eighth grade and choose a high school. Chuck said he and his son were moving to Chicago soon and were leaning toward Jahlil attending Whitney Young.

"I wouldn't commit myself to anything right now," Chuck said. "It would be stupid. It's good for his confidence, but we're not going to think about it too much."

Scott Powers covers high school and college sports for ESPNChicago.com and can be reached at spowers@espnchicago.com.

Scott Powers is a general reporter for ESPNChicago.com. He is an award-winning journalist and has been reporting on preps, colleges and pros for publications throughout the Midwest since 1997.

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