Around this time last year, Jahlil Okafor had just led Duke to the national championship and was on the verge of being selected with the No. 3 overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft. He would go on to join the Philadelphia 76ers, emerging as a potential franchise cornerstone and then becoming the team’s go-to option on offense once the 2015-16 NBA season started.
These days, Okafor has seen his name surface in trade rumors, he’s been on the receiving end of criticism, he’s rehabbing his right knee after undergoing surgery for a small meniscus tear and Philadelphia’s 10-72 record makes this by far the least successful basketball season of his life.
The 20-year-old has certainly seen better days.
However, Okafor had an effective rookie campaign despite Philadelphia’s struggles. He averaged 17.5 points, seven rebounds, 1.2 blocks and 1.2 assists (while shooting 50.8 percent from the field). These are very similar to his college numbers – 17.3 points, 8.5 rebounds, 1.4 blocks and 1.3 assists (while shooting 66.4 percent from the field) – which were often praised. And it’s important to remember that Okafor was largely drafted so high because of his potential, which remains largely untapped given his age and development.
Still, Okafor ranked second among all rookies in points per game, third among rookies in rebounds per game and fourth among rookies in blocks per game. It’s also worth noting that Okafor was playing some of his best basketball right before his injury, averaging 20.3 points per game on 63.4 percent from the field in the six games after the All-Star break.
He made the All-Rookie First Team and showed glimpses of brilliance throughout the season, reminding everyone why he was the top high school recruit in the nation just two years back and a top-three pick 12 months ago.
“I think I learned a ton – about myself, about the NBA and just how everything works,” Okafor told Basketball Insiders. “I think I continue to learn every day, but I definitely learned a lot throughout this year.
“Now, I’m just focused on rehabbing. I had the surgery on my knee about 12 weeks ago and the physicians have basically just told me take my time and take it slow. My knee feels really good, but the people in my circle and the Sixers are just trying to make sure that I don’t try to rush back. I’m confident though because my knee feels good.”
Without question, dealing with the 72 losses was the hardest part of this season for Okafor. He had 18 times as many losses during his rookie campaign as he did during his lone collegiate season at Duke, so it was certainly an adjustment for him.
“I think anybody who is a top pick knows they’re going to go to a losing team; the reason any team gets a top pick is because they didn’t do so well the year before,” Okafor said. “So when I got picked up by the Sixers, I talked to Coach K (Mike Krzyzewski) about what I should expect so it wasn’t anything I was shocked about. Of course I thought we’d do better than we did, but I wasn’t expecting to make the playoffs or anything like that.”
Losing 72 games is obviously hard for any competitor, but even more so for someone who hasn’t really lost much throughout their life. That describes Okafor, and the people who are close to the big man said that he had to learn how to deal with that level of failure since the scoreboard had typically been his friend prior to being drafted.
“He’s been a winner his entire life,” Duke assistant coach Jon Scheyer said. “In third grade, he won the AAU national championship; his AAU teams were always one of the best. In high school, he won a state championship. In college, he goes 35-4 and was the leading scorer on our national championship team as a freshman. He has three gold medals. He’s a guy who isn’t used to losing. And, obviously, losing isn’t fun. So he had to deal with losing more games this year than he had lost in his entire life. A lot of players don’t go through that to that magnitude. I thought he did a good job of staying positive and controlling what he could control.”
“He’s won at every level, whether it’s high school or AAU or college or USA Basketball, so I think it was a different year for him,” said close friend (and former Duke teammate) Quinn Cook, who said he speaks to Okafor daily. “But he’s always positive. He’s a people person, who was always with his teammates; he has a great relationship with his teammates there in Philadelphia. And I know his mindset was on winning. It wasn’t about scoring or making himself look good, he was always most concerned about winning. Whenever they would get a win, he’d be extremely happy. Then, if they would lose, he’d try to remain positive and look for bright spots.”
There were times when Okafor let his frustration get the best of him, such as when he was involved in an altercation with a heckler (which resulted in a two-game suspension levied by the Sixers).
Two silver linings that Okafor tried to focus on throughout the tough season were the supportive fans and the fact that he was getting the opportunity to develop his game by playing big minutes.
“Being with the Sixers is special because there’s such a passionate fan base here,” Okafor said. “That was a big positive for me this year, and it motivated me because I want to do well for the city. It’s great to walk around Philly and see that everyone is so passionate. They really want me to do well, and that means a lot. On top of that, with us being so young, I was able to play a lot of minutes and develop a lot of different things. Some rookies don’t get the opportunity that I got on the floor. Those were the biggest positives for me.”
Another positive Okafor pointed out was the fact that the team became a close-knit group. As Cook mentioned, Okafor was constantly around his teammates and enjoyed their company off the court. Okafor felt that the team progressively jelled as the season moved on too.
“I think [our chemistry] got better every day,” Okafor said. “Obviously we had some bad games, but we also had some really good games. We’re all really good friends off of the floor, so that makes it easier when you’re trying to figure things out on the floor. Ish Smith came in December and it was great to jell with him. He’s a very good point guard and it was a lot of fun when he joined the team.
“Everyone was close though. It was a fun season. Yes, we were losing, but we’re a bunch of young guys who are living our dream so we still had fun.”
Not so fun was the slew of criticism that Okafor faced throughout the year. Some understandably stemmed from his off-court actions and he certainly can’t let hecklers or instigators get under his skin and give them the reaction they so desperately want. Even though Okafor turned only 20 years old in December, he is the face of a franchise and must carry himself that way. With that said, a lot of the criticism seemed to be in reaction to the Sixers’ record (which doesn’t fall solely on Okafor, by any means) or based on how his fellow rookies were performing. But those kind of doubters come with being an up-and-coming player in the NBA, which is something he is learning.
“As I’m watching these playoffs, I’m just realizing that winning cures everything,” Okafor said. “Obviously, we lost a lot, so with that being said, I’m going to be criticized a lot. But, look, I watched Golden State lose a few games and I saw some fans and reporters criticizing Steph Curry. LeBron James loses and then he gets criticized a lot. When you lose, you get criticized. And I’m obviously nowhere near as good as those guys, so I wouldn’t expect any less criticism for me.”
Cook heard the criticism of his friend, and was perhaps even more annoyed by it than Okafor.
“It bothers me,” Cook said. “I know he sees what people are saying about him and he knows what’s going on, but he’s always positive. He doesn’t let those things affect him. He’s just staying positive and being a professional about everything.”
Okafor finished fifth in Rookie of the Year voting behind Karl-Anthony Towns (who received every first-place vote), Kristaps Porzingis, Nikola Jokic and Devin Booker. While some players may have taken this as a slight and used it as motivation, Okafor said that he doesn’t need any extra fuel for his fire and actually said he sees where the panel was coming from with their votes.
“I understood it. We were losing a lot and I didn’t play the last 23 games, so it was understandable,” Okafor said of the Rookie of the Year voting. “I was fortunate to make the All-Rookie First Team, so that was good for me and for Philadelphia. I know people in the city were excited. I’ve always been someone who is self-motivated though [so I don’t need to use that]. Of course there’s been some people who want to doubt and criticize me. Either way, I’m just going to work hard every day and get better.”
The first thing that the aforementioned critics typically bring up about Okafor is his defense. For some time, that has been the knock on Jahlil’s game and understandably so since it’s his biggest weakness. He has always been a terrific offensive player who is skilled beyond his years when it comes to post moves and footwork, but he didn’t defend at a high level. At Duke, the coaching staff had him carry so much of the offensive load that he wasn’t asked to do very much on the other end (to conserve his energy), so they built a strong defense around him.
Now, he is being asked to do much more defensively and must step up to the challenge. He knows this, but also believes he made strides on the defensive end throughout his rookie campaign.
“I think I’ve learned a lot; I’m getting used to defending NBA big men,” Okafor said. “I’m getting used to defending the pick-and-roll when you’re playing against a really good point guard and a really good big man. The coaches have told me that they’re happy with the way that I’m developing and I am as well.”
Many high-level players entered the league as sub-par defenders and later significantly improved once they put in the time and effort (and took advantage of NBA resources), and Okafor has the potential to do the same.
Okafor said that the toughest players to match-up against throughout his first NBA season were Pau Gasol (who was one of his favorite players growing up), DeMarcus Cousins, Andre Drummond and DeAndre Jordan. Scheyer, who watched Okafor closely throughout the season, noticed significant defensive progress from his former player.
“He’s such a gifted scorer naturally, but I thought he made great strides on the defensive end,” Coach Scheyer said. “I saw consistent effort on that end, and that’s something that people tried to pick on about him. I thought defensively he improved throughout the year, with his ball-screen defense, help-side defense and all that. … He loves the work. He wants to develop, and he loves the game so he’s always trying to get better. He’s constantly doing what’s necessary to take that next step in his game.”
Cook saw significant development from Okafor over the last year as well.
“He looked very athletic to me this year,” Cook said. “People don’t give him credit for his athleticism, but I thought he was in great shape – especially for a 19-year-old who’s the face of the franchise and playing an NBA schedule for the first time. He handled that very well. His free throw shooting got way better too. I think he was able to show his outside touch a little bit more as well. I think at Duke, he didn’t really get the chance to show his elbow moves or mid-range jumper because it was just so easy for him to score backing down at the basket. I think he showed some more of those things this year. Most importantly, I think he showed he can carry a franchise.”
Cook is right about Okafor showing his elbow moves. In fact, Okafor finished the season ranked fifth among players averaging 30 or more minutes in points per game from the elbows – trailing only Anthony Davis, Marc Gasol, Blake Griffin and Chris Bosh. He also had the seventh-best point percentage from the elbows among qualified players – behind only Darren Collison, Andrew Wiggins, Kevin Durant, J.R. Smith, Jae Crowder and Serge Ibaka. It’s clear that Okafor’s offensive arsenal, which already included a vast array of post moves, is continuing to expand.
Sometimes, it can be difficult for rookies to earn the respect of NBA veterans, but Okafor’s ability to score the basketball warranted double teams and made life hard for opposing players.
“I only played him once, but he is always in attack mode,” Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert said of Okafor. “Even if you block him twice, you know he is coming back at you.”
“Offensively, I just thought he kept getting better and better,” Coach Scheyer added. “He had games where he was very efficient, even though he was being double-teamed as a rookie. The double-teams say a lot about how talented he is as an offensive player.”
Next year, it may be tougher for defenders to double-team him since the team will add reinforcements in the coming months. New general manager Bryan Colangelo is hoping to accelerate the rebuilding process, which means the Sixers could be active in free agency. Philly also used the No. 1 overall pick in the draft on Ben Simmons, and seems poised to get recent lottery picks Joel Embiid and Dario Saric on the floor for the first time.
As far as Embiid’s progress goes, Okafor believes he’ll be ready to play next year.
“He looks hungry and motivated,” Okafor said of Embiid. “He’s obviously been criticized for some stuff that happened to him that he can’t control. I don’t like the criticism. But I see that he’s working extremely hard and, as far as I can tell, he’s ready to play next season.”
Which brings us to the trade rumors that have been making headlines. Because the Sixers have so much talent in their frontcourt and numerous holes elsewhere, trade speculation has been rampant.
Rumors have indicated that the Sixers have explored trading Okafor, with the Boston Celtics often being mentioned as a possible suitor. The two teams reportedly discussed a potential Okafor deal at the deadline and talks could resurface at some point this summer, especially since Boston has so many attractive assets that could entice the Sixers. Nerlens Noel has also been mentioned as a possible trade chip – perhaps because the two big men haven’t played very well when they’ve shared the court. Colangelo recently admitted that trade talks with other teams have taken place and that the centers have been discussed.
“I would just simply tell you that there’s been conversations and there’s been a lot of interest expressed in some of the players that we have, but nothing that’s made enough sense to pull the trigger on,” Colangelo told NBA.com. “We’ve talked about the five position in particular.”
When asked about the trade rumors, Okafor stated that he can’t tune them out completely. In this day and age, information spreads quickly and it’s very hard to ignore these things.
“Well, of course you hear it,” Okafor said of trade rumors. “You hear it because of people texting you and asking you and all of that stuff. There were trade rumors involving me throughout the season. Then, at the All-Star break, there were some more trade rumors. So I talked to my head coach, Brett Brown, and he just told me that as long as I’m in the NBA, that’s going to be part of my life. I try to block it out, but being an NBA player, it’s just something you have to deal with.”
Okafor spent this past season learning what it’s like to be an NBA player, experiencing both the good and the bad. His rookie season wasn’t always easy or enjoyable, but there were plenty of lessons to take away from the campaign, which should help Okafor and the Sixers in the long run.
Middleton, Bucks Aiming To ‘Lock In’ As Season Comes To Close
Spencer Davies catches up with Milwaukee Bucks swingman Khris Middleton in a Basketball Insiders exclusive.
Basketball Insiders had the chance to chat with Khris Middleton about the direction of the Milwaukee Bucks as the season comes to a close.
You guys won three out of four before you came into Cleveland. What was working during that stretch?
Just being us. Doing it with our defense, playing fast-paced offense. Just trying to keep teams off the three-point line. We haven’t done that. We didn’t do that [Monday] or two games ago, but it’s something we’ve just gotta get back to.
With the offense—it seems like it’s inconsistent. What do you think that’s got to do with mostly?
Just trying to do it by ourselves sometimes. Standing, keeping the ball on one side of the floor. We’re a better team when we play in a fast pace. And then also in the half court, when we move the ball from side-to-side it just opens the paint for everybody and there’s a lot more space.
For you, on both ends you’ve been ultra-aggressive here in the last couple weeks or so, does that have to do with you feeling better or is it just a mindset?
I’ve been healthy all year. Right now, it’s the end of the season. Gotta make a push. Everybody’s gotta lock in. Have to be confident, have to be aggressive. Have to do my job and that’s to shoot the ball well and to defend.
Have you changed anything with your jumper? Looking at the past couple months back-to-back, your perimeter shooting was below 32 percent. In March it’s above 45 percent.
I feel like I got a lot of great looks earlier this year. They just weren’t falling. Right now, they’re falling for me, so I have the same mindset that I had when I was missing and that’s to keep on shooting. At some point, they’re gonna go down for me.
Is knowing that every game at this point means more an extra motivator for you guys?
Definitely. We’re basically in the playoffs right now. We’re in a playoff series right now where we have to win games, we have to close out games, in order to get the seeding and to stay in the playoffs. Each game and each possession means something to us right now.
Is it disappointing to be in the position the team is in right now, or are you looking at it as, ‘If we get there, we’re going to be alright’?
I mean, we wish we were in a better position. But where we’re at right now, we’re fine with it. We want to make that last push to get higher in the seeding.
Lots of changes have gone on here. Eric Bledsoe came in two weeks into the season. You had the coaching change and lineup changes. Jabari Parker’s been getting situated before the postseason. How difficult does that make it for you guys to build consistency?
Yeah, it was tough at first. But I think early on we had to adjust on the fly. We didn’t have too many practices. There was a stretch where we were able to get in the film room, get on the court, and practice with each other more.
Now it’s just at a point where we’re adding a lot of new guys off the bench where we have to do the same things—learn on the fly, watch film. We’re not on the court as much now, but we just have to do a great job of buying in to our system, try to get to know each other.
Does this team feel like it has unfinished business based on what happened last year?
Definitely. Last year, we felt like we let one go. Toronto’s a great team. They’re having a hell of a season this year, but I feel like we let one go. This year’s a new year—a little add of extra motivation. We’ve been in the playoff position before, so hopefully, we learn from it when we go into it this year.
Would you welcome that rematch?
I mean, we welcome anybody man. We showed that we compete with any team out here. We can’t worry about other teams as much. We just have to be focused on us.
What has to happen for you guys to achieve your full potential?
Lock in. Just play as hard as we can, play unselfish, and do our job out there night-in, night-out.
NBA Daily: Raptors Look To Fine-Tune The Defense
The Toronto Raptors’ defense had a letdown against the Cavaliers, but has been outstanding overall.
The Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors engaged in an offensive shootout on Wednesday that could be a playoff preview. The Cavs protected home court with a single-possession, 132-129 victory. Afterward, the Raptors spoke about the types of defensive adjustments the team needs to make as the postseason rapidly approaches.
“That’s how a playoff game would be,” said DeMar DeRozan, who missed a three at the buzzer that could have forced overtime. “This is a team we’ve been playing against the last two years in the postseason. Understanding how we can tighten up things defensively, how to make things tougher for them [is key].
“[It’s] little small things that go a long way, and not just with them … with every team.”
Raptors coach Dwane Casey concurred with DeRozan that fine-tuning of the defense is needed. He also pointed out that, with young contributors such as center Jakob Poeltl and power forward Pascal Siakam on the roster, defensive experience against the league’s best player, LeBron James, is something they will have to gain on the fly.
“I don’t think Jakob Poeltl played against him that much, and Siakam,” said Casey. “This is their first time seeing it. I thought Jak and Pascal did an excellent job, but there are certain situations where they’ve got to read and understand what the other team is trying to do to them.”
Poeltl was outstanding, leading the bench with 17 points and tying for the team lead in rebounds with eight. Casey praised the diversity of his contributions.
“I thought he did an excellent job of rolling, finishing, finding people,” said Casey. “I thought defensively, he did a good job of protecting the paint, going vertical. So I liked what he was giving us, especially his defense against Kevin Love.”
Basketball Insiders previously noted how the Raptors have performed vastly better as a team this season when starting point guard Kyle Lowry is out of the game. Much of that is due to Fred VanVleet’s emergence as one of the NBA’s best reserve point guards. VanVleet scored 16 points with five assists and no turnovers against Cleveland. It’s also a reflection of how good Toronto’s perimeter defense has been up and down the roster.
According to ESPN’s defensive Real Plus-Minus statistic, three of the NBA’s top 15 defensive point guards play for the Raptors. VanVleet ranks seventh while Lowry is 12th and Delon Wright is 14th. Starting small forward OG Anunoby ranks 16th at his position.
The Raptors also rank in the top five in offensive efficiency (third) and defensive efficiency (fifth). Having established an identity as a defensive team, especially on the perimeter, it’s perhaps understandable that Lowry was the one player in the visiting locker room who took the sub-standard defensive showing personally.
“It was a disgraceful display of defense by us and we’ve got to be better than that,” said Lowry. “We’ve got to be more physical. They picked us apart and made a lot of threes. We’ve got to find a way to be a better defensive team.”
Lowry continued the theme of fine-tuning as the regular season winds down.
“I think we’ve just got to make adjustments on the fly as a team,” said Lowry. “We can score with the best of them, but they outscored us tonight. We got what we wanted offensively. We’re one of the top teams in scoring in the league, but we’re also a good defensive team.”
Lowry was clearly bothered by Toronto’s defensive showing, but Casey downplayed the importance of a single regular-season game.
“We’ve got to take these games and learn from them, and again learn from the situations where we have to be disciplined,” said Casey. “It’s not a huge thing. It’s situations where we are that we’ve got to learn from and be disciplined and not maybe take this step and over-help here. Because a team like that and a passer like James will make you pay.”
While the Raptors continue to gain experience and dial in the fine defensive details, Casey was insistent that his players should not hang their heads over falling short against Cleveland.
“Hopefully our guys understand that we’re right there,” said Casey.
The Raptors host the Brooklyn Nets tonight to open a three-game home stand that includes visits from the Clippers Sunday and the Nuggets Tuesday. After that, Toronto visits the Celtics March 31 followed by a return to Cleveland April 3 and a home game against Boston the next night. With three games in a row against the other two top-three teams in the East, the schedule presents plenty of opportunities for the Raptors to add defensive polish before the playoffs begin.
NBA Daily: Jaylen Brown Set To Return For Celtics
The Celtics finally got some good news on Thursday. Jaylen Brown’s return is imminent.
Finally, some good news for the Boston Celtics.
Jaylen Brown is set to return to action.
Brown has been M.I.A. since sustaining a concussion during the team’s 117-109 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves back on March 8, but has traveled with the team to Portland and is expecting to return to the lineup on Sunday when the Celtics do battle with the Sacramento Kings.
As the Celts gear up for a playoff run, which they hope will result in them ending LeBron James’ reign atop the Eastern Conference, they’ve picked the wrong time to run into injury issues. Along with Brown, both Kyrie Irving and Marcus Smart have each been conspicuous by their absences, and the team could certainly use all of their pieces as they attempt to enter the postseason on a high note.
Fortunately for Boston, with the Toronto Raptors leading them by 4.5 games in the standings and the Celts ahead of the Cleveland Cavaliers by a comfortable six games, Brad Stevens’ team is enjoying the rare situation of having a playoff seed that appears to be somewhat locked in.
Still, with the team only able to go as far as its young rotation will carry it, Brown addressed the media on Thursday.
“I’m feeling a lot better. I’m just trying to hurry up and get back,” Brown said, as quoted by Celtics.com.
“I’m tired of not playing.”
Stevens is probably tired of him not playing, too.
As we head into the month of April, playoff-bound teams and conference contenders begin to think about playing into June, while the cellar-dwellers and pretenders begin to look toward the draft lottery and free agency.
What’s funny is that in the midst of the Raptors and their rise out East, the Celtics and their dominance has become a bit of a forgotten storyline. When Gordon Hayward went down on opening night, the neophytes from the Northeast were thought to be a decent team in the making whose ceiling probably wasn’t anywhere near that of the Cavs, the Raptors and perhaps even the Washington Wizards.
Yet through it all, with the impressive growth of Jaylen Brown, impressive rookie Jayson Tatum and the rise of Irving as a franchise’s lynchpin, the Celtics stormed out the games to the tune of a a 17-3 record. What made the strong start even more impressive was the fact that the team won 16 straight games after beginning the season 0-2.
Although they weren’t able to keep up that pace, they began the month of February having gone 37-15 and turned a great many into believers. With their spry legs, team-first playing style and capable leader in Irving, the Celtics, it was thought, were a true contender in the Eastern Conference — if not the favorite.
Since then, and after experiencing injuries to some of its key cogs, the team has gone just 11-8.
In the interim, it seems that many have forgotten about the team that tantalized the Eastern Conference in the early goings of the season.
Brown’s return, in one important respect, will signify a return to Boston’s prior self.
With Marcus Smart having recently undergone surgery to repair a torn tendon in his right thumb, he is expected to be out another five weeks or so, meaning that he’ll likely miss the beginning of the postseason.
As for Irving, although reports say that his ailing knee has no structural damage, everything the Celtics hope to accomplish begins and ends with him. FOX Sports 1’s Chris Broussard believes that it’s no slam dunk that Irving returns to action this season, but he’s in the minority. This team has simply come too far to not give themselves every opportunity to compete at the highest level, so long as doing so doesn’t jeopardize the long term health of any of the franchise’s cornerstones.
Make no mistake about it, the Celtics are far from a finished product. With their nucleus intact and flexibility preserved, they will have another offseason with which to tinker with their rotation pieces and plug away at building a champion.
But here and now, with what they’ve got, the Celtics are much closer than any of us thought they would be at this point.
And on Sunday, when Jaylen Brown rejoins his team in the lineup, to the delight of the Boston faithful, the Celtics will be that much closer.