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.
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