NBA AM: Jahlil Okafor’s Strange NBA Journey

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It wasn’t supposed to be like this for Jahlil Okafor.

The former NCAA champion, who spent most of his only college season as the highest rated NBA draft prospect, was supposed to be a sure thing. But then a noted agent of chaos—Sam Hinkie, the former GM of the Philadelphia 76ers who drafted Okafor with the third pick in the 2015 Draft—came into his life, and life took a detour.

With Thursday’s trade of Okafor, shooting guard Nik Stauskas and a second-round pick to the Brooklyn Nets for Trevor Booker, the initial, anticlimactic phase of Okafor’s NBA career comes to a close. What lies ahead is a new opportunity to reach his potential with Kenny Atkinson, a coach with a massive reputation for player development. It’s also an opportunity for Okafor to start with a clean slate after his stay in Philly was marred by off-court drama.

“Never having coached him, no player that we bring into our program from another program, we don’t prejudge them,” Atkinson said during Thursday’s media availability in Mexico City prior to Brooklyn’s 100-95 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder.

“We’re going to welcome both of those players with open arms. We judge them on our terms. That’s how we do it with everybody.

“I think they’re coming into a strong locker room. I think they’re coming into a program with a staff that really cares, a front office that is top notch, and I’m really excited about this.”

Interestingly, Okafor’s arrival in Brooklyn means he will share a team with another player whose fate was directly intertwined with his on draft night in 2015: D’Angelo Russell.

According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the Lakers worked out current Knick Kristaps Porzingis to the point of exhaustion but came away convinced that he was a long-term project. After Karl-Anthony Towns went to the Timberwolves with the first pick, the Lakers went with Russell, presumably the safer pick in their minds.

With Russell and Towns off the board, who could know what Hinkie, the maverick GM, and implementer of “the process” would do?

Porzingis, according to Wojnarowski, had his heart set on New York. After Porzingis worked out in front of all 30 teams in Las Vegas, Porzingis’ agent Andy Miller declined to give Hinkie a one-on-one meeting with his client. Thus frozen out of Porzigis’ pre-draft process, Hinkie likewise went with the presumptive safe pick in Okafor.

As with Okafor, Russell arrived in Brooklyn with an opportunity to start over after an off-court mishap (in the form of a bro code violation) in L.A. Fortunately for the newly-minted teammates, Atkinson doesn’t care about the past and is only concerned about what the Nets organization can help them become.

“When we bring in young, talented players it’s a great opportunity for our staff and organization to develop another young player … or two young players because Nik is young, too,” said Atkinson. “I can’t tell you I know their game intimately. Part of the onboarding process, part of the development process is to map out a specific plan for these guys.”

While Atkinson stayed focused on the positives, he wasn’t unaware that Okafor and Stauskas come to Brooklyn with limited resumes on the defensive end.

“I think like anybody that comes into our program, we need to defend the basketball,” said Atkinson. “That’ll be a challenge for both of them, that we need those guys to be two-way players. We’re going to demand it as we do of everybody that comes in our program.”

When Atkinson spoke of a staff that cares about its players, his sincerity became obvious as he spoke of the departed Booker and Sean Kilpatrick, who was waived to make room for Stauskas.

“It’s an emotional day when you lose guys you’ve worked with,” said Atkinson. “Sean Kilpatrick and Trevor Booker … you get close to these guys.”

While Okafor’s strange NBA journey now takes him to Brooklyn, Booker’s day included an unexpected early flight out of Mexico City for his newest destination. Atkinson and Nets GM Sean Marks had an opportunity to meet with Booker once the trade was announced.

“I had a long discussion with him today, me and Sean,” said Atkinson. “It was a mutual respect on both sides, how much we enjoyed him and loved him and how much we appreciated the things he brought to our program.

“He is on a flight tonight to Philadelphia. They want him there, which is normal. I think we’d do the same thing: ‘Hey, can you get here as soon as possible?’ I know they had an injury and it makes total sense to us. Not an easy situation.”

When Jeremy Lin was setting the NBA world on fire at the height of Linsanity, he went out of his way to publicize how Atkinson made himself available as a Knicks assistant to help with his development. Now Okafor will have a similar opportunity in one of the NBA’s marquee arenas under the bright New York lights that Lin shone under and Porzingis longed for.

Okafor couldn’t have imagined on draft night that he’d end up in Brooklyn on the same team as the player drafted one pick ahead of him. But now that his journey has brought him to the five boroughs, he’s presented with the perfect opportunity to re-write his story.