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NBA Daily: Okafor Eager for Fresh Start

After a disastrous start to his NBA career, Jahlil Okafor is ready to show the world what he’s made of for the Pelicans.

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One of the absolute worst labels a player can get attached to his name.

Kwame Brown, Michael Olowokandi, and Darko Milicic are usually the first ones that come to mind when the topic of the NBA’s biggest busts is mentioned. The reasoning is pretty simple. They came into the league as high lottery picks with high expectations only to fail miserably. Many believe Jahlil Okafor deserves to be in this group as well.

It wasn’t too long ago that Okafor was once one of the highest-touted prospects in the nation thanks to his revered low-post scoring. Sadly, besides his flashy albeit empty rookie season, Jah has done largely nothing since entering the NBA. To be fair, it may not entirely be his fault.

Jahlil Okafor’s skill-set does not fit well with the modern NBA. While his one elite skill – low-post scoring – has rapidly declined in value, his porous defense, lackluster rebounding, and ball-stopping offense made him tough to put on the floor. His poor conditioning and incidents off the court haven’t help his case much either.

At the same time, Okafor was drafted into an awful situation. He got drafted by a team that had no intentions of winning in the near future, but worse yet, Philadelphia saw him as a Plan B, or even a Plan C. Okafor definitely failed in Philly, but there’s a fair argument that he never fulfilled his potential because he was never really given the opportunity to.

Following his disastrous time in Philly and an uneventful stint in Brooklyn, Okafor has found himself in a brand new situation in New Orleans. Now that he’s on a team that has a realistic shot at making the playoffs with minimal expectations of him, Okafor is relishing the opportunity.

“I was really excited to go to a winning program,” Okafor said at the Pelicans’ Media Day. “They let me know that they would like me to be part of the team. [It was] pretty much a no-brainer for me.”

Okafor’s been known for being a one-dimensional player since entering the league. With his career hanging by a thread, Okafor’s main goal this summer was to expand his overall game beyond his low-post scoring.

“I’ve worked on other aspects of my game this summer,” Okafor said. “That’s just the way game is growing. You need to be able to dribble. You need to be able to pass. You need to be able to shoot. I’ll have to be able to do a little bit of everything.”

With his awful defensive reputation and his appallingly bad rebounding numbers, it’s pretty obvious where Okafor wants to expand as a player.

“My number one focus this season was becoming a better defender and obviously a better rebounder,” Okafor said. “I’ve expanded my game this summer but that’s the one thing I’m really locked in on is my defense.”

Of course, staying in the NBA requires more than just developing your game. It also requires good habits such as diet and working out. Okafor developed likewise habits in preparation for this season.

“When the season ended, I went straight to Miami and worked with David Alexander,” Okafor said. “The first thing we attacked was my diet… I didn’t have any problem working out but I was kind of counterproductive when I would work out and go eat BS. So, we got my diet in line with the way I was working out and it did, and it benefited me.”

Okafor also tried to improve an area that players are only just starting to open up about: His mental health. This summer, Oak opted to treat his anxiety, which he believes will help him on the court.

“I’ve just gotten really good this summer at identifying if I’m feeling anxious or if I’m feeling stressed out and what’s causing the stress,” Okafor said. “It’s something that I’m working on every day but it’s helping me out a lot… There’s little stuff like that that coming out of college, you don’t really know or think about, but it’s something I’ve done this summer that’s really benefited me.”

Now that he’s in the Big Easy, Jahlil enters one of the most versatile frontcourts in the NBA led by Anthony Davis, Julius Randle, and Nikola Mirotic. Getting playing time with those three will be tough, but Okafor vows he’ll be ready when they call his name.

“I’m available to coach Gentry whenever he wants to use me,” Okafor said. “I want to get minutes, and all of that will come in time. It’s something I know I’m going to have to earn and I’m trying to earn right away.”

On Sep. 30, Okafor made his preseason debut for the Pelicans, and the returns so far look solid.

In 17 minutes, Okafor posted eight points and seven rebounds against the Bulls. The most telling aspect was that, until he sprained his ankle, Okafor looked both motivated and spry, which could take him a long way.

Now that the lofty expectations of being the third overall pick are behind him, the Duke alumni is now focused on the next chapter of his career: Turning over a new leaf.

“This is a new start for me. I’m 22. I’m going into my fourth year. I’m trying to remember what I’ve learned the past three years. I’ve had some success and I’ve also had some failures, so just trying to make the most out of what I learned to have a better outcome this season. I’ve been doing everything necessary this offseason and hopefully, I can continue to do it during the season.”

Jahlil Okafor definitely has talent, but it’s up to him to decide if it can translate into success. If he’s able to, then this season could be his first step towards shedding that bust label.

Matt John is a staff writer for Basketball Insiders. He is currently a Utah resident, but a Massachusetts native.

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