NBA PM: Okafor May Be Sixers’ Centerpiece

Jahlil Okafor may be the centerpiece that the Philadelphia 76ers have been searching for in recent years.

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Jahlil Okafor May Be the Sixers’ Centerpiece

The Philadelphia 76ers have been searching for a centerpiece to build around – after all, that’s a big part of their patient rebuilding plan – and they’re hoping that No. 3 overall pick Jahlil Okafor can be exactly that.

Okafor has experience being the focal point of a team. In high school, he was the nation’s top recruit. He averaged 24.1 points and 11.3 rebounds as a senior and led the Whitney Young Dolphins to an Illinois state championship, while also winning three gold medals for Team USA during high school.

In his lone collegiate season at Duke, Okafor averaged 17.3 points (shooting an incredible 66.4 percent from the field), 8.5 rebounds and 1.4 blocks and lived up to the lofty expectations that come with being a top recruit. He emerged as the star of the program and led the Blue Devils to the national championship.

Now, the 76ers hope he can duplicate that success in the NBA and become their franchise player.

“I’m definitely used to being the centerpiece of a team,” Okafor said. “That’s what I’ve become accustomed to.  That’s what I’ve been working so hard for.”

The 19-year-old turned heads during the NBA Summer League with his strong play. He showcased his wide array of post moves, high basketball IQ, ability to rebound and patience in the paint during five Summer League games (three in Utah and two in Las Vegas).

Okafor averaged an impressive 15.8 points and 8.4 rebounds in those five contests. He had 18 points, 10 rebounds, two blocks and one steal in his Summer League debut against the San Antonio Spurs, who went on to win the Summer League championship in Las Vegas. Okafor’s best outing was a 19-point, 11-rebound, three-assist, two-block performance against the Los Angeles Lakers, who passed on him for D’Angelo Russell with the No. 2 overall pick in this year’s draft.

The big man admitted he got more comfortable and effective with each game, and that was his goal entering Summer League play. He knows that this is just the beginning of a long NBA journey and that all he can do is try to improve each time he takes the court.

“Progress – that’s what it is about,” Okafor said. “It’s a long process. There’s a lot of progression I’m going to have to make. I’m only 19, so I have a lot of time. I’m just trusting the process. Any progress I can make, I’ll take it.”

It didn’t take long for Okafor to adopt the phrase “trust the process,” which is Sixers general manager Sam Hinkie’s go-to mantra. That motto is often repeated by the Philadelphia’s coaches, players and fans to ensure that everyone is on the same page: remaining patient and optimistic as the team slogs through a number of losing seasons in order to stockpile talented young players and top draft picks.

The Sixers have encountered a number of bumps during their rebuild, with the latest being the setback to Joel Embiid’s right foot. The team revealed that he will need a second surgery since he hasn’t healed as expected, and it’s possible that the No. 3 overall pick in the 2014 draft might miss the entire 2015-16 season as he recovers. While some people around the NBA wonder if the Sixers are just being overly cautious with Embiid, this could be a serious injury if reports that he re-broke the same navicular bone are accurate. Okafor is hoping Embiid will get well soon and he’s trying to help his fellow center stay positive.

“I knew about it before [it was announced]; we talked about it a few weeks ago,” Okafor said of Embiid’s injury. “It’s unfortunate, but I’m here for him. I know he’s definitely disappointed. I’m just going to be there for him and play for him as well. … It doesn’t [change my role]. My role is to dominate. I’m one of the centerpieces of this team, so my role is the same.”

Okafor has spent this past month getting to know his new teammates better. He’s known Embiid and Pierre Jackson for a number of years and considers them good friends. He also has history with Jerami Grant, as they played for Team USA together when they were younger. Okafor is trying to build relationships and chemistry with his new fellow Sixers, and Summer League has helped.

“Jordan McRae and Jerami Grant, those are two guys who I’ve gotten really close with,” Okafor said. “I already knew Joel – we’re really close – but he’s hurt [so he didn’t play in Summer League]. I’ve known Pierre for awhile too. I’m excited about the guys that we have on this team.”

“I’ve known Jahlil for a long time, since he was younger, so I’ve watched him grow as a player and he has shown what he can do,” Pierre Jackson said. “He’s amazing – his patience on the post, knowing when to pass the ball and when to be aggressive. He’s just really good, man. I’m definitely having fun [playing alongside him]. Me and him have a relationship off of the court, so that helps us on the court too.”

Sixers point guard Isaiah Canaan traveled to Las Vegas to support the Summer League squad and admitted that a big reason he made the trip was to meet and spend time with Okafor. Canaan is really excited about the addition and he believes Okafor will make an immediate impact in Philadelphia.

“He’s going to open up everything,” Canaan said of Okafor. “He’s a big presence on the post. He can score the ball and he can pass. With a big guy who can do that and draw a lot of attention, he’s going to open up everyone else on the team and he’s going to be big piece for us.

“He’s so skilled. He can catch the pass, he can pass the ball, he knows how to get to his spots and he takes up a lot of space. You always need a big man on the team. Next to point guard, that’s the most important piece. To have Big Jah and hopefully Embiid – if he can come back fully healthy next year – not to mention still adding other pieces, we’ll be fine and have a lot of great players on this team.”

Head coach Brett Brown has also praised Okafor, specifically his excellent work ethic. Shortly after the draft, Brown said there were several times the big man arrived to the team’s practice facility before Brown, which is exactly what a team wants to see from their 19-year-old rookie.

“I had a fantastic conversation with Coach K and when we hung up, I knew Jahlil had great potential and is a terrific, young prospect, but I hadn’t realized what type of person we had as well,” Brown said, according to the Daily News. “The more I learn about Jahlil, the more you respect his upbringing value and love of the game. I was in the office at 6:30 the other morning, and he’s in the gym working with a trainer. You then go upstairs and get ready for a day’s work and you feel great. I’m really excited to coach him, and the program is going to realize very quickly how special he is.”

Okafor does seem poised to be special, which is why the Sixers felt they had to pick him with the third overall pick even though they didn’t have a need at center. Okafor is a potential franchise player and Hinkie couldn’t pass on a player with his talent. If Okafor reaches his full potential, he could be one of the best offensive big men in the NBA in the near future and he may be the centerpiece that Philadelphia has desperately been searching for in recent years.

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