Okafor’s attitude has helped 76ers settle
The trade deadline is Feb. 23, and the Sixers owe it to themselves, to head coach Brett Brown and to Jah Okafor to un-clog their center rotation.
The Sixers had yet to even begin training camp, but already Brett Brown had a hint that that his already-complicated job had a chance to grow tougher.
Aware that a trust-theprocess, together-we-build, collectthe-assets approach to roster construction had been done with no regard for positions, the Sixers’ coach would naturally wonder how three celebrated players could squeeze into one center spot. As for Nerlens Noel, he wasn’t going to wait, grumbling during pre-camp media day that it wouldn’t work, couldn’t work, shouldn’t work.
It was September. Just 82 games to go. Wouldn’t that season ever end?
Brown wasn’t necessarily thinking Friday night about the static Noel had created months earlier. But he had noticed that the crisis had gone away. And he knew that Jahlil Okafor was the reason.
There were the Sixers, winners of four of their previous five as they’d warmed for a Friday game against the Charlotte Hornets, and they oddly content with a player rotation that might have invited tension. Joel Embiid had won the No. 1 center spot, at least for the sports-science mandated 28 minutes in certain games. Brown had made Noel the backup. And all of that made Okafor likely, on most nights, never to shed his shooting shirt.
That would be Jahlil Okafor, basketball legend since he was 14 years old, Duke product, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2015 draft, a reigning NBA All-Rookie player, a center not long ago on the superstar track. And not only was he not creating an in-house stir after being dumped onto the third string, but there he was Thursday after practice, among the last players off the floor, continuing to work on free throws, willing to share his thoughts with the press.
“Some guys are playing well,” he would say. “I’m happy for them.”
What? No snarling? No play-me-or-trade-me’s? No subtle rips at his coach, even if Brown had braced for that possibility?
“They’re young,” Brown said. “Rewind our own lives. None of us probably would feel as confident that they would have handled it as well as he has. I wouldn’t. You just never know. I think it does confirm what I know about him as a young man and how he sort of carries himself and how kind he is. He’s a wonderful teammate. And so his reaction doesn’t surprise me. For me to say I anticipated it would be not true. The fact that he has actually done it, my level of respect and appreciation for Jahlil Okafor has grown.”
Okafor is only 21, meaning that he is going to have opportunities to play in the NBA, if not in Philadelphia, then elsewhere, perhaps soon. The trade deadline is Feb. 23, and the Sixers owe it to themselves, to Brown and to Okafor to un-clog their center rotation. It’s been whispered that one reason Okafor has been so calm is that his handlers have a good relationship with Bryan Colangelo, the implication being that there has been some assurance that the Sixers will not block his growth for much longer.
But some of the Sixers’ inner peace is of Brown’s doing, too. For not only has Okafor accepted a dramatic workload cut without as much as a made-face, but so has Sergio Rodriguez. Rodriguez, on a $6 million-plus deal, has lost his job to T.J. McConnell, a concept that once seemed outrageous. Yet he has not complained. Rather, he has praised McConnell at every opportunity, even at the risk to his own professional reputation.
“Everybody’s got their part of an 82-game season that they have to deal with,” Brown said. “Sergio sees what I see. And it’s no knock on Sergio. It’s accepting the minutes you’re given and handling your role. When I recruited him to come here, he reminded me that, ‘I came off the bench and I was the MVP of the Euro League.’ Jerryd Bayless was going to be given the ball. So that was Sergio’s plan anyway. But he is all class. If anybody knew what he means to Europe, that is a name, that is a real name, that is a legend in European basketball, and certainly in Spain.
For a team that entered the Hornets game 14 games under .500, the Sixers are an oddly contented group. Gerald Henderson, having one of his better seasons as a pro, is OK springing from the bench. Noel, freed from too many trying minutes at a forward spot for which he was illsuited, has gone from training-camp irritant to valuable backup, taking time after practice Thursday to stress that he is “completely satisfied” in his backup role. And Okafor, who was supposed to be doing what Embiid is doing, which is mounting an All-Star candidacy, is satisfied playing when he can. That will include Saturday, when he will play in Washington, with Embiid being rested in a back-to-back-games concession.