Okafor’s at­ti­tude has helped 76ers set­tle

The Reporter (Lansdale, PA) - - SPORTS - Jack McCaf­fery Colum­nist

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.