If there’s one bonafide pro on the pitiful roster of the Philadelphia 76ers, it’s Chicago native Jahlil Okafor, the third pick in last June’s draft.
For a half, Okafor played beyond his years, giving fits to Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah with his vast array of moves on the block and a better-than-average handle that allows him to navigate the paint and mid-range area with ease.
Gasol was complaining about a traveling violation on the rookie when Okafor drove baseline for a dunk, being left flat-footed as Okafor scored two of his 20 first-half points.
Noah got a taste of Okafor’s quickness, watching a couple step-back jumpers and quick moves for polished hook shots.
“First of all, they’re two of the better big men in the league,” Okafor said. “I was able to get a little bit of a feel on how (Gasol) plays. He’s a hall of famer and I can learn a lot from playing against him. I’ve already learned a lot just watching him as I grow up.”
A grown-man move from a player who’s nowhere near close to realizing his potential, but also dealing with the pitfalls of adulthood for the first time as he returned home to play his hometown team for the first time.
“Emotions? Excited to play here, I have a lot of family here,” Okafor said. “My high school coach and some teammates (are here).”
Okafor spent part of the day at Quest Multisport on the west side with kids from Jensen Academy, the school his aunt teaches at. He brought along a barber with him so some of the students could get free haircuts and brought along some party favors for the holidays.
“It’s an event for the kids,” Okafor said. “My aunt’s a principal at a CPS school here. Just doing something for them, we had a good time. Gave them a couple Christmas gifts for them, they sang me happy birthday, pretty much it.”
The Whitney Young graduate and one-time attendee of Duke University is dealing with losing en masse for the first time in his life. Scoring 22 points doesn’t have the same affect on a game that it usually does, and being a target off the floor has led to some skirmishes—highly scrutinized fights in the streets and incidents in nightclubs.
Since the 76ers have done this advanced version of tanking for seasons at a time, it begs the question of whether the youngest team on the league should employ veterans to help out players like Okafor, who are adjusting to the fame, attention and endless losing for the first time.
“It’s been fine. I have a lot of help, people who’ve been helping me out,” Okafor said. “Some older guys I’ve talked to around the NBA. It’s different, for sure, basketball being my main focus but having some free time as well.”
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But for a man on the eve of his 20th birthday, he seemed to parrot the beliefs of a general manager now under fire for his tactics when asked if a veteran should be in the locker room as opposed to him having to reach out to vets across the league for guidance.
“No, I have everything I need,” Okafor said. “If I need help, I can just ask somebody, my coach or my GM, I have a lot of help here. Putting an older guy here in this locker room wouldn’t affect anything. I have everything I need.”
The 76ers have brought in respected executive Jerry Colangelo to hopefully turn the tide of the fruitless strategy started by Sam Hinkie, as the league actually facilitated the process of Colangelo, a Chicago native and Executive Director of USA Basketball, coming onboard.
Many believe Okafor’s incidents were a huge tipping point in the league stepping in to stop the embarrassment for the proud franchise. Okafor’s development on the court just as well as off it will be in the public eye for the near future, and it’s clear he’s trying to manage his circumstances.
“I’m living my dream, it’s been a lot of fun,” Okafor said. “I don’t look at it as starting off my season with a lot of losses, it’s my rookie campaign and I’m working on improving. Coach talks about good days adding up and that’s what I’m doing.”