Nerlens Noel

First press conference foreshadowed Jahlil Okafor's time with Sixers

First press conference foreshadowed Jahlil Okafor's time with Sixers

It was a seemingly innocuous move. At least that’s what he thought.

Way back on June 28, 2015, Jahlil Okafor was introduced in Philadelphia after being drafted with the No. 3 overall pick. When the press conference was over, Okafor quickly dropped his jersey onto the stage and turned to walk away.

The reaction to the optics was way worse than the scene in reality. But in the end, the moment served as a precursor to Okafor’s time in the city: from the excitement of oozing potential to simply being discarded.

Okafor came to the Sixers with great fanfare. While he was the latest center to be selected in the lottery by the team, he brought certain elements that Joel Embiid and Nerlens Noel did not.

First, Okafor had the polish. Noel, and especially Embiid, offered their own offensive gifts entering the league, but the 6-foot-11, 275-pounder was different. He was the old-school big man with the huge hands, swift feet and soft touch in the paint.

“Someone that can draw a double-team, and we don’t see those a lot in our league right now. We don’t see a lot … someone that can draw a double-team is enormously useful. Enormously useful,” former Sixers exec Sam Hinkie said of Okafor in June 2015. “That’s one of the things he can do. Someone that has hands that are as good as his, that can catch every ball thrown his way, that can do all sorts of things in the post, that can be a pick-and-roll player like that. That’s hard to find. That’s really hard to find, which is why you’ll hear people that have coached him and you’ll hear people that have been around him rave about him. We feel very excited to be able to take him.”

Then there was the pedigree. Okafor was an absolute winner. From city and state titles as a star at Whitney Young High School in his native Chicago to the 2015 national championship at Duke, Okafor reached the mountaintop at every level of basketball.

“Winning has always been my main focus,” Okafor said prior to his rookie season. “I have always hated losing. I am a sore loser. I do not take losing well. I have always been about winning because I have been winning my entire life.”

Perhaps the best thing Okafor had going for him was health. With Embiid and Noel missing seasons because of injuries, Okafor was ready to suit up from Day 1. 

And things were good for the big man at the start — well, besides that whole wanting to win thing. Okafor recorded 17.5 points on 50.8 percent shooting, 7.0 rebounds, 1.2 assists and 1.2 blocks per game during his first professional season en route to being named first-team All-Rookie.

While those numbers are all well and good, this is Philadelphia. Even low-post players that aren't centers learn to play with a certain oomph. The big man is simply held to a higher standard in the home of Center City.

After all, this is where Dolph Schayes pounded the glass. It’s where Wilt Chamberlain took steps toward becoming the GOAT. It’s where Bobby Jones hustled his way into fans’ hearts and Billy Cunningham leaped to one rebound after another.

This is the city where Caldwell Jones terrorized opponents, Moses Malone intimidated foes in the paint and Darryl Dawkins hammered rims into oblivion. 

It’s where an undersized power forward named Charles Barkley made people realize why he was called “The Round Mound of Rebound.” This is the town where Rick Mahorn and Derrick Coleman played with that beloved nastiness. This is the town where Theo Ratliff swatted shots out of the sky and Dikembe Mutombo followed suit with that signature finger wag.

So while Okafor caught the locals’ attention with all of the pretty spin moves and drop steps for buckets, it was always going to be the grit, or lack thereof, that let Philadelphia know who he really was on the floor.

A deeper look revealed everything you needed to see. Okafor capped that rookie season with an average of 7.0 boards a night, but 17 times in 53 games that year he ended with five rebounds or less. 

Then there’s the defense. Forget not being good enough on the defensive end of the floor, Okafor couldn’t even be bothered. I mean, remember this:

He has a defensive rating of 110.0 per 100 possessions for his career. In other words, teams score 110 points for every 100 possessions Okafor is on the court.

“I have to make him holistic and point out defensive flaws,” Brown said in January 2016. “That’s my job, especially when you beat your chest and carry a flag about playing defense in this city. You can’t hide from anything.”

Okafor couldn’t hide anymore. Not from attacking opponents, fans’ criticism or even his own doubt about his skill set.

Throw in the off-court issues from that rookie season, including a Boston street fight and speeding across the Ben Franklin Bridge, and the writing was on the wall for Okafor. 

Then came the long-awaited and sensational play of fellow center Embiid last season and the writing was all over every single wall Okafor was forced to look at inside the Wells Fargo Center and the Sixers’ training complex.

Sure, the Sixers bungled the ending. They sent him home last season when they thought a trade was imminent only to be forced to bring him back into the fold when the deal fell apart. Then the organization had Okafor go through yet another offseason with the squad only to decline to pick up the fourth-year option on his contract.

“Honestly, I didn't want them to pick up my option,” Okafor said last month. “I’ve been going through a lot since I've been here. So the fact that I know that at the end of the season I would at least have an opportunity to play elsewhere, that's great. Now I'm just in a position to where, how can I get on the court? That's not happening here. I want to play.”

It’s all water under the bridge now — more specifically the Brooklyn Bridge — after the Sixers dealt Okafor, Nik Stauskas and a second-round pick to the Nets for Trevor Booker.

Now Okafor gets a second chance to prove he was worth all of the buzz entering the NBA. Hopefully, for him, he doesn’t get quickly discarded yet again like that jersey from his introductory press conference.

NBA Notes: Nerlens Noel to have thumb surgery, miss several weeks

uspresswire-mavericks-nerlens-noel.jpg
USA Today Images

NBA Notes: Nerlens Noel to have thumb surgery, miss several weeks

BOSTON -- Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle says forward Nerlens Noel will have surgery for a torn ligament in his left thumb.

Carlisle made the announcement Wednesday before the Mavericks game with the Boston Celtics.

Noel will undergo the procedure in Cleveland later this week. Carlisle said he is then expected to be out for several weeks, but couldn't offer a specific timetable for his return.

Noel hasn't played since Nov. 22. He's appeared in 18 games with six starts this season, averaging 4.0 points and 4.1 rebounds.

Cavaliers: Thomas plays 4-on-4 as he nears return
INDEPENDENCE, Ohio -- Cavaliers All-Star point guard Isaiah Thomas played 4-on-4 on Wednesday, a significant step in his recovery from a hip injury.

Thomas, who has yet to make his debut with Cleveland, scrimmaged along with injured forward Tristan Thompson, rookies Cedi Osman and Ante Zizic, and members of the coaching staff.

With coach Tyronn Lue and members of the team's front office watching intently from behind the basket, Thomas moved freely and didn't appear to have any restrictions during the half-court workout that took place following the team's morning shootaround.

Lue reported that Thomas "looked good" and absorbed some contact. It was the second straight day Thomas scrimmaged.

However, Lue did not provide any update on when Thomas might play in a game. Lue planned to check with the team's medical staff to find out the next step in Thomas' recovery program, which the 28-year-old has described as his "slow grind" (see full story).

Suns: Booker (groin) expected to miss 2-3 weeks
PHOENIX -- Phoenix Suns star Devin Booker is expected to be sidelined two to three weeks because of a groin injury.

The Suns said Wednesday that Booker strained his left adductor late in a 126-113 loss in Toronto on Tuesday night and would have an MRI. Booker froze in place near midcourt, and trainers came out to examine him before two teammates awkwardly carried him off the floor.

Booker had 19 points against the Raptors after scoring a season-high 46 points Monday night in a victory in Philadelphia.

The 21-year-old Booker is 10th in the NBA in scoring with a 24.3 average. In 25 games, he's also averaging 4.5 rebounds and 4.1 assists. He had a career-high 70 last season at Boston.

Coming off a six-game trip, the Suns return to play Thursday night against Washington.

Hornets: Coach Clifford out indefinitely with ‘health issue’
CHARLOTTE, N.C.  -- Hornets coach Steve Clifford will be away from the team for an undetermined period of time to deal with a "health issue."

The team made the announcement Wednesday in a release.

The 56-year-old Clifford missed Monday night's game against Orlando because he was not feeling well. Associate head coach Stephen Silas filled in for Clifford against the Magic.

Clifford has battled heart problems in the past, but a person familiar with the situation told The Associated Press the issue was not a heart-related. The person spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because the team has not released details of Clifford's health issue.

The team said there is no timetable for Clifford's return and that officials would have no further comment.

Silas will continue to coach the team with Clifford out. The Hornets host Golden State Wednesday night.

"I just want to send him my best wishes," Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. "Obviously I have been through some issues, and I don't know what his health issues are, but it's no fun. I'm wishing him well and I hope he gets back on the sideline soon. But more importantly I hope that he's healthy" (see full story).

Nets: Team keeping focus on Thunder in Mexico
MEXICO CITY -- No earthquakes or volcanos are on the back of the mind of the Brooklyn Nets players and coaches ahead of their regular-season game Thursday night against the Oklahoma City Thunder in Mexico City. At least publicly.

The game will be the 25th in NBA history South of the Border, the most for any country besides the United States and Canada. It also is the first since a 7.1 earthquake on Sept. 19 killed over 300 people, most of them in the nation's capital.

"We talked about it and we talked about precautions with the NBA security on what we should do it happens", Nets coach Kenny Atkinson said. "We are affected by it because it was big news in the U.S. and we saw the pain and suffering and sympathize with the victims. It was very moving to see those images, I can't imagine going through something like that".

The quake was the deadliest in Mexico since the one on 1985 on the same date killed thousands and it came less than two weeks after another powerful quake caused 90 deaths in the country's south.

New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick expressed relief to leave the country after a regular-season game against the Oakland Raiders played in at Azteca stadium.

"I think we're fortunate there was no volcano eruptions or earthquakes, or anything else while we were down there. You have two NFL franchises in an area that I don't know how stable the geological plates that were below us, but nothing happened, so that was good", Belichick said (see full story).

Who's worse: Cowboys fans or Jerry Jones?

uspresswire-cowboys-jerry-jones.jpg
USA Today Images

Who's worse: Cowboys fans or Jerry Jones?

In this week’s edition of Rob’s Rants we delve into the enemy among us, an egomaniac with an agenda, and one of the more overhyped athletes in Philadelphia sports history.

Local Cowboys fans
It’s that time of year again when the Eagles and Cowboys meet for the first time. I’ve never been shy about my hatred of the Cowboys. It was bred into me at a very young age by my father and has not dissipated one bit all these years later. It’s a tradition I’ve happily passed down to my kids. It would be easy to reel off some of the individuals over the years that continued to fuel my fire ... Mr. Fedora himself, Tom Landry and his fraudulent, gentlemanly persona. Behind that façade he was a coach who harbored arrogant, cheap shot artists of players. (See: Dennis Thurman). Landry actually ran up the score in a replacement game.

Next up was Jimmy Johnson and his “How Bout ‘Dem Cowboys.” The rap sheets ran deep for old Jimmy’s squad. Michael Irvin, Leon Lett, Nate Newton, just to name a few. There was Deion Sanders and his preening, Emmitt Smith taking off his helmet, Irvin and his first-down signal. Great team, great players, no question. But they also epitomized arrogance. Jump to the modern day and you have Jerry Jones, Dez Bryant and Ezekiel Elliott. Enough said.

So while the players own a piece of the Cowboys hate, they pale in jackassery comparison to the fan base. I don’t mean those from Dallas. I’m referring to ones born and raised in the Delaware Valley with no ties to Texas. You know them. We all know them. The agitator. The ones crying out for attention. The contrarians. The ”look at me” guys and gals. The “I have no sense of communal pride” peeps. They love the Cowboys because when they were kids they liked the star on the helmet. They are the ones who are constantly living in the past, referencing the '90s or rings.

The root of these frauds — aside from bad parenting — is that at their very core, they are front-runners. Most jumped on that bandwagon when the Cowboys were winning Super Bowls. They are the first to bail when the going gets tough. Dig deep into their closet and you’re likely to find Yankees and Lakers gear as well. They are the worst kind of fans. They have no civic connection. They are outliers, subversives. It’s not easy being an Eagles fan by any stretch, for reasons we know all too well. But it will be all that much sweeter when they finally win and this community can celebrate as one, something Philadelphia Cowboy fans will never understand.

Jerry Jones
Speaking of the Cowboys, if you believe for a second that Jones' attempted ouster of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell derives from anything else other than his anger over Elliott’s suspension, I’ve got some swampland in Jersey I’d love you to take a look at.

Does Goodell make a monster salary? Yes. Has he made massive mistakes along the way in his handling of issues such as “Spygate,” Ray Rice, and “Deflategate?” No question. But I didn’t hear Jerry voicing his outrage then. The other owners want and continue to keep Goodell in charge because he makes them boatloads of money, plain and simple. Jerry has been right there in support of Goodell with his peers for a very long time. Suddenly, that’s changed. I wonder why? If Zeke had won his appeal or gotten suspended a game or two, we’re not hearing about Goodell’s salary demands, private jets or lifetime benefits.

Jones has had a great deal of success in his life and he used to having things his way, on his own terms. He also knows his personal clock is ticking to win another championship. And he realizes without Elliott for six games, those chances are significantly hampered this season.

Nerlens Olajuwon 
When the Sixers traded away Nerlens Noel last offseason to the Mavericks for what amounted to Justin Anderson and a first-round pick they were never going to see, there were people in town that were outraged. They couldn’t fathom how the Sixers didn’t get more for such a talent. Or they couldn’t comprehend moving a player with such value and skill. Fast forward to this past offseason where Noel reportedly turned down a four-year, $70 million deal and ended up settling for a one-year, $4.1 million contract. He’s since fired his agent.

Through 13 games this year, here’s his stat line: 5.1 points, 5.2 rebounds, 0.8 blocks, 0.8 steals, 16 minutes a game. In the last three games, he’s played six minutes, gotten a DNP-CD, and played two minutes, respectively. He’s playing behind 31-year-old Salah Mejri on a team that is tied for the fewest wins in the NBA. There’s nothing special about Noel. His career stats aren’t overly impressive: 9.7 points per game, 7.3 rebounds, 1.5 blocks and 1.6 steals. He’s a nice role player with defensive ability. He’s limited offensively and has never worked hard enough on his game to become good at that end. He may think he is but he’s not a centerpiece worth breaking the bank over.