Jahlil Okafor is in unfamiliar territory.
He received his first scholarship in 8th grade. The top high school prospect in the country had his choice of colleges after winning a state championship and Mr. Basketball in Illinois as a senior. He was named an All-American before ever playing a game at Duke. And after he arrived in Durham, all he did was win 35 games and a national championship for the Blue Devils. He was touted as the best low-post prospect in nearly two decades, a can't-miss prospect destined for the same greatness he had exuded at each of his stops along the way.
For the first 18 years of his life everyone wanted Okafor. He was on top.
Until Thursday night.
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Okafor watched from the NBA Draft's green room in New York City as the Minnesota Timberwolves passed on him for the versatile, New-age forward Karl-Anthony Towns. And after a month of speculation that the Lakers would select him, Okafor was forced to wait five more minutes as Los Angeles swung for the fences in selecting combo guard D'Angelo Russell.
It's not often the third overall pick -- tank-master Sam Hinkie and the Sixers selected Okafor -- is considered to have slid, but for a player who has spent his entire life at the top of his sport, Thursday night was a major disappointment for the Chicago native.
He said all the right things speaking with the media late Thursday night -- "I can't be disappointed, I'm in the NBA living my dream" -- but this isn't the result he wanted. He could have been paired up with budding star Andrew Wiggins in Minnesota. He could have been the heir apparent to Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles while playing for one of the league's most stories franchises. Instead, he joins a Sixers franchise already flush with interior talent -- Nerlens Noel and Joel Embiid, lottery picks the last two seasons -- and not focused on winning anytime soon.
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Perhaps it was because Okafor had been at the top of his class for years, or because his absurdly polished offensive game forced critics to nitpick other areas of his game that aren't as NBA-ready, but in the final weeks leading up to the draft it seemed as though no player was more scrutinized than he.
Suddenly Okafor's conditioning was an issue. His defensive struggles appeared amplified because of Towns' star potential on that end of the floor. The Warriors' championship run engineered by small ball meant a back-to-the-basket scoring big like Okafor was a dying breed. He shot just 51 percent from the free throw line, another apparent red flag as the Hack-a-Shaq defensive strategy made its return in this year's playoffs.
"It's easy to shoot at somebody when they're at the top of the hill," Okafor said when asked about his critics. "I've been at the top pretty much all throughout high school, all throughout college. So I'm expecting it."
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For the first time in his basketball career Okafor is tasked with proving critics wrong. The good news is he's still an ultra-talented 19-year-old confident. His abilities and being given the reigns to a Sixers team that will give him more freedom than Minnesota or Los Angeles would have. There's positives here. He would have played second fiddle to Wiggins up north, or deferred to Bryant and a potential big-time free agent on the West Coast. Instead, Okafor will attempt to be the foundation of Hinkie's rebuilding project while proving his deficiencies, unfairly magnified or not, don't come close to outweighing his scoring prowess inside.
This is Okafor's situation now. It's not what he expected, and probably not what he wanted. But just as he's done at every level, he'll take his sky-high expectations (and unfamiliar criticism) in stride and make the most of his new opportunity to get back to the top.
"I'll just go in and work as hard as I can," he said. "I'm very excited."