Jahlil Okafor’s second season in the NBA has been one of learning, marked by injuries, trade talks and DNPs. Throughout these shifting uncertainties, he's had a constant foundation: his fellow Duke players.
“It’s a brotherhood,” Okafor said. “We’re all friends, we’re all a family.”
From those who burst onto the scene to those who struggled to veterans who have seen it all, Okafor has a network of players who already have been through the ups and downs of the league. Even though Okafor competed for only one year at the college level, he got to know many of them while he was coming up the ranks in high school. He formed a stronger bond once he got to the pros.
“He always knows I’m one phone call away no matter what,” Kyrie Irving said.
Okafor began his second year dealing with a knee injury that held him out most of preseason action. When he got back into the mix, the Sixers looked to determine his place in a logjammed frontcourt.
Minutes were more available at the five-spot when Nerlens Noel was sidelined for the first 23 games of the season. Once all four centers (including Richaun Holmes) were healthy, it was Noel who found himself the odd man out of the rotation. Then the Sixers tried experimenting with a “twin towers” starting lineup of Embiid and Okafor. That pairing didn’t pan out and roles changed.
The Sixers narrowed their roster to a 10-man rotation with Noel as the defensive leader in the second unit. Okafor, for the most part, got the start when Embiid did not play because of back-to-backs or injuries, and was a DNP otherwise.
That situation changed again when the Sixers sat Okafor recently for two games as he was involved in trade discussions. Okafor did not travel with the Sixers for their Feb. 13 contest in Charlotte and rejoined them in Boston for their Feb. 15 game when a deal did not transpire.
Okafor has a long list of players he can ask about these trying scenarios.
“I get help from all those guys,” Okafor said. “I can look to any one of [them] for advice.”
Former Blue Devil Austin Rivers has been in Okafor’s situation when it comes to decreased playing time. The 2012 10th overall pick had troubles carving out a role early on with the Pelicans. He dealt with injuries and was hit with DNPs when the team added more guards to the mix. Now in his fifth season, he has established a spot on the Clippers.
“It’s a good thing,” Rivers said of the challenges. “If you’re truly a good player and a competitor, it’ll breed maturity and a level of respect and hard work. It’s a humbling experience. It’s the best thing for you; it’s the best thing that happened to me. I went through struggles to come back a better player and person. I think it’s the same thing he’s doing now. He’ll appreciate it.”
Irving, formerly the first overall pick, didn’t struggle with his role with the Cavaliers. He was a focal point from the start and had become a three-time All-Star and NBA champion by the end of his fifth season. Because of this, Okafor looks to Irving for his knowledge of managing the spotlight.
“Guys have to go through what they go through just to build character, build whatever they need, that armor, to deal with what this NBA life entails. It comes with a lot,” Irving said. “It’s just patience. Despite what's going on in the outside world, you’ve got to remain calm and give everything you have to this game of basketball.”
Last season, Okafor established a mentor relationship with Elton Brand when the 17-year veteran signed with the Sixers in January of Okafor’s rookie year. Okafor still speaks with Brand, who became a player development consultant for the Sixers, on a weekly basis for guidance.
This season, he has another veteran Duke player in the locker room. Gerald Henderson got to know Okafor before they played together on the Sixers. Henderson was on campus completing his degree when Okafor was there ahead of his freshman season. The two spent time together then, and Henderson continues to look out for him now as a teammate.
“I was around him a lot, working out with the team, seeing how good of a kid he was,” Henderson said, also adding, “It’s a man’s league. It’s not like you’ve got to hold somebody’s hand through something. Jah’s a man in himself. But at the same time, I’m always checking on him, seeing how he’s doing, make sure he’s not down, make sure he’s still getting his work in and focusing on the right things.”
The trade deadline is two days away.
Whether Okafor remains in a Sixers jersey or puts on a new uniform, the one he wore in college always will be a part of his journey through the NBA.
“It’s bigger than basketball,” Okafor said.