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Cooney: Okafor needs time to adjust to NBA style, new role

WHEN TOLD his time allotment had reached its limit and that he would be a spectator for the second overtime on Wednesday, 76ers center Joel Embiid kicked a bench chair in frustration in what would become a loss to the Memphis Grizzlies.

WHEN TOLD his time allotment had reached its limit and that he would be a spectator for the second overtime on Wednesday, 76ers center Joel Embiid kicked a bench chair in frustration in what would become a loss to the Memphis Grizzlies.

His frustration level might have been slightly lower than that of Jahlil Okafor's, however.

While Embiid's boiling point was reached in the heat-of-the-moment type of fashion, Okafor's is just more of a steady dissatisfaction with how, when and where he fits in with this team right now.

The reactive fans in this city, as most are, go right to Okafor's defensive struggles and insist, for now, that his isn't a place easily found on this team and that he is the team's most valuable trade commodity. Okafor undoubtedly has struggled, mightily at times, at the defensive end. He knows it. The coaches know. The fans know it.

But there is so much more to it all than just saying it's time to ship him. That is just too reactive and narrow-minded, for now. And when viewing this organization, that isn't the proper lens too look through.

In Okafor, the team has a wonderfully talented offensive player who possesses the footwork and post moves rivaled by few others in the NBA for a man his size (6-10, 275). That part of his game has always been there. That is a big reason why he was a college recruit in eighth grade; the reason he has been the best player at his age since anyone can remember. And it's an area that can still use improvement. See, Okafor never had to run a pick-and-roll before; giving it to him and clearing out is what was done for him in high school, on the U.S. national team and during his one season at Duke.

Defense was passable in high school simply because Okafor was so much bigger and stronger, and smart enough to know how to use his talent. Rarely was he relied upon at Duke for stoppages or much rebounding; mostly, he had to stay out of foul trouble.

That is how stars are treated, and Okafor has always been that. Now, however, he finds himself as an NBA backup to one of the most electrifying players this town has seen in quite some time in Embiid.

"It's a big difference for me and something that I'm trying to adjust to," said Okafor, who scored 10 points in 27 minutes in the Sixers' 105-89 loss to Chicago on Friday night. "I haven't even played a full NBA season, and I'm already trying to adjust to something new. I'm trying to get it down. I know the fans, they want everything to come right away, and I understand where they are coming from. I'm going to work as hard as I can to make it happen as soon as possible.

"With me, there's a lot that goes into the role that I'm playing - with Joe not being able to play some nights or more than 24 minutes on others. Once his restriction is off and we have the opportunity to play together, I'm anxious to see how it all plays out."

Perhaps it will play out that way. More likely, it could be a case of Embiid getting his 30 minutes, Okafor relieving him and the two getting some time on the floor together. Seeing Okafor display displeasure at a lack of minutes because of Embiid's play isn't a bad thing. It means he wants to be out on the court. The next step is to do everything possible to ensure that, which directly points to his play at the defensive end.

"It is, I'm going to say significant, and to the layman fan or people who aren't really paying attention to tape, it may not seem as dramatic as I'm saying, but he's improved a lot," coach Brett Brown said of Okafor's defense. "The thing that hurts Jahlil is that we may look at his defensive rebounding numbers, and it's true, they are not flattering. He needs to do better and he will. But just to look at the growth of him understanding what we're trying to get done, understanding better defensive schemes, applying more effort on a consistent basis, running back the other way.

"We know that Jahlil loves to score, and the game is more than that. He understands that completely, and he's trying to please, he really wants to be coached. Sometimes you don't see it borne out in the statistics. From last year to this year, I see a more committed basketball, whole player, trying to do the right thing, and he is making improvements in areas you may not see if you just study the stat sheet."

Okafor has ruled stat sheets his whole basketball life. But it's a different game at this level, and domination at one end isn't enough without contribution at the other.

"I think it is hard, but, to Jahlil's credit, I think he's handled it great," said veteran Jerryd Bayless. "There are going to be ups and downs for everybody on this team - including myself and Joe's going to go through it. It's the NBA, it's a hard league, a really hard league. I think the way he's handled it and handled himself in the situation has been great. We need Jahlil. For our team to be successful, we need him to be good. We know he'll keep on working to do that."

Okafor will turn only 21 in a few weeks. Friday, he played his 68th game in the NBA and was a serious liability at the defensive end for much of the game against the Bulls. But his attitude is pure, though it's an understandable struggle to figure where he fits right now. Time, however, is something the Sixers have plenty of. When/if this team gets good, it's hard not seeing Okafor being a good player on a good team. After all, he's been that all his life.