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Cooney: Hey, Sixers, let Embiid and Okafor share the lane

THE BASKETBALL education for Joel Embiid isn't all that impressive, maybe not even the equivalent of a grade school graduate.

THE BASKETBALL education for Joel Embiid isn't all that impressive, maybe not even the equivalent of a grade school graduate.

Jahlil Okafor is the exact opposite. He learned, and dominated, the game on the streets of Chicago, playing high school ball at national powerhouse Whitney Young, then moving on to the most elite college program in the country at Duke.

They are similar, however, in so many ways, which draws them to being such good friends on and off the court. Both are uniquely skilled at the offensive end of the floor; Okafor's game revolves mostly around the basket, Embiid is able to step out and drill threes. Okafor will match Embiid's 21 years of age in only a couple of weeks, babies when it comes to the NBA. But they both possess basketball intelligence that is something at which to marvel.

Though he is reluctant to do so, it is why Sixers coach Brett Brown should give them more of a chance to figure out how they can play together.

Perhaps Brown is being asked not to do so from a higher being, like general manager Bryan Colangelo. Maybe the coach's assessment that the two of them sharing minutes is a horrendous idea at the defensive end.

But, really, what is there to lose? Is the season going to spiral downward? Could that possibly happen? And if worse comes to worst, Embiid is your main center with Okafor backing him. Only last week against the defending champion Cavaliers, Embiid and Okafor combined for 36 points and 18 rebounds in splitting the 48 minutes.

For five minutes, 29 seconds in the second quarter Friday against the visiting Orlando Magic, Brown threw them on the floor together. What had been a listless game to that point - with the Sixers trailing 21-14 - suddenly caused a buzz, among the fans and the players as Embiid checked into the game for Dario Saric.

During their time together, the duo scored all of their team's points in a 12-9 run. Okafor tirelessly (a word he needs associated to him more often) worked the low post, while Embiid hovered around the three-point line at times, hit the low post on the other side of Okafor other times. Together they made four of their five attempts, Okafor scoring once off a dump in by Embiid.

Defensively, it wasn't nearly as bad as Brown has envisioned, though the sample size was quite short. Other players helped cover the perimeter when one of the bigs was slow to react, and Embiid and Okafor showed terrific communication skills with each another.

There was that fastbreak dunk by forward Jeff Green when no one seemed to get back after a missed three by Robert Covington, but we've seen that thousands of times over the past few years, whether the Sixers were playing big or small.

The two shared the court again for a bit in the fourth quarter, but the game was already out of hand by then.

Embiid has been nothing short of spectacular in his pro career, which reached 13 games in Friday's atrocious 105-88 loss to the visiting Magic, a game in which he totaled 25 points, 10 rebounds and four assists. His transition into the league after not playing for so long because of injury could be the story of the NBA so far.

"He has come on to the scene, and we all sort of say 'Wow,' that after 2 1/2 half years he hadn't played basketball, and look at what he does," said Brown.

"I look at his full body of work from his high school days. He really didn't play high school basketball. His junior year, he sat and cheered for D'Angelo Russell (at Montverde Academy in Florida). He played his senior year, but he wasn't the guy. Then he plays a half year at Kansas and then he doesn't play for two years, and then he arrives in the gym in Philadelphia and he does things that make you say, 'Wow,' defensively and offensively. We know this. This is infant stages, early days for him and his body of work, given his lack of playing basketball, really is jaw-dropping for what I think he can be.

"His ability to see something and discuss it and pick it apart and comment on it, he's so advanced, he's well beyond his years. It's not like he grew up and went to DeMatha and then to Duke and all that."

No, but Okafor, who collected 16 points and 13 rebounds against the Magic, did. So when Brown looks how to describe a Rhodes scholar of basketball, he basically points to Okafor's background.

So if these two centers with phenomenal offensive skills are so intelligent, you would think they could figure it out on the defensive end, no? Or at least take a long look at it?

"To grab on to something to solve and scratch an itch, it's not fair to the team," Brown said. "My mind is growing it in a responsible way, and when opportunities present themselves, I look forward to doing that.

"(Tim) Duncan taught a lot on spacing and he played with other bigs and stretch fours. I had a good background of seeing stuff. My concern is always who do we guard? How do we guard? And how do we get back to guard?

"My mind goes immediately there when we talk about this ever-present topic. The NBA is that well-coached, and they'll come up with something (to exploit the Sixers' defense with Embiid and Okafor on the floor together).

You ask both Embiid or Okafor what they would like to do, and their smiles get big and their minds wander.

"We just want to play together and are looking forward to doing so," they say.

Well, they're only kids. What do they know?

Oh, wait, turns out a lot. The coach said so.