Sixers' Jahlil Okafor Era begins
Sam Hinkie's first ready-to-play center shows he's something special.
BOSTON - About 65 million years ago in the Gulf of Mexico, scientists say, an asteroid crashed into earth, caused mass extinctions, ended the Cretaceous Period and began the current Cenozoic Era.
Wednesday night at the TD Garden, the Okafor Era began, though with considerably less combustion; but, for the Sixers, a giant seismic impact.
It is impossible to overstate the significance of Jahlil Okafor . . . though the Philadelphia region seemed mystifyingly indifferent. Think about it: The Sixers finally added a complete player.
This is Eric Lindros, Jim Thome, Donovan McNabb and Allen Iverson.
With apologies to Sir Charles, Okafor is the best real big man to hit town since Moses, rest his soul, except Moses wasn't a savior.
Jahlil Okafor brings salvation in short pants.
But, somehow, only one Philadelphia media outlet sent extra personnel for his debut. On an Eagles bye week.
They missed a heck of a show.
Okafor finished with 26 points on 10-for-16 shooting, with seven rebounds and two blocks in 38 minutes of the Sixers' 112-95 loss.
He was not perfect; he poorly defended the pick-and-roll and had trouble with spacing off the ball. All players have shortcomings, though Okafor's blinding array of skills at 6-11 and 275 pounds (!) minimize his deficiencies. He doesn't run especially fast or jump exceedingly high, but Okafor doubters needed only to watch the first quarter of his first game to understand how different he is.
He made five of seven shots, smoothly, naturally; first a driving runner that drew contact, followed by spins and crossovers and a jumper or two; 10 points in less than 10 minutes. He also blocked two shots. Okafor drew attention away from springy forward Nerlens Noel, who made two shots over David Lee, whom the Celtics could not afford to help.
Not with the front-runner for Rookie of the Year on the court.
The Sixers have not yet promoted Okafor as such, perhaps to ease the pressure. After all, the team current has no viable point guard, no healthy shooting guard and no defined starter at small forward.
So, Wednesday, Okafor prepared for his debut in relative peace.
He awoke to read texts from his father, Chuck, and his college coach, Mike Krzyzewski. He went to the team's shootaround at a local college, then returned to the team hotel for a shower and an hour of laptop TV: "How to Get Away With Murder." A two-hour nap, then off to the arena.
There, he opened some eyes.
It took the Celtics until Okafor's second stint on the floor to send a double-team his way, and that strategy worked. Okafor did not effectively beat a double-team until late in the third quarter . . . and then he snapped a perfect pass across the court to Hollis Thompson for a wide-open three-pointer.
Okafor will spend the season getting extra attention, which is a remarkable tribute 48 minutes into his career. For the moment, there are a handful of players who, when healthy, can handle Okafor one-on-one - Dwight Howard, Marc Gasol, Joakim Noah, maybe Serge Ibaka - but that will change, too. Okafor is just that big and strong; that quick; that shifty; that good.
"He has capabilities beyond what I thought," coach Brett Brown said. "He's got an instinct and a knack for scoring. Just in more versatile ways than I expected . . . He didn't disappoint."
Brown, a little stunned, compared Okafor's composure in the face of extra defenders to the most complete post player of the generation:
"That's a hint of Tim Duncan."
Okafor seemed to understand how much immediate impact he can have.
"This is definitely a big day for the organization," he said before the game. "This is my first NBA game."
He understands there is no waiting for tomorrow with him, no long-term plan. Noel couldn't shoot a lick two years ago and will never be a real threat. Embiid just started playing basketball a few years ago; if he ever gets healthy, he is years away from competence.
Like Jabari Parker last season, Okafor is instant offense. Just add water.
He said as much on draft night.
"I did say I wanted to come into the NBA and assert myself right away," Okafor said after the game. "I'm definitely happy with the way I played. But I have a long way to go."
"He'a got a chance," said understated general manager Sam Hinkie.
But no one (outside of a small battalion of local Hinkie zealots) seems to care much.
Maybe because the Timberwolves and Lakers were blinded by the brilliant athleticism of Karl-Anthony Towns and D'Angelo Russell, which allowed Okafor to slip to No. 3.
Maybe because the Sixers' previous two top picks, Noel and Joel Embiid, delayed their debuts: Noel for a year; Embiid, perhaps, for a lifetime.
Maybe because, under Hinkie's eclectic reign, no Sixers player is safe; just ask all those people who got to wear their Michael Carter-Williams jerseys for 18 months.
Maybe Hinkie and Co. alienated enough fans in the first two years of slashing and burning that the acquisition of greatness is not enough to warrant an emotional investment.
For anyone who was wary of investing in Okafor on draft night, there's plenty of room on the bandwagon now.
How is that?
Okafor was the top-ranked player in his high school class since before he could get his permit to drive. He won the Illinois state title as a senior and was co-MVP of the McDonald's All-American Game, in which he made the winning shot. Several outlets predicted he would be the national collegiate player of the year, which would have made him only the third freshman to win the honor. Okafor did not win that award, but he beat the guy who did, Frank Kaminsky, in the national championship game.
So, two titles in two years. All sorts of predicted honors; all manner of earned accolades.
Okafor will have plenty more in his future.
On offense, he might be the most fluid under-20 big man to ever hit the NBA.
But still . . . he's something else.
Today, he is the Sixers' best player.
Some nights he will be the best player, or at least the most significant player, on either team's roster.
Wednesday night was one of those nights.
Wednesday night, the Okafor Era began.
With a bang.
On Twitter: @inkstainedretch