Less than three weeks after the 76ers had made the sudden and stunning decision to hire him as their chairman of basketball operations, Jerry Colangelo cleared time on his schedule for a counseling session with Jahlil Okafor.
The Sixers were coming to Phoenix on Dec. 26 to play the Suns. Because Colangelo still lives there, he made certain to set aside time that day for a sit-down with Okafor, for his first chance since joining the Sixers to talk to a player who held so much promise and, over the two previous months, had done so much to embarrass the franchise. A street fight in Boston caught on video, a 108-mph dash across the Ben Franklin Bridge, a gun-related incident at a Philadelphia nightclub - Okafor's recklessness had damaged his reputation and shamed the Sixers into seeking Colangelo's help. And from his friendship with Mike Krzyzewski, Okafor's college coach at Duke, to his coaxing the NBA's superstars into revitalizing the U.S. Olympic men's basketball program, Colangelo hoped he could reach Okafor before the kid put his career in more peril.
"What I've tried to do is encourage him and talk about what this is all about," Colangelo said in a phone interview Thursday, adding that he has met with Okafor three or four more times since Dec. 26. "There's a lot at stake as it relates to a career and a future. In other words, encouragement is basically the bottom line and saying, 'Look, everyone makes mistakes, and you have to learn from those mistakes on the floor and off. Just tune in.' "
Early Thursday afternoon, while Colangelo was traveling to Toronto for the NBA's All-Star Game, Okafor was scheduled to be in Camden Municipal Court for a hearing on his speeding charge (the hearing was postponed) before heading to Toronto himself for Friday's Rising Stars Challenge. The weekend, then, will offer another opportunity for Colangelo to keep steering Okafor along the straight and narrow. The Sixers need Okafor on his best behavior. They need him to grow and mature. So much of their future is so uncertain, and he represents their surest path to excellence, either as a fixture in their lineup or as their most valuable asset, the trade chip they can use to accelerate their rebuild.
It might sound premature to consider that scenario - the Sixers' trading Okafor - especially after his performance Wednesday night in a 114-110 loss to the Sacramento Kings. He had 26 points and 10 rebounds, nearly matching the 28 points and 12 rebounds of the league's most talented low-post player, DeMarcus Cousins. "Cousins saw his twin tonight," Sixers point guard Ish Smith said, and the numbers that Okafor is putting up this season as a 20-year-old - 17.1 points and 7.4 rebounds a game, a shooting percentage of 49.4 - hint that he's only scratched the surface of his skills.
Nevertheless, there are reasons to believe that the Sixers eventually will decide that Okafor's greatest benefits will come not in what he can do for them but in what he can bring them. Understand: The argument that the Sixers should make any major move on or before the Feb. 18 trade deadline is at best shortsighted. They have staked much of the success of their "process" on this offseason, and they don't know yet how many first-round picks they will have in this year's draft (as many as four), when they will pick, or, perhaps most importantly, whether Joel Embiid will be ready for the start of next season. Until those questions start answering themselves - suppose, for instance, Embiid reinjures his foot again - it would be foolish for them to trade Okafor.
But that foolishness might end up being merely a matter of timing. Okafor and Nerlens Noel have struggled to complement each other on the court, and when Noel missed Wednesday's game because of right-knee tendinitis, Okafor had a rare chance to show what he could do with Smith, a competent point guard, feeding him the ball and with more room and freedom near the basket.
"You definitely notice Nerlens isn't playing because he's such a presence on the floor," Okafor said.
Maybe 52 games is too small a sample size to conclude that Okafor and Noel can't coexist. But the results haven't been encouraging so far, and Noel is the superior defensive player. If Embiid stays healthy and emerges as an offensive force, or if the Sixers land this year's No. 1 overall pick and LSU's Ben Simmons, then Okafor might become superfluous.
Remember, too, that neither Colangelo nor general manager Sam Hinkie would necessarily be unwilling to trade Okafor just because he was the team's best player or because the Sixers were committed fully to the strategy of slow and steady improvement. One of the great misconceptions about Hinkie and his approach is that he would never alter it, that the accumulation of young players and draft picks was just an end unto itself. The point of hoarding those assets is that they provide the resources and flexibility to make a blockbuster trade if the right circumstances present themselves. And Colangelo already has turned around a franchise by pulling off just such a deal: In 1988, as the Phoenix Suns' owner and GM, he traded Larry Nance to the Cleveland Cavaliers for a package of players, including point guard Kevin Johnson. After winning 28 games in 1987-88, the Suns reeled off seven straight seasons of 53 victories or more.
Yes, so much is still possible for the Sixers, even in the midst of one more long season of mostly lousy basketball, and so much of it rides on Jahlil Okafor's growth as a player and a man. He heads to Toronto this weekend to enjoy himself and mingle with the sport's stars, but an older, wiser man will be waiting for him there, and Jerry Colangelo will deliver a simple message once more: Tune in, kid. Just please, tune in.