Jahlil Okafor puts Sixers in rear-view mirror, turns focus to Brooklyn Nets
After months of waiting and the anxiety of not knowing, former 76ers center Jahlil Okafor is finally looking forward to playing basketball again with the Brooklyn Nets.
NEW YORK — Jahlil Okafor is ready to close the book on his time in Philadelphia and start writing a new story.
After an impressive first season with the Sixers that landed him a first-team all-rookie selection, injury derailed his sophomore campaign. Then his career was brought to a screeching halt this season when he was taken completely out of the Sixers' rotation.
The team wanted to trade him, and he wanted to be traded. He asked for a buyout. As Okafor sat at the end of the Sixers bench, the clock kept ticking. He got more and more anxious, not knowing when he would finally get a chance to go somewhere else and prove once again that he was worth playing time.
Okafor looked exhausted when talking about the emotional turmoil of wanting to be with the only NBA teammates he's ever had, but needing to get out so that his career could survive. It's not just because of the emotionally grueling nature of the situation he was in. There's been little else to talk or think about.
He's tired of talking about it, and he's done thinking about it.
When the subject of the Sixers came up in a recent conversation, Okafor quickly wanted to turn the page and focus on the one positive thing that has happened in nearly two years.
"It's all about Brooklyn now," he said Tuesday night inside the Nets' locker room at the Barclays Center.
He isn't the only person who wants to avoid talking about how things went down with the Sixers.
"I really don't want to comment on what happened there, and on their situation," Nets coach Kenny Atkinson said. "It would be irresponsible of me to even try to judge what went on in Philly. I've got to look at it as a clean slate."
The day of the trade
On the morning of Dec. 7, as the Sixers were preparing to face the Lakers, Jahlil Okafor continued to work.
He ran baseline to baseline, shot off the dribble, worked on post moves, and took free throws, staying on the court after the rest of the team had finished the game-day shoot-around.
He knew he wouldn't be playing that night, but he didn't know it would be his last workout as a 76er.
Before it was time to go to the Wells Fargo Center that evening, his agent, Bill Duffy, called him with the news Okafor had been desperately waiting months to hear. A trade had gone through, and he was headed to Brooklyn along with Nik Stauskas.
"A lot of excitement for me and my family," Okafor said Tuesday night. "Obviously, we wanted out of Philly. So a lot of excitement for that to come to fruition."
That excitement came at a cost, though. Okafor was moving on from teammates he considers brothers. He was moving on from a fan base that showed him love until the very end.
‘We want Okafor’
Okafor remembers Nov. 22 well. Sitting on the bench during a blowout victory against Portland, he heard the fans at a sold-out Wells Fargo Center chanting, "We want Okafor!"
He appreciated that they had his back.
"That moment spoke to their character," Okafor said. "The fans knew what I was going through. Philly has the most passionate fans that I've ever come across. Even in my rookie year, winning 10 games, they were still there supporting."
On Tuesday night, during Okafor's first game in a Brooklyn uniform, the scene repeated itself a few hours north. Nets fans chanted his name as he sat on the bench. But this time, those chants weren't aimed at an organization that was letting him waste away on the bench. This time, they were a sign of the opportunity ahead.
"It's great to know I already have the support of the fans," Okafor said.
The next chapter
Okafor did not play Tuesday in the Nets' 103-98 victory over the visiting Washington Wizards, but he wasn't discouraged. This time, it was just a matter of getting to know his new team.
Atkinson said he's taking a deliberate and slow approach to incorporating Okafor into the rotation. Atkinson wants his newly acquired player completely up to speed before turning him loose on the court.
"We want to put both those guys in a position to succeed and position to help the team," Atkinson said of Okafor and Stauskas. "I can't give you an exact date. I just know we're going to keep working with them and keep integrating them."
The Nets are turning into a cast of the NBA's seemingly unwanted. Okafor, who went No. 3 overall in the 2015 NBA draft, is now teammates with D'Angelo Russell, the 2015 No. 2 pick whom the Lakers traded this past offseason.
Atkinson puts a big emphasis on player development. He said he is looking forward to having another young asset to build and mold.
Russell is recovering from arthroscopic left knee surgery, but before his Nov. 17 procedure, the Nets had put together enough wins to keep them in the conversation for a low playoff seed. Now 11-15, Brooklyn is 2.5 games behind the Sixers with about a third of the NBA season in the books.
Okafor has put Philadelphia in the rear-view mirror. He is focusing all his energy on learning everything he can about how the Nets play, and finding a suitable home so his dogs can come join him in Brooklyn.
With a German Shepherd (Rocky) and a Rottweiler (Natty), it won't be easy to find a place in the borough like what he had in Moorestown, N.J. But Okafor isn't worried. He said it has been a fun few days on the hunt.
"It's a great city," he said. "What more could you ask for?"