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Jahlil Okafor: “I’m all in”

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BROOKLYN, N.Y. — “I have a chip on my shoulder. This is the first time where people are against me in a sense because I’ve always been the hyped-up guy,” Jahlil Okafor said at his introductory press conference on Monday.

Welcome to Brooklyn.

The Nets, you see, take pride in working hard and playing with a chip on their shoulder, We’ve heard it from more than one player. From the bottom to the top, everybody in the organization is playing with something to prove. Okafor feels it’s a good fit.

“I just worked my ass off every day knowing my opportunity would come and it would present itself, and I wanted to make sure that I’d ready when it happened,” said the 21-year-old. “Just every day, working hard with the coaches on the staff they still cared for me. Just making sure I was ready for this opportunity.”

“It hasn’t been easy,” said Okafor after playing a total of 25 minutes this season. “It was just tough. I was a part of the team, but I wasn’t at the same time. Luckily I was friends with all the guys on the team and they helped me through it, so I’m happy to be here and have a new page in life.”

Sound familiar?

In the past six months, the Nets have acquired two 21-year-olds, both high lottery picks, in Okafor and D’Angelo Russell. Like Russell in L.A., Okafor was stranded on an island in Philadelphia. He spent his rookie season either hurt or trying to carry a historically bad 10-72 Sixers team. It became clear that he was essentially a rental player warming the seat for Joel Embiid’s return.

After the trade was announced, who was the first Nets player to get in touch with Okafor? DLo.

“He’s actually the first person to call me when I got traded,” Okafor said. “We’re just very excited to get on the court together, you never would’ve thought the No. 2 and No. 3 draft picks would be playing on the same team a few years after, but like I said everything happens for a reason.”

“I feel like we’re similar in that we have a lot to prove. I know he’s working his ass off rehabbing, trying to get back on the court. I think we both have a chip on our shoulder and we have a lot to prove,” Okafor added.

Despite the excitement, Okafor understands it’s all in due time. Russell is rehabbing from knee surgery. In the meantime, Okafor must get accustomed to playing with the fastest paced team in the league.

“He has to get healthy and I have to get acclimated with the team, but it’s hard not to think about. I’m excited and I know he’s excited. I’ve heard nothing but great things about the guys on the team, I know they’re all young and hungry. They’ve been playing well and I’m happy to be here.”

Russell isn’t the only player Okafor recognizes. He explained how he’s crossed paths with several players on the Nets. Most of them are the same age. They have eight players 24 or younger ... the sixth youngest team in the NBA after the trade.

“Yeah, it’s definitely easier, but I do know some of the guys on the team,” said Okafor when asked about coming over with Nik Stauskas. “Me and D’Angelo have a relationship, and I’m close with Rondae [Hollis-Jefferson] who is somebody I played USA basketball and stuff like that. They’re all young guys. I’ve pretty much seen them just in passing through basketball camps and playing against them and stuff like that.”

Okafor went on to explain how his vegan diet helped him lose 20 pounds over the summer, reducing his weight to about “250-255 pounds.” He hopes it helps him adjust to the new system as soon as possible, while alleviating pressure on his knee, which he described as completely fine.

“Like I said, I was preparing. I was just learning the pace of this team and the plays, and stuff like that. So hopefully it doesn’t take too long, I think I’m ready, but I’ll find out today at practice if they expect me to play soon or if they kind of want to just ease me into it.”

The Nets attempt the second most 3-pointers per game at 34. With Rondae Hollis-Jefferson dominating the paint, it’s crucial for Okafor to expand his game beyond the 3-point line. He believes Brooklyn’s coaching staff will help, while praising Kenny Atkinson after day number one.

“I have tried to extend my range and that’s one of the things I heard about Brooklyn, how good they are at developing players. I’m really excited for that.

“Even yesterday, just being out there with coach Kenny, he was actually hands on, instructing the entire workout. That was different for me. Usually it’s the assistant coaches who handle that, but to see the head coach out there working with me, helping me shoot, running with me, guarding me a few times, it was different. I enjoyed it.”

Okafor has been criticized for being a one-dimensional player who was slow on the defensive side of the ball. Brooklyn’s development staff is focused on turning him into a two-way player.

“That’s something that I’m buying into. They’re going to help me with that. I’ll find out their defensive schemes and what they expect from me, but I’m buying into whatever they want me to do. Full fledge, I’m all in.”

He’s buying in and he hasn’t even played a game yet! Again, it all sounds very familiar. It’s something new for Okafor. As noted, he was practically stuck in Philadelphia with no direction or plan for his future. He wasn’t just on bench at home. He wasn’t even traveling with the team on some trips. He admits he isn’t perfect and that he wouldn’t change anything about his past.

“I mean, I’m not a perfect player. I’m 21. There’s things that I need to work on and I have worked on and that I’ll continue to work on.”

Where did he turn for guidance? Okafor mentioned Mike Krzezewski, Coach K, explaining how his college coach calls regularly to check up on his former big man. Then of course, there was his father. Okafor lost his mother at a young age and his father has played -- and is still playing -- a huge role in his life.

Along with them, there was Nik Stauskas, who’s been with Okafor through the tough days and explains how he’s glad to see him get the attention he deserves.

“Just being with him for the last two years, I know he was frustrated with the situation in Philadelphia,” Stauskas said of his teammate. “Obviously he’s a very talented player, he was the No. 3 pick in the draft for a reason.

“So the fact that he wasn’t playing, I know it was really tough for him. I hope he gets an opportunity to play here and really showcase himself. Because I’ve seen him over his rookie year, whether it’s in practice, he’s a talented, talented basketball player who’s definitely deserving of a spot in this league.”

Many basketball types have said similar things. Okafor showed his potential during his rookie campaign where he averaged 17 points and seven rebounds per game. After being held captive by Philly the last year and a half, Okafor is antsy to get back on the court and show his worth.

“I’m definitely ready [to play] and I’m tired of sitting.”