No Jahlil Okafor again Thursday night, the fourth straight game the new big man sat since getting traded last week, two while his teammates were in Mexico City and now two that he’s sat in Brooklyn. What’s with that?
Kenny Atkinson says the organization is still getting Okafor (and Nik Stauskas) “acclimated to our system,” noting they’ve only had two practices. He would not put a timetable on the big man’s debut other than “soon.” Nor would he offer, at least directly, what that “acclimation” entailed. Physical? Mental? He really wouldn’t say but over the past few days there have been hints.
One question to be answered when he gets on the court is whether his experience in Philadelphia, particularly his last season and a quarter, were an aberration, a career outlier. Okafor admits he might have dealt with more than a little doubt, more than a little surprise the way his career turned out.
“I feel really motivated right now, and I’ve always been motivated,” Okafor said Monday, at the HSS Training Center. “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.”
“Hyped up?” How about successful? It wasn’t just being drafted No. 3 in the 2015 draft that shone the light on Okafor. The 6’11” center from Chicago had a record of basketball success prior to joining the NBA and even into his rookie season.
Take a look at his achievements...
—NBA All-Rookie first team, 2016
—U.S. Olympics Mens’ Select Team, 2016
—ACC Player of the Year, 2015
—NCAA Champion, Duke, 2015
—Morgan Wooten National High School Player of the Year, 2014
—Co-MVP, McDonald’s All-American Game, 2014
—Mr. Illinois Basketball, 2014
—Gold Medal, FIBA U19 World Championship, 2013
—Gold Medal and MVP, FIBA U17 World Championship, 2012
—Gold Medal, FIBA U16 Americas Championship, 2011
Looked like a sure thing. Of course, this year, he’s played exactly two games and scored exactly 10 points, all of them in one 22-minute stretch on October 21. Since then, he’s played three more minutes, none in the last five weeks.
“It hasn’t been easy. It was just tough,” he admitted in another part of the media availability. “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.”
Atkinson hinted Thursday that the Nets are working on his (and presumably Stauskas) confidence levels. It’s not just about a new offensive system, new defensive sets. It’s about rebuilding a player’s ego as well. The Nets feel they’re good at this part of player development.
“The analytics we look at obviously. We have a pretty all-consuming plan for these guys,” Atkinson said. “The performance part is huge. … the mental part, the maturity. Like Spencer [Dinwiddie] last year was having problems sometimes bringing the ball up the court. It was confidence, not skill. And the last part, we work with these guys individually.”
Getting back on the court is part of that, of course, but in the past, the Nets have used a variety of approaches to get players to a point where they’re ready to take on the world. They told Joe Harris they wanted him to be the Nets’ Kyle Korver, surprising ... and flattering him. They told Allen Crabbe they wanted to make him more than just a 3-point shooter, flattering him too. They had Rondae Hollis-Jefferson engage with a sports psychologist about getting beyond the last mistake, developing a next play mentality.
We don’t know the approach the Nets are taking with Okafor or how long they think it will take or at what point putting in a game will be the best boost for him. And the Nets will not push it. They won’t bring a player back from a physical injury prematurely. Same when they’re talking confidence levels.
Okafor has a lot of doubters, most of whom fall into the the-game-has-passed-him-by category. But a number of basketball operations types think that’s overhyped. Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas, Heat Coach Erik Spoelstar, ex-Cavaliers GM David Griffin are all on the record this week saying they think the Nets did well in the trade, believing Okafor will prove Sean Marks right.