Jahlil Okafor had not played since February 12. Some of it was due to injury and illness —nothing serious— and most of his time on the bench was DNP/CD, that is “Did not play, coach’s decision.”
Then, Sunday, he got the call. His old Philly teammate and practice partner, Joel Embiid, was roasting the Nets in the post and Kenny Atkinson thought that Okafor, with a bigger body and more experience than Jarrett Allen, might be effective.
And he was.
With 3:15 left in the second quarter, Okafor checked in and made three consecutive stops against Embiid. He also showed some neat ball-handling and worked down low, going around Embiid for a two-handed dunk 40 seconds left in the half. It was the closest the Nets would get. It wasn’t much, but it was better than a month on the bench or in bed with the flu. Philly reporters noted that Okafor moved a lot better than he did with the Sixers
“Yeah, I just felt like playing against Embiid he could use his girth and size, could help us out and I thought he did a pretty good job,” Atkinson said. “His minutes were good.”
How good? He didn’t play again until the fourth quarter and didn’t do as well, but he finished with four points and a rebound in five minutes, hitting 2-of-3 for the evening. Okafor’s time on the bench has mystified many Nets fans.
Initially, the Nets suggested the 6’11” big man wasn’t in basketball shape after sitting for two months in Philadelphia. He made positive comments and fans waited to see what he could do. And waited. And waited. He showed some flashes. He scored 17 points vs. Atlanta a week after the trade, 21 vs. Minnesota on January 27, then 15 vs. Houston on February 6. Admittedly, the plus/minus numbers (and his defensive rating) have been bad, very bad, but he remains 22 and he is the only 5 on the roster other than Allen and Timofey Mozgov, who plays even less.
Atkinson was non-committal on future minutes before Sunday’s game but as he has since the trade, praised Okafor’s attitude.
“Sometimes it’s just circumstances,” Atkinson said. “I’d say his approach, his buy-in to what we’re doing, has been phenomenal. His buy-in to our performance team and getting his body, improving his body has been phenomenal. So, very pleased.”
But for the first time, Atkinson also noted that Okafor is not all that happy with those circumstances.
“He has some days where he gets a little down, which is normal. But he picks it right back up and has really busted his tail. So hopefully in these last games we can find opportunities for him to get there. I’d like to see more, so hopefully we get to that point.”
True to his word, Atkinson gave him a few minutes, but for the most part, the Nets have played small ball when Allen sits, with newly acquired 30-year-old free agent Dante Cunningham manning the 5 at 6’8”.
The Nets don’t appear to have given up on the No. 3 overall pick in the 2015 Draft. There have been hints that they will be able to better figure things out this summer. Okafor has similarly hinted he likes Brooklyn and would like to stay. If there is an agreement, it’s likely to be for a minimum deal, with team options, etc. (The Nets can’t sign him for more than $6.2 million in the summer, but that’s not happening now.)
So, with 15 games left, starting Tuesday night against Toronto, Atkinson’s comment that he’d like to find “opportunities for him” will be tested. So will Okafor.
“I thought he was good in the minutes that he played,” Atkinson said Monday. “Those things give your more trust and more of a willingness to play him. … He just has to keep proving himself.”
- Nets ran out of options so Jahlil Okafor got a chance - Brian Lewis - New York Post