We don’t definitively know what Jahlil Okafor’s future is with the Brooklyn Nets ... and it’s going to take some time, perhaps until free agency. But for Kenny Atkinson, on Okafor as on other situations, it’s never-say-never.
Atkinson, of course, has been vocal about the Nets adapting to the “new NBA,” which favors the pace-and-space style the team and most of the league fancies. That did not bode well for Okafor, whose specialty is scoring on the low block, with his back to the basket, you know, that 1990s game.
And when the Nets dump the ball in the low block to someone like Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, it’s not often, and it’s because he is simply trusted to score, a trust built over time.
“At the end of the day, our motion offense, after makes, we run it into the post,” Atkinson told reporters after Tuesday’s practice. “You see it with Rondae, if you’ve proven that you can score in the post, we’ll throw it to you. At the end of the day, that’s one of the most least efficient play types in the NBA, a guy going one on one in the post. I think the numbers back it up. You know I’m very analytically inclined about the way we play and looking for high value shots.”
While Okafor’s low-post game doesn’t quite gel with the Nets’ preferred style of play, his pick-and-roll scoring abilities do, according to Atkinson, who thinks highly of the Duke product in that blend of team offense. “Jah” just hasn’t had the time to showcase it.
“I’m going to be honest, his pick-and-roll, I wish I had the numbers with me, he’s definitely trying to do what we’re trying to do and I think he’s good in the pick-and-roll,” Atkinson said. “He’s got good hands and he rolls. I think we’ve got to get him to do it more often when he’s in there … or when he was in there. But I think he’d be a devastating pick-and-roll player.
“Instead of popping to the mid-range area, him rolling to the rim with the hands he has, with the moves he has, it becomes like a drive to me,” continued Atkinson. “You catch it in a roll, you can get to the rim and get a high percentage shot, because what happens in the post a lot is they end up shooting mid-range shots, unless you get a deep catch in the paint, which we love.”
And it’s not just about scoring points. It’s about defense and rebounding, both of which the Nets want to see more of.
Atkinson did acknowledge that Okafor hasn’t quite had the opportunity here in Brooklyn, where it even took a month for the near 7-footer to get in shape after his layoff in Philadelphia. His minutes since have been sporadic for a number of reasons.
“I think he’s had a little window of opportunity,” Atkinson admitted. “We have not given him a great opportunity, a great section of play where you say, ‘man, here’s 30 games, here’s 40 games.’ That’s part circumstances.”
Okafor’s lack of playing time, according to his head coach, is attributed to many factors. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is back and healthy, DeMarre Carroll spends time at the 4, Dante Cunningham has played well in the eyes of Atkinson and Sean Marks. And, of course, there’s Jarrett Allen.
Atkinson has always maintained that, in his mind, the reason Okafor hasn’t gotten the minutes is more a byproduct of those guys playing well and his post-trade “training camp,” the time Okafor took to better condition himself for in-game NBA action.
Okafor was traded for while the Nets were in Mexico on December 7 and did not debut with the team until December 15 at Toronto. He then missed nine games, returning on January 3, his first home game as a Net, against the Minnesota Timberwolves. Okafor also missed eight games between February 14 and March 8, one of which he wasn’t dressed for, and another where he wasn’t with the team.
“That took a chunk because we felt like he wasn’t game ready and I think he’ll agree with that,” said Atkinson of the ‘training camp’ back in December. “He did a fantastic job with that.
Atkinson also hinted that maybe if he had had a summer to work with the Nets...
“I think you’d have more information if he had a training camp and he had a longer time period, he’d be much more acclimated. It’s not been easy on him, how much we threw at him, both from a physical standpoint and adjusting to a new system.”
The Nets could re-sign Okafor in July. Under terms of his contract, they can’t pay him more than the $6.2 million qualifying offer ... and they do not hold his Bird Rights. So, he and they would have to agree to some sort of contract that protects both their interest and his.
Atkinson said those decisions lie ahead.
“I think for all our guys we’re looking at them every day. I think he’s part of it. We’re not in that decision-making process right now. We haven’t made any decisions. I continue to say I love his spirit, I love how he’s working,” Atkinson summed up.
Despite his lack of time on the court, Okafor seems comfortable in New York. So, we wait.