Jahlil Okafor Looks to Exceed High Expectations

The No. 3 pick addressed the media Saturday: "For as long as I can remember, big men have been dominant and the result has been NBA championships."

Duke Blue Devils center Jahlil Okafor (15) shoots the ball against Wisconsin Badgers forward Frank Kaminsky (44) during the first half in the 2015 NCAA Men's Division I Championship game at Lucas Oil Stadium on April 6, 2015, in Indianapolis.

Duke Blue Devils center Jahlil Okafor (15) shoots the ball against Wisconsin Badgers forward Frank Kaminsky (44) during the first half in the 2015 NCAA Men’s Division I Championship game at Lucas Oil Stadium on April 6, 2015, in Indianapolis.

Basketball writer Derek Bodner is covering the NBA draft for Philadelphia magazine at Sixers Draftland

“I’m familiar with winning,” Jahlil Okafor, told members of the media on Saturday during his introductory press conference.

That was kind of an understatement. Okafor’s run to the NCAA championship this past spring with Duke capped an amateur career marked by consistent excellence.

Okafor’s high school team, Whitney Young, won a Chicago Public League Championship in 2013, then followed that up with an IHSA 4A state championship in 2014.

Okafor won a gold medal at the 2012 FIBA Under-17 World Championships, where he earned MVP honors. The following year he won again, this time making the All-Tournament team on the 2013 FIBA Under-19 World Championship squad. He shot — get this — 77.2% from the field in that tournament.

So the title run with Duke — on a team that won 35 games in a 39-game season, only 2 short of the 37 win total the Sixers have compiled over the last 164 games — was just a continuation of the success that Okafor has become accustomed to.

The climb for Okafor, and the Sixers, to reach that kind of success will likely be slower than Okafor’s accustomed to. Rebuilds in the NBA take time, and the Sixers are no exception. 

The Sixers, as they will frequently tell you, are not interested in skipping steps. They want to build the foundation of something that matters, not sprint back to respectability. That foundation, they believe, may have been reinforced on Thursday night.

“There’s no ’83 without Doc and Moses,” Sixers general manager Sam Hinkie said, referring to the 1983 NBA championship team led by Julius Irving and Moses Malone. “Step 1 is, you have to find those players.”

Okafor, Hinkie believes, has a chance to be that franchise player.

“To be able to take what some would say is a generational player, to take a throwback player that has a different skill set, that’s unusual,” Hinkie continued. “I think what’s critical is for our organization to find the best players we can, put them in the best environment, around the best coaching staff and the best player development [staff], and let them be all they can be.”

While the expectations for a No. 3 overall pick are naturally high, the expectations for Okafor may be even higher. For a weary fan base — not only weary of losing, but also weary of missed time from high draft picks after Nerlens Noel missed his entire rookie season recovering from a torn ACL, after Joel Embiid missed his entire rookie season (and still has yet to return) recovering from surgery to repair his Navicular bone, and as Dario Saric remains overseas finishing out his contract with Anadolu Efes in Turkey — the demands on Okafor to be the real deal are high.

Four combined lottery picks in the 2013 and 2014 drafts have yielded just one player, Noel, who is currently on the roster and has played NBA basketball. With the production from those selections so low, and the uncertainty about the direction of the team so high, Sixers fans aren’t just looking or a player who can step in and play, but one who can set the course for the franchise going forward.

Anything short of franchise talent, and franchise talent from day 1, could be seen as a disappointment. That’s an almost unrealistically high expectation created by events entirely outside of Okafor’s control.

Those expectations — to be a generational player, to help turn a franchise around — are expectations that could prove heavy, perhaps even overbearing, for some. For the broad shouldered Jahlil Okafor, however, they’re expectations he’s used to.

“I’m used to expectations. I’ve always been that top guy,” Okafor said. “My expectations are always higher [than what others expect of me], so I don’t have any trouble handling expectations.”

If Okafor is to become the franchise guy that Hinkie, and Sixers fans, hope he is, his post-up game, and ability to pass out of the post and use the attention he receives from defenses to make his teammates better, will be a very big part of that.

“I’ve always known that my bread and butter is in the post,” Okafor said. “Around 6th or 7th grade I fell in love with Tim Duncan and his all-around game. Then my father gave me film of Hakeem Olajuwon, so pretty much from 7th grade up until now those have been the two guys that I modeled my game after.”

That post-up game has left some worried that the Sixers drafted Okafor in an era that doesn’t value his primary skill set, with the NBA shifting its focus toward the three-point line and perimeter players.

It’s something Okafor has been hearing for years.

“I’ve been dealing with that question for a while,” Okafor said. “People get a little excited because what Steph Curry and what those guys do is great, and it worked, and their formula was fantastic.

“But, for as long as I can remember, big men have been dominant and the result has been NBA championships,” Okafor continued.

It presents a little bit of a chicken-and-egg scenario, as players have come into the league with less refined post-up skills over the years, a combination of the league’s focus on floor spacing, what skills are being developed in high school and AAU levels, and kids just naturally preferring to attack the basket off the dribble.

These things, sometimes, are cyclical in nature.

“You don’t see players like [Okafor] in today’s era,” Hinkie said. “They don’t come along in a way where you’re looking to feed them over and over, where they’ve been commanding double teams since they were 12 or 13 years old and been learning to deal with those.

“That’s a style that was once common, and is now less common,” Hinke said. “Now the question is, if someone comes back and enters our league that does that again, what happens?”

It’s a question that Sixers fans will see play out before their eyes.

Second round picks provide defense, energy

With five second-round picks in the 2015 NBA draft — 35th overall, 37th, 47th, 58th, and 60th — the Sixers came away with just two players who have a chance to make the roster. The 35th pick in the draft was traded away for two future second round picks and they selected two Europeans — Lithuanian center Arturas Gudaitis with the 47th pick and Serbian power forward Luka Mitrovic with the 60th pick — who are likely to remain in Europe.

“Bringing in five or six [rookies] I wasn’t super excited about,” Hinkie said after the draft. “We can count the players on our own roster, and if you thought we were going to roster 5 or 6 of those guys that means we’d have to make moves with some other guys that we like on our team.”

Instead, Hinkie will let two of them develop overseas. The Sixers will retain their rights in case the players develop over the next few years into NBA talent. If not, they will not take up one of the Sixers limited roster spots.

Of the players who will be over here this year, Richaun Holmes and J.P. Tokoto, Hinkie seemed to target guys with clear physical and defensive tools who can out-shoot their draft slot if the Sixers team of player development staff are able to enhance their skill level.

“Being that active guy, being around the rim, rebounding, blocking shots, playing defense, and every second I’m on the floor working hard and always making sure I’m bringing energy,” said Bowling Green big man Holmes about what he can bring to the table. “[The Sixers] are very big on player development, which is something I need because I’m going to work hard every day to get better. I definitely thought this was a good fit.”

Holmes averaged 14.7 points, 8.0 rebounds, and 2.7 blocks per game last year for Bowling Green, on his way to winning the MAC’s Defensive Player of the Year award and being named to the MAC’s All-Conference 1st team.

His counterpart, Tokoto, is similarly known for his defense, having been named to the ACC’s All-Defensive Team during his sophomore season at UNC. Tokoto averaged 8.3 points, 5.6 rebounds, and 4.3 assists per game during his last season at North Carolina.

“I’m most confident about my defensive ability. It’s what got me here,” Tokoto said.

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Previously in Sixers Draftland:

Joel Embiid Not Expected to Play In Summer League
Sixers Trade With Knicks, Get Future Second-Round Picks
Richaun Holmes, J.P. Tokoto Highlight Sixers’ Second-Round Picks
The Sixers Select Jahlil Okafor With the No. 3 Pick
Sixers Draftland: 2015 NBA Draft Liveblog
Who Are the Sixers’ Second-Round Options?
Report: D’Angelo Russell to Lakers a Smokescreen
Report: Celtics Putting Together a Huge Offer for No. 3 Pick
Draft Day Mock Roundup: The Experts’ Best Guesses on Who The Sixers Will Take
Reports: Sixers Targeting Rashad Vaughn; Is Trading Down a Possibility?
2015 NBA Draft Big Board: The 10 Best Prospects for the Sixers
Report: Sixers Locked In on D’Angelo Russell?
Rumor Mill: Sixers Reportedly in Discussions to Acquire Another First-Round Pick
Justise Winslow: A Defensive Maverick With Big “O” Questions
Dario Saric Not Coming Over This Season
Mario Hezonja: Is Elite Shooter Confident… or Cocky?
Emmanuel Mudiay: The Point Guard With a Shooting Problem
• Kristaps Porzingis: International Man of Mystery
• NBA Mock Draft Roundup: Who the Experts Think the Sixers Will Take
D’Angelo Russell: The Guy Everyone Thinks the Sixers Are Drafting
Jahlil Okafor: One of the Best Low-Post Scorers We’ve Seen

D’Angelo Russell to Work Out for the Sixers After All
• Karl-Anthony Towns: The Big Man the Sixers Probably Want — and Likely Can’t Get
Does Joel Embiid’s Setback Change Sixers’ Draft Plans?
Welcome to Sixers Draftland