Sixers Drop Opener 112-95, but Jahlil Okafor Shines

The Sixers lost their regular season opener to the Boston Celtics 112-95, but rookie big man Jahlil Okafor shined with 26 points in the loss.

Jared Sullinger defends Sixers rookie Jahlil Okafor in preseason action | Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

Jared Sullinger defends Sixers rookie Jahlil Okafor in preseason action | Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

The Philadelphia 76ers fell to the Boston Celtics 112-95 in their regular season opener.

Despite the loss, there was plenty of positives for Brett Brown and his staff to take away from this game, chief among them the play of rookie big man Jahlil Okafor.

Okafor led four Sixers players in double figures with 26 points to go along with 7 rebounds and 2 blocked shots. He shot 10-16 from the field and 6-6 from the free throw line in 38 minutes of action.

He was joined by Isaiah Canaan (18 points, 6-14 shooting, 4-10 from three point range), Nerlens Noel (14 points on 5-13 from the field), and JaKarr Sampson (13 points on 5-9 shooting).

The 26 points Okafor scored was a historic output for an NBA debut. It was the third most points scored by a Sixers player making his NBA debut in franchise history, behind only Allen Iverson (30 points) and Jerry Stackhouse (27). It was the second most points scored by a center making his NBA debut since the start of the 1963-64 season, trailing only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s 29. He was the first player, at any position, to score at least 26 points in their NBA debut since 2002, and his 26 points were the second highest total by a teenager making his NBA debut since the start of the 1963-64 season, behind only the 30 Lamar Odom scored.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar291969-70
Jahlil Okafor262015-16
Hakeem Olajuwon241984-85
David Robinson231989-90
(Most points scored by a center in their NBA debut since the 1963-64 season, per basketball-reference)

Few could have predicted Okafor would have this level of success, this quickly, with how his preseason unfolded. Okafor shot just 38.6% from the field during his five preseason games and struggled to generate quality looks close to the basket.

Yet there Okafor was, reaching double figures in scoring on 5-5 shooting from the field not even six minutes into his NBA career.

On the night, Okafor shot 7-9 on field goal attempts within 10 feet of the hoop, including 5-6 on shots within 5 feet.

The Celtics adjusted in the second half, starting Jared Sullinger over Tyler Zeller to start the third quarter. The move seemed to work, as Sullinger was able to hold his ground against Okafor and force him to shoot further from the basket. Okafor would eventually find his way in the fourth quarter, scoring 12 points in the frame.

Tyler Zeller6-60
Jared Sullinger2-55
David Lee1-41
Marcus Smart1-10
Avery Bradley0-01
Amir Johnson0-01
Jahlil Okafor's performance (Oct 28th, 2015 vs Celtics) based on who was his primary defender)

Okafor scored in a variety of ways, showing off his versatility and overall offensive talent level in the process. He took his man off the dribble, using his incredible footwork and soft touch to get shots at the basket. He backed his man down, hit jumpers from 10 feet out, ran the court in transition, and got to the free throw line.

Including the preseason, Okafor is now shooting 93.3% (14 for 15) from the free throw line during his brief NBA career. While it’s still incredibly early, that’s a promising start for a player who shot just 51% from the charity stripe during his one season at Duke.

The one blemish on an otherwise excellent start to his professional career was the turnovers, as Okafor finished with 8 on the night. Some of them were a result of hard double teams, something that Okafor successfully navigated at Duke, but something that he’ll have to adjust to in order to combat the NBA size, athleticism, and advanced defensive schemes he’ll face at this level. Some of the turnovers were the result of guards pinching down and stripping Okafor of his dribble.

Okafor wasn’t the only Sixers player to struggle with turnovers — the Sixers finished with 22 on the night — but it is something that he struggled with in the preseason as well, and responding to the attention defenses are going to give him is something he’ll have to work on down the line.

Scoring 26 points every night out, and doing so on 62.5% shooting from the field, is obviously not something Sixers fans should expect from Okafor. Defenses will get better at taking away his strengths, at forcing him off of his preferred spots, and at forcing the ball out of his hands. He’ll have nights where he’ll face tougher defensive matchups, and nights where he’s just off from the field.

Still, for a fan base that is desperate for something to believe in, for a hint to make them believe that all the losses over the last two seasons were worth it, Okafor’s debut performance was just what the doctor ordered.

Odds and Ends

  • The Celtics bench absolutely destroyed the Sixers reserves, outscoring them 67-15. The +/- didn’t paint a brighter picture either, as Jerami Grant (-22 in 26 minutes), T.J. McConnell (-19 in 27 minutes), and Christian Wood (-12 in 5 minutes) all saw the Celtics go on big runs when they entered the game.
  • The Sixers starters outplaying the Celtics starters, but the Sixers reserves getting destroyed by the Celtics bench is a pretty good representation of how differently the two teams are constructed, and of their organizational philosophy. Boston has focused on obtaining a number of quality players, whereas the Sixers have spent most of their energy on trying to position themselves to find one or two great players.
  • While T.J. McConnell’s (4 points, 4 assists, 3 steals, 27 minutes) play was up and down, one thing that I thought stood out was how much better Isaiah Canaan played when moved off the ball in a two point guard lineup. Canaan can really shoot coming off of a screen, and playing off the ball limits his deficiencies as a play maker.
  • Nerlens Noel was once again a defensive wizard, especially in the first half. Noel finished with 14 points (5-13 shooting), 12 rebounds (9 defensive), 3 steals and 2 blocks. The Sixers gave up 73 points in the 35 minutes Noel played (100.1 points per 48 minutes) against 39 points in the 13 minutes he was on the bench (144 points per 48 minutes). Noel’s impact in changing a team’s offensive philosophy was pretty evident: the Celtics took 50% of their field goal attempts in the restricted area when Noel was on the bench, but only 35.1% of their attempts in the restricted area when he was on the court.
  • The Sixers finished with 12 assists on their 34 made field goals, compared with 22 turnovers. They didn’t register their first assist of the game until over a minute was gone in the second quarter, when the game was 28-25. That’s obviously not going to get it done.
  • The Celtics scored over 30% of their points off of turnovers. Last year, nobody in the NBA registered even 20% of their points off turnovers, with the middle point coming in at 16%. The Celtics finished the game scoring 112 points on their 85 field goal attempts, shooting 45.9% from the field, good for an offensive rating of 107.8. But the Sixers defense actually performed very well when they were able to hold them to a half court game, a good sign for Brett Brown’s defense. Right now, it’s the Sixers offense that is their biggest defensive problem.
  • The Sixers pulled the game to within 5 points late in the 3rd quarter, but a 7-0 run by the Celtics, highlighted by 5 points from Isaiah Thomas which included a three pointer as time expired, gave the Celtics a 12 point cushion heading into the 4th quarter. The Sixers were never able to mount a serious run after that.
  • Guard Nik Stauskas, who missed the entire preseason and most of training camp with a stress reaction in his leg, was expected to play limited minutes for the Sixers in the opener. Stauskas ended up being a late scratch due to back spasms.
  • The Sixers have the chance to have up to four first round draft picks in 2016’s draft, including some combination of their own, the Lakers pick, Sacramento’s pick, Miami’s, Oklahoma City’s, and Golden State’s. If you want to start tracking things waaaaaaaaaay too early, Los Angeles and Sacramento both lost last night, with Oklahoma City and Miami winning.
  • Shocker of the night: Denver with a 105-85 win over Houston. Danilo Gallinari, a candidate for bounce-back player of the year after a few years fighting injury problems, scored 23 points in the win. Rookie Emmanuel Mudiay chipped in 17 points to go along with 9 assists, although he did turn the ball over 11 times in the process.

Next up:

Friday’s home opener against the Utah Jazz at the Wells Fargo Center.

Derek Bodner covers the 76ers for Philadelphia magazine’s new Sixers Post. Follow @DerekBodnerNBA on Twitter.