SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Former Duke center Jahlil Okafor had a mentor parked next to him during his first two NBA games at the Utah Jazz Summer League — albeit one not much older than he is.
Center Nerlens Noel was all in Okafor’s ear, allaying any concerns that there may be some friction between the two highly drafted players at the same position.
The 76ers rebuilding process that has led to 127 losses in the last two years has also left the 76ers with a stockpile of young big men.
Still, when Okafor was surprisingly available when Philadelphia was on the clock with the No. 3 pick during the NBA draft, the 76ers didn’t hesitate to take him.
He is considered the most offensively skilled big to come out of college in years. The presence of 21-year-old Noel, the No. 6 overall pick of the 2013 draft, and 21-year-old center Joel Embiid, No. 3 in 2014, wasn’t a deterrent for Philly.
“I think he’s been great,” Noel said of Okafor during an interview with The Associated Press. “He’s getting better and better, more comfortable and more comfortable. He’s only going to get better from this point.
“I think we’ll be able to do a lot of great things on the court — we all have different abilities and do different things — as we get more acquainted with each other.”
Okafor had a shining start with 20 points, nine rebounds and two blocks in his debut against the Spurs.
Still, he self-imposed a C-minus grade for his first night out. Okafor came back the next day with 13 points and nine rebounds, but felt he played better against the Celtics despite the statistical drop. He’s getting a better feel for the increased spacing in the NBA and was more vocal.
But it is just summer league, so Okafor isn’t concerned about what are meaningless stats for him.
His focus from Day 1 to Day 2 was setting better screens in pick-and-roll sets.
Okafor is also adjusting to the 24-second shot clock that speeds up the game and wants to get comfortable with teammates and coaches. Before arriving in Utah, Okafor hadn’t played 5 on 5 since the Duke won the national championship.
But a lot of the talk outside of the 76ers is about the Noel-Embiid-Okafor dynamic, which seems like a conundrum.
Not that Okafor sees it that way.
“I had a really close relationship with Joel before I got down here to Philadelphia, so we are excited to play together,” Okafor said. “I’ve been at his house pretty much every day leading up to me coming down here. I’ve been able to talk to Nerlens on the bench and he has been able to communicate with me, so I am excited to play with him as well.”
Sixers assistant Billy Lange, Philadelphia’s coach for this summer league session, listed three goals for the rookie during summer league: learn to take care of his body and recover after a game, improve defensively and develop overall.
The biggest knock on Okafor before the draft was his defensive skill-set and questions were raised about his offensive brilliance being canceled out by being a liability on the other end of the floor. Lange doesn’t believe it will be an issue.
“I keep going back to he’s 19,” Lange said. “He’s been coached for one year in college by a great coach. If he played two or three years in college, he would just keep getting better defensively.
“It’s not for a lack of spirit. It’s not for a lack of willingness. It’s not for a lack of competitiveness. It’s just for a lack of experience,” Lange said. “I can understand why people may have had issues, but I haven’t seen it as glaring as other people have.”
Okafor said his transition to the NBA has been made easier by having family join him in Philadelphia. They’ve allowed him to focus on basketball instead of all the additional things.
Okafor acknowledged there were some butterflies before that first game, but said he’s gotten them during introductions of every game since he was in high school. He certainly hasn’t played nervous despite starting a new chapter in life.
“He’s been the No. 1 rated player his age his whole life,” Celtics summer league coach Jay Larranaga said. “You can see all the talent he has. I was really happy with the job that we did against him, for the most part.
“Okafor’s going to have a great career in the NBA, I don’t think there’s any doubt about that.”
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