Jahlil Okafor is a winner.
As a senior at Whitney Young High in Chicago, Okafor averaged 24.1 points and 11.3 rebounds on his way to a 28-5 record and a state championship. He was the Most Valuable Player of the 2014 McDonald’s All-American Game.
One year later as a freshman at Duke, Okafor carried the Blue Devils to a 35-4 record and a national championship.
Nothing but wins and trophies.
Then came the brutal reality of the NBA. Okafor was the No. 3 overall pick of the 2015 draft and came to a struggling 76ers franchise which careened to a dubious 10-72 record last season. The Sixers are currently 4-17 with a frustrating seven-game losing streak.
For a kid used to winning, this is a whole different world.
“We understand Jahlil is a scorer,” Sixers coach Brett Brown said. “He’s scored his whole life. It’s the other parts of his game that we’re trying to grow him where he becomes a more complete player.”
Okafor was limited to 53 games last season before a balky knee pushed him to the sidelines and ultimately required arthroscopic surgery. Still, Okafor averaged 17.5 points per game, which ranked second among all rookies.
Coming back for his second season proved to be a different challenge as conditioning was an issue along with a minute restriction in the early part of the schedule.
Okafor is slowly taking steps forward and now has 12 games scoring in double figures.
“Just being more comfortable, getting in better game shape,” Okafor said. “I really wasn’t able to do anything before the season because of my knee. I was restricted from doing extra running and stuff like that.”
Okafor and Joel Embiid each earned double-doubles in a difficult loss to the Orlando Magic Friday night. But they looked comfortable on the offensive end and worked well together.
Looking ahead, Brown isn’t sure how much he’ll pair the two bigs together.
“To grab on to something to solve and scratch an itch, it’s not fair to the team,” Brown said. “My mind is growing it in a responsible way, and when opportunities present themselves, I look forward to doing that. [Tim] Duncan taught a lot on spacing and he played with other bigs and stretch fours. I had a good background of seeing stuff. My concern is always who do we guard? How do we guard? And how do we get back to guard?”
Okafor is far from a finished product. There is so much growth ahead in terms of playing in the low post, rebounding, becoming a better defender. This is just a start.
Yet there’s another caveat in all of this — who knows if Okafor will even be here after the trade deadline in February? Trade rumors seem to swirl every day centered around Okafor and Nerlens Noel. The Sixers’ roster needs plenty of tweaking before it’s complete.
Okafor is a winner. He has shown that much in the past. Whether he’ll be part of a winning culture down the road with the Sixers remains to be seen.