The Sixers‘ circumstances the last few years have trained Brett Brown well for awkward situations. Constant roster shuffling, constant trade rumors.
Earlier this season, the arrow on Nerlens Noel was pointing downward and Noel did himself no favors by assessing honestly that three starting-caliber centers can’t realistically or effectively share playing time. But he emerged from the other side of all that, and the assumption that Noel would be an odd man out is no longer as prevalent.
Lately, it’s been Jahlil Okafor’s turn to experience the ebbs. Okafor had that string of DNP-CDs — 10 total in the month of January. As he sat, trade rumors continued to swirl, with Okafor being connected two weeks ago to the Bulls and this week to the Pelicans.
Okafor does a good job of ignoring it, at least outwardly. “I’m a professional athlete,” he answered simply when asked about the distraction Wednesday morning, implying he understands that trade rumors come with the territory.
Brett Brown, who Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich described Wednesday as the most positive person he’s ever met, has been through this before and thinks the best way to approach it is to be as real and honest as possible with the player.
“All the time, all the time,” Brown said when asked how often he speaks with Okafor about the situation. “We talk like I’m talking to you now and have no problem doing it. It’s how I feel most comfortable. I feel like it cleanses myself. I feel like we can talk where it’s real. I will help him, we will help him. And I’m gonna coach him until somebody tells me I’m not.
“If he doesn’t rebound, he’ll hear about it. If he’s not running the floor, he’ll hear about it. If he’s doing a hell of a job getting deep catches on post touches, he’ll be praised for it. And that’s all I know. That’s the deal.”
Rebounding has been an issue lately for Okafor. Entering Wednesday’s game against San Antonio, he’s averaged 4.0 boards over his last six games and that’s never going to get it done.
Take Monday’s game in Detroit, for example. Okafor started 7 for 9 from the floor and finished 7 for 11, but aside from his 16 points, he contributed just four rebounds with no assists or blocks. He also went 2 for 7 from the line. It was a nice night field goal-wise, but can that really be considered a good night for Okafor? Four boards and five missed free throws in 26 minutes?
The strengths and weaknesses of Okafor are well-documented. He has some tantalizing offensive ability when he gets the ball in the low post, and the moves he has are not common in today’s NBA. That’s where the intrigue lies. But his rebounding, defense, jump shooting and ability to make free throws have been underwhelming and he’ll need to improve a few of those things to live up to the hype and potential.
Perhaps a situation like New Orleans would be best for him, playing alongside Anthony Davis, who is capable of hiding most of the things Okafor doesn’t do well. That’s a young big man tandem that could have a chance to be special someday. A team like the Pelicans, who are basically wasting Davis right now with an inferior team around him, have the incentive to try something new.
But the flaws in Okafor’s game rid the Sixers of leverage, and if New Orleans was willing to trade the Sixers a draft pick without lottery protection, that deal might already be done.
In any event, Okafor is still a Sixer, and he’s gotten more playing time as the team continues to exercise “extreme caution” with Joel Embiid (see story).
“Whether Chicago Bulls stuff comes up, New Orleans, whoever it is, it’s all over the place,” Brown said. “A week ago, T.J. (McConnell) was going to Cleveland (see story). It’s part of our world and you can make light of it, you can admit some of it could be true, but I coach him until somebody tells me I’m not.”