Jahlil Okafor Overcame Celtics and Circumstances to Deliver a Debut Sixers Fans Waited Over a Year For


October 28, 2015 had been circled as an especially important date for the Sixers organization for quite some time. Tuesday’s season opener against the Celtics was finally going to provide the franchise, one that has faced considerable scrutiny over the past few seasons, a glimpse as to whether or not their strategy of team-building was a sustainable one. A center prospect with the weight of a roster draped along his broad shoulders was going to step on the court for the first time and show the world why back-to-back seasons of 60+ loss records would be worth it in the end. This was going to be the case long before Jahlil Okafor arrived in Philadelphia.

For the better part of the entire 2014-2015 season, the Sixers organization capitalized on the hope that 2014 3rd overall pick Joel Embiid was the generational talent that for years eluded Philadelphia. The seven-footer with uncanny, albeit raw abilities to go with his seemingly limitless ceiling in terms of growth was enough that his recovery time was not an issue. That was the case for some time. Embiid’s pre-game workouts with members of the coaching staff and highlight reel dunks in the layup lines was like the Sixers version of the ‘Star Wars’ trailer that played during Monday Night Football.

It may never actually be known whether or not Embiid’s setback in recovery was as a result of an isolated incident or a troubling trend of improper lifestyle choices by the young man who rendered the healing process ineffective. The long-and-short of it was that Embiid, propped up as the savior or a franchise that had been feasting on the hopes of its fans, would miss the entire 2015-2016 season. Regardless of whether this news, revealed after the time of the draft, forced the Sixers into drafting Okafor, one cannot help but link the two.

Hype is a funny thing when it comes to young players entering a new sport. Going back to before his arrival at Duke, Jahlil Okafor had been looked upon as the likely 1st overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft. The physical big man with an advanced offensive game was seen as such a rare commodity. He was the first of last year’s draft prospects to have tanking teams come up with a catch phrase (‘Lose More for Okafor’) in anticipation of potentially landing the big man. As the season went on, it’s hard to argue that Okafor struggled in any type of capacity. As a freshman and the focal point of the Duke offense, Okafor was named an AP First Team All-American. The Blue Devils would go on to win the National Championship.

In spite of all his success, the detractors over Okafor and whether or not he could operate at the next level started early on. People started to pick apart his lack of elite athleticism and struggles on the defensive end as reasons for concern. Meanwhile, names like Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell started to appear over Okafor’s on many of the draft big boards. One could argue that Okafor was a victim of overexposure. Being the focal point of a polarizing program such as Duke’s after being one of the more sought out high school recruits in this decade carries with it quite the magnifying glass.

At any rate, Russell and Towns both were drafted ahead of Okafor who landed with the Sixers at pick number three. Perhaps it was due to the fact that the team had already acquired two big men drafted towards the top of the lottery, but there was a sense of defeat that came out of Draft Night 2015. It’s no secret that many fans wanted and expected the team to draft Russell, who the Lakers picked 2nd overall. Regardless of how strong a prospect Okafor was, the team was still without a legitimate point guard talent to go forward with. For as impressive as he was in the eyes of draft analysts, Okafor also was not the type of talent Sixers fans had been getting themselves hyped up about for a year. That was Joel Embiid.

Embiid is the ultimate hype prospect. He had flashed just enough in college to be drafted upon potential and it not seem like a reckless decision. There were names like Olajuwon and Mutumbo for fans to wrap their minds around and put themselves at ease that Embiid had not played the game long. He is a physical specimen seemingly unaware of what he could be capable of if things worked out. Meanwhile, Okafor was looked upon as more of a ‘finished product’ where people already know what they’re going to get. Given the losing that’s taken place in Philadelphia the past two years, it makes sense for fans to reach for the stars with expectations. No narrative captured that more than the anticipation over Joel Embiid.

A somewhat pedestrian Summer League performance sprinkled with a few flashes of dominance was not enough to match the hype of what would have accompanied Tuesday night’s game with a healthy Embiid. Regardless of how the organization envisions the two players behind closed doors, most everyone envisioned him as a truly special talent. That might have been how Okafor was talked about at one time, but those conversations were not happening prior to tip-off in Boston.

It took all of about six minutes for the pistons to start firing on the Jahlil Okafor hype train. It was during that stretch that the rookie hit his first five field goals, blocked a shot, and operated surprisingly well alongside Nerlens Noel. He would finish with 26 points, 7 rebounds, and two blocks in a performance that may have brought upon some confusion for Sixers fans. Tuesday night’s game wasn’t an instance where coming up on the losing end was the ultimate goal. It felt rather helpless rooting for a win, given the Sixers backcourt deficiencies and depth issues. That didn’t stop me from getting frustrated with the Celtics pulling away in the opener. Okafor wants to win now. Because of that, Sixers fans should want to win as soon as possible.

It’s not my place to dictate how people should approach their expectations for Joel Embiid. For me, Embiid is a wild card. It would be great if he managed to find his way on to the court and approach the expectations once laid out for him. That said, I can no longer look at Embiid as the primary piece to this Sixers team going forward. I don’t think the organization should glorify his recovery process the way they did before. Let him learn how to heal the correct way and try to figure out what his NBA future means without being touted as the savior for the franchise.

Sam Hinkie’s process is not without its flaws. His critics have tangible evidence as to why some of his practices are frowned upon. It’s hard to imagine the city has the patience for too much longer of what’s taken place under Hinkie’s watch. If there’s an element of Hinkie’s strategy that is essential to its success, it has to be his insistence upon providing multiple channels for which the team to build through. The process is not about winning with Joel Embiid. The process is about trying to acquire top-end talent in as many ways as possible. Because of this, the uncertainty around Embiid is not the death blow some make it out to be.

October 28, 2015 was a different type of night for Sixers fans than many had dreamed up as they held on to hope for Joel Embiid. Had Embiid made his debut, we would have likely been satisfied with him simply making it through the game healthy. Because Okafor is a different type of player and not the prospect Sixers fans had waited a year for to deliver, it was going to take something special to leave them fulfilled. It’s just one game, but what Okafor did in Boston on Tuesday was memorable because of what it looks like it could mean for the Sixers. For the first time in years, even if it’s just a glimpse, there’s a vision of what the future might look like. It’s something I could get used to.

Next: Jahlil Okafor Turns in Memorable NBA Debut

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