The Sixers have been looking for a franchise centerpiece for several years. In the last three drafts, they’ve taken big men with high ceilings, and the first two, Nerlens Noel and Joel Embiid, have battled injuries at the beginning of their careers. Embiid is out for the upcoming season after re-fracturing a bone in his right foot, which will open up plenty of room for this year’s No. 3 overall pick, Duke’s Jahlil Okafor, to get minutes. Okafor says he’s ready to assume the mantle of franchise player.
Okafor won’t have much help as he begins his NBA journey. Nerlens Noel, a wiry first-team all-rookie power forward, is expected to serve as a defensive complement to Okafor, but the 76ers currently only have four other players on the roster selected in the first round. And, Joel Embiid, the third pick of the 2014 draft, won’t make his NBA debut for at least another season after reportedly re-breaking the same right foot that caused the 7-foot center to miss all of last season. Okafor doesn’t believe his responsibilities to the organization will change with Embiid sidelined.
“My role is to dominate,” Okafor said. “I’m one of the centerpieces of the team, so my role is the same.”
Okafor’s former Duke teammate Tyus Jones also offers a ringing endorsement of Okafor in Lee’s story:
“He’s a winner,” Jones said of Okafor. “He’s someone who is going to work his tail off in the gym. And try to learn at the same time. Him being a competitor, he hates to lose, so he’ll bring a winning culture to that franchise and he’s going to help them out a lot.”
Throughout much of last college basketball season, Okafor was the presumptive No. 1 pick in the draft. He fell to No. 3 after the Lakers surprisingly took Ohio State’s D’Angelo Russell second. He’s still considered an elite, potentially franchise-changing talent at center, and showed flashes of that at Summer League. If he emerges as that level of player in his first season as a pro, it will go a long way in advancing what has been a controversial and interminable rebuilding process so far in Philadelphia.