Jahlil Okafor sounds like a guy who just wants a chance to prove himself.
The former No. 3 pick out of Duke has battled injuries in his short career but also has watched the game quickly evolve away from his style of play (his poor defense has become an anchor). He has signed on in New Orleans, where the Pelicans will give him a chance as a backup big, a chance to be the fourth man in a rotation with Anthony Davis, Nikola Mirotic, and Julius Randle.
Okafor talked about the chance and playing with fellow Chicagoan Davis, and improving on his weaknesses in a visit on C.J McCollum’s podcast (hat tip The Bird Writes).
“There were several guys there; AD was one of the guys there. You know, he’s a Chicago guy so he’s somebody that I’ve always been able to watch and monitor because when I was a freshman, he was the No. 1 high school player in the country as a senior. I was able to do the same thing. Then he went to Kentucky, won a national championship; then I went to Duke and copied him — did the same thing and won a national championship. He’s always been like a mark for me to look at. He’s not too much older than me, but a role model in the sense of just the success he’s had and he’s always done everything the right way. So, I’m excited to be able to team up with him and be with him on a day-to-day basis…
“The knock on me has always been my defense and my rebounding. I let the coaches know that I’m aware of that, and obviously, they’re aware of that. They know that I’m 150 percent bought into doing whatever it takes to win. I think I’ve taken the necessary steps this summer just to become a better defender, a better rebounder — just because I’m moving better and I’m doing all of the right stuff. I’m really excited about it…
“With the Pelicans in particular, I’m going to a team with aspirations of winning a championship, and that the whole organization and atmosphere is all about winning. That’s not something I’ve been accustomed to since I’ve been in the NBA; it’s sort of been the opposite.”
Before you think that’s some massive shot at Philadelphia and Brooklyn, think about it. He was on “the process” Sixers that were not winning games, and just as Philly started to get good last season Okafor was traded to Brooklyn, another team that was rebuilding. This season is different because he’s got a chance to contribute to a team thinking big (they’re not winning a title, but steps forward are possible).
Okafor is getting a chance, which is all he can ask. He says he has dealt with the anxiety and mental part of his game that was holding him back. He will be battling Cheick Diallo and Alexis Ajinca (if healthy) for minutes. Okafor needs to show he can run the floor and play the up-tempo style the Pelicans prefer, that he can set picks and roll to the rim, that he is more than a back-to-the-basket old-school guy with no shooting range, and that he can defend.
For New Orleans, bringing Okafor in was a low-risk gamble. For Okafor, this may be his last chance to prove he has an NBA role. He seems to get that, but we’ll see how it plays out.