Philadelphia 76ers big man Jahlil Okafor finally made his preseason debut on Friday night against the Miami Heat following knee surgery at the tail end of last season. The No. 3 overall pick in the 2015 draft had missed the entire preseason and was initially expected to sit out again, but he ended up getting just under eight minutes of action in a 113-110 victory.
“I’m just excited for the opportunity to be out on the floor,” Okafor told Sixers.com before the game.
Okafor looked solid, scoring four straight points, adding one rebound, one assist and one block, but most importantly didn’t show any negative effects from the surgery that had kept him sidelined longer than expected.
“My movements have been pretty fluid,” Okafor explained. “I haven’t felt any pain or soreness after working out.”
He had a couple of nice sequences in the game, in addition to getting to the free throw line four times. Okafor showed a spin move down in the paint, drawing a foul and showing the scoring ability he displayed as a rookie when he averaged 17.5 points and 7.0 rebounds per night.
But even with his impressive offensive skills, it appears the Sixers’ plan is to bring Okafor off the bench. However, don’t expect a disgruntled Okafor. Coach Brett Brown and his second-year big man have discussed his new role, and everyone seems to be on the same page.
“I have talked to him, we’ve talked about this for months,” Sixers coach Brett Brown told reporters at Thursday’s shootaround. “It’s not anything that’s going to surprise anyone. He’s been fantastic, and I think he’s going to come back and have a great year.
“His body tells me that, his attitude tells me that, and he’s in a good place personally.”
The role Brown envisions for Okafor is providing instant offense and a spark off the bench.
During Brown’s first three seasons, the Sixers haven’t had much depth. Bringing Okafor in for some instant offense would be a huge weapon for the Sixers, something they haven’t had in a long time. Brown compared having Okafor in a reserve role to having someone like Jamal Crawford, one of the better sixth men in the NBA.
“If you bring Jahlil off the bench, and he’s going up against backup 5-men — you probably think you have an advantage there,” Brown explained. “If he does anything, he scores the ball, he scores buckets, he gets points. You can see how that can be a really nice role for him and for us.”
With Nerlens Noel set to miss time because of a “minor” knee procedure, Okafor should be able to find a nice opportunity, especially while Joel Embiid is also on a minutes restriction.
So for the time being, you can expect to see Embiid starting with rookie Dario Saric playing the 4-spot, and then Okafor coming off the pine. However, Brown has said he would like to see both Embiid and Okafor on the floor together late in games.
Offensively it could work because both guys are skilled and Embiid has shown the ability to pull away from the basket, while Okafor can do damage with his advanced post game. The concern is at the defensive end; while Embiid seems athletic enough to face power forwards, the Sixers might be hesitant to use him in that role with his injury history.
Regardless of how the Sixers end up using Okafor, in a preseason filled with unforeseen stories for the Sixers, the positive here was he played in a game and now should confirm he’ll also be ready for opening night.