Fans who came to Barclays Center Tuesday to watch Jahlil Okafor play instead got a front-row seat to Jahlil Okafor sitting, Jahlil Okafor standing, and Jahlil Okafor cheering on his (very new) teammates.
But though coach Kenny Atkinson said he still hadn’t determined when the center will make his debut, early returns indicate that Okafor is making strides toward integrating himself into an offense that doesn’t immediately seem to suit his current set of skills. Whether that’s enough to see him take on the Knicks on Thursday is another story.
“I just think it’s going to take time,” Atkinson said Wednesday after practice. “I can’t give you a timetable. I think we come to these decisions as a group. We’ll know when he’s ready and we’ll give you the word . . . [But I] think he’s been very serious, very focused, and that’s a great start because that’s where it starts. What’s your demeanor like? What’s your work? I’m looking to get to know him more.”
Okafor is an old soul in a new NBA — a back to the basket big man who’s now been traded to the No. 1 pace team in the league. After languishing in Philadelphia this year — the 2015 third overall draft pick only appeared in two games — it’ll take some adjustment, he said, to adapt to the Nets fluid, space-driven style of basketball. However, there’s certainly hope: There’s no doubt Sean Marks had a plan when he traded Trevor Booker for Okafor and Nik Stauskas, and the Nets have long established themselves as a soft landing spot for young players who have struggled elsewhere. Add to that the fact that this is the same organization that, once upon a time, transformed Brook Lopez into a very real perimeter threat. Atkinson has also said he’s open to playing through the post more.
None of that seems lost on Okafor.
“They know my weaknesses and strengths and I’m working with them every day to get better,” he said. “They already told me what they want me to work on and like I said, I’m all in . . . [Right now, I’m] just getting used to the pace. That’s the main thing. Especially with me really not having played at all this year.”
And that’s the key. Though Okafor said he still has love for the staff in Philadelphia, it’s no secret that, at only 21, he’d become something of an afterthought with Joel Embiid in the picture. Not so here. Even without any minutes to his name, the Nets have made it abundantly clear that he’s part of their future.
“They’re just really invested in me and that just makes me feel wanted, it makes me feel a part of this team,” he said. “[In Philadelphia] I was just kind of there, but not to knock that staff, they cared for me. They loved me and I love them too, but at some point, you do feel on the back burner. You’re not playing. They’re worried about the guys they’re putting on the floor and I wasn’t part of that group. A lot of times, I was just there watching.”
Atkinson excited to play Knicks. A Long Island native, Atkinson made no effort to downplay the crosstown rivalry going down on Thursday. “I’m not going to make it like it’s another game,” he said. “It’s New York. It’s Mets-Yankees, Giants-Jets . . . They’re special games. I love it. I loved it growing up as a fan and it continues today. If there’s a Mets-Yankees game, I’ll watch it. [And] it didn’t matter if the Knicks were bad or the Nets were bad or they were both good, there was always a heightened interest.”