Jahlil Okafor was blindsided by the final question of his postgame interview after the Nets’ loss to the Timberwolves Saturday night at Target Center. A Minneapolis-based reporter asked the No. 3 overall pick of the 2015 NBA Draft if it’s important to prove he belongs in the same company with Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns, who was the No. 1 pick of that draft and just made his first All-Star team.
With a pained expression, Okafor replied, “I’m not trying to prove anything to anybody. I’m just trying to go out there and play with my teammates.”
There’s no escaping that historical link, but since the Nets traded for him in December, Okafor has worked hard to fit in and has remained patient with their process. The same is true for Nik Stauskas, a lottery pick from the 2014 draft, who accompanied Okafor from the 76ers.
The Nets were missing three key bodies in their loss to the T-Wolves — D’Angelo Russell (rest), Caris LeVert (groin strain) and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (groin strain). That afforded playing time for Okafor and Stauskas, and they delivered with 21 and 15 points, respectively. It was the first time since March 14, 2017, in Philadelphia that Okafor — filling in for injured Joel Embiid — had reached the 20-point mark.
“I’m just trying to get better every day,” Okafor said when asked about the significance of his finest game as a Net. “It doesn’t mean much. I know the work that I put in. Even if it doesn’t always translate to the floor right away, eventually it will. Just keep going, keep working hard, and I was able to be successful tonight.”
Stauskas, whose playing time evaporated with the return of Russell from knee surgery, expressed similar sentiments. “It’s tough being the new guy,” he said. “Nothing is ever going to be given to you straight away. For me and Jahlil, we’ve tried to come in with the attitude that we want to work hard and show the best we can when those opportunities are given.
“Nights like this, even though we didn’t come out with the win, the fact we were able to go out there and perform individually, it feels good for us to make a little bit of progress.”
Russell certainly will return when the Nets face the Knicks on Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden, and LeVert said his injury is “short-term.” But Hollis-Jefferson’s status is uncertain, which means Okafor might get an extended opportunity.
The Nets’ offense has thrived lately when they go small, and Okafor hinted that the chance to spend more time playing with starting point guard Spencer Dinwiddie might help as well.
“Spencer being out there leading, I really enjoy playing with him,” Okafor said. “He’s a hell of a point guard, and he makes my job a lot easier. When I’m on the floor with him, I feel like I’m able to operate a little easier.
“With Rondae being out, one of our better players, we all have to step up. We came up short against a really good team, but it’s something to try and build off of.”