WASHINGTON — It was just a tease, but in the 12 minutes, 11 seconds Jahlil Okafor played during the Nets’ victory in Atlanta on Friday night, he flashed a hint of the promise that made him the No. 3 overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft and helped him earn all-rookie honors before falling out of the 76ers’ rotation.
Okafor shot 6-for-8 and had 17 points, his high since being acquired by the Nets. It wasn’t enough to earn him the start against the Wizards in place of injured Tyler Zeller (sore left hip) Saturday night at Capital One Arena, though. Although Kenny Atkinson has praised Okafor’s work ethic, it was clear he didn’t like the matchup against the Wizards. Okafor played just 7:43 and had two points.
When Okafor scores inside, it helps relieve the defensive pressure on the Nets’ three-point shooters. “People respect him in the post, and they start digging down and helping off [their man] and I just like that he’s making the right plays, kicking it out to our shooters,” Atkinson said. “And he also did a heck of a job in the pick-and-roll. That hasn’t been a forte before, and we want it to be his forte.”
Okafor scored 11 of his points in the fourth quarter before sitting out the final 5:26 against the Hawks.
“If Coach puts me in in the fourth quarter, that’s all the confidence I need,” Okafor said. “I think all players feel capable of going in and contributing, but when Coach puts you in in the fourth quarter, that’s when it feels great.”
As a playmaker, point guard Spencer Dinwiddie understands Okafor’s value. “To be able to throw it down on the block and have a guy go get a basket is a special talent,” he said. “He showed glimpses of what he’s capable of. I’m sure he’s got a whole lot more in the tank.”
That’s music to Okafor’s ears because his No. 1 priority is earning his teammates’ respect. “It’s not always going to be perfect,” he said, “but as long as I’m improving and my teammates see me working and see that I’m trying to learn, that’s all that I’m looking forward to right now.”