Jahlil Okafor received the dreaded “Did Not Play — Coach’s Decision” when the Nets returned from the All-Star break Thursday at Charlotte. Given that he appeared in only two of the 76ers’ first 23 games before the Dec. 7 trade that sent him to the Nets, it’s natural for him to wonder if history is repeating itself. That’s why he met with coach Kenny Atkinson on Friday.
“Just trying to figure out what was going on,” Okafor said. “He was letting me know that I didn’t do anything wrong and he was happy with the way I’ve been progressing, and he knows I’m trying my best to fit in with the team. But he was going to try new experiments, and he let me know just to keep working and keep my spirits high and know that my opportunity will come again.”
Atkinson offered a similar message when asked about his plans for Okafor in the final 22 games, starting against the Bulls on Monday night at Barclays Center.
“We’re looking at all different rotations,” he said. “We had a stretch where he was in there. I think he’s played decently when he’s been in there. Unfortunately, he’s part of the group that we haven’t been playing well when he’s in, but that’s circumstances.
“His attitude has been great, his spirit has been great, his understanding of what we’re trying to do has been really good. He’s just got to hang in there and keep fighting for minutes.”
The defense often suffers with Okafor on the floor, but he has shown flashes of low-post offensive ability, scoring in double figures five times without ever playing more than 25 minutes.
“I like how I’ve done my best trying to stay within the system and fit within the team,” Okafor said. “I’m not trying to ruin the flow of anything.
“At times, I could have been more aggressive. Looking back, before the All-Star break, I could have been more aggressive, but I didn’t want to force the issue. I was just trying to fit in with the team, but at times I tried to fit in a little bit too much . . . I feel I could have affected the game more if I had done some of the stuff that I’m able to do well.”
Okafor lacks three-point shooting ability to help stretch the floor in the Nets’ spread offense, so the question is whether his skill set fits the system. “I think it can,” he said. “There’s a lot I was thinking about when I first got here, but it definitely can work. It’s just with reps and games that it will be easier for me and will be easier for my teammates.”
It’s uncertain how many “reps and games” Okafor will get with time running out in the season before he becomes a free agent. “I don’t know how long it’s going to go, but I’ve been through it before,” he said. “I’ll just keep working and stay ready . . . My feeling is the same about the organization. I’m extremely happy to be here, and they’ve been nothing but generous to me.”