There was a clear thirst running through Nets fans at Barclays Center on Wednesday night for the home debut of Jahlil Okafor. Occasionally there were chants of “We want Jah!” And when he got into the game, there was a noticeable buzz whenever he tried to make a play.
That thirst probably wasn’t quenched though the crowd got to witness a thrilling 98-97 defeat of Minnesota on Spencer Dinwiddie’s jumper with 9.7 seconds to play and DeMarre Carroll’s ensuing successful defense of a last-ditch shot by Jimmy Butler. The 6-11 Okafor played 11 minutes, scored two points on 1-for-3 shooting and had two rebounds. He also drew a charge, had a shot blocked and tried to back down Karl-Anthony Towns — who was taken as the first pick in the 2015 draft, two spots ahead of Okafor — before passing it out.
But there are signs that more is coming. Maybe much more. The start of the fourth quarter was a key stretch of the game with Brooklyn down two points. Okafor, who had played in only one game since he was acquired Dec. 7 from Philadelphia so he could improve his familiarity with the team system and his conditioning, was in the lineup for that.
“He was solid, understood what we’re doing . . . He really understood our system and was in the right place,” coach Kenny Atkinson said. “Now our guys have to learn to play with him. It’s more the chemistry with the group he’s going to be out there with . . . I’d say very positive.”
“[He’s an] extremely talented guy. Obviously he was a top- three pick for a reason,” Dinwiddie said. “He’s going to be a guy who we throw it to on the low block and will get us a lot of buckets. For the first time, to kind of feel things out, I think he played well.”
Playing in a home game was a welcome event for Okafor. With Philadelphia he played in three road games. With Brooklyn he’d played just in Toronto.
“It was exciting. Just to be in front of the home crowd was a lot of fun. It was my first time in a while,” he said. “To finally play in front of a supportive crowd was a good feeling.
“I am happy with the way I performed. I tried to work on making the team better,” he added. “Some of the things I talk about with Coach I was able to achieve such as screen-setting, communicating, being active with energy.”
Now that he’s finally getting to play, what would Okafor like to see happen next?
“Get my minutes up. That’s the next step for me,” he said. “Have more effect on the game. Do the things the coaches want me to work on and implement what I do well — and that’s scoring.”
While starting the fourth quarter is a good sign that Atkinson is going to let him impact games, things may not happen very quickly. Though Atkinson says he wants the ball thrown to the low post more, the Nets haven’t done a lot of low-post scoring. The offense may have to evolve to incorporate a new weapon. And Okafor has to keep improving and “earn those minutes,” as Atkinson says.
“I think that’s key: to be patient,” Okafor said. “You don’t want to rush anything . . . we have a lot of games left.
“I felt pretty comfortable today. I felt like I was in the right spots the majority of the time,” he added. “I felt like I fit, I belong.”