Before Jahlil Okafor reached the NBA, he lived life as something of a golden child. He was the No. 1 high school recruit in the nation, earned player of the year honors while leading Duke to the NCAA championship as a freshman and made the NBA all-rookie team after the 76ers drafted him No. 3 overall in 2015.
But after Okafor suffered a right knee injury on Feb. 28, 2016, that required arthroscopic surgery, his star fell precipitously. The 6-11 center struggled with knee pain that limited him to 50 games last season, and he fell out of favor with 76ers coach Brett Brown, who used him in two games for a total of 25 minutes this season. His request for a trade was granted Thursday when the Nets acquired him.
“It was very exciting for me and my entire family,” Okafor said on Monday at his introductory news conference. “I feel like I was dreaming. It finally happened, and I’m in a great city.”
Describing this season with the 76ers, he added, “It was just tough. I was a part of the team, but I wasn’t at the same time. I was working on being traded, so I’m happy to be here and have a new page in life.”
Okafor was accompanied by shooting guard Nik Stauskas, who had a similar experience with the 76ers, suffering an ankle injury, falling out of the rotation and playing in only six games. “I’m just happy with the new change of scenery,” he said. “I get a chance to kind of press the reset button.”
The Nets were off on Sunday after returning from their trip to Mexico, but Okafor and Stauskas visited the training facility and were surprised to find coach Kenny Atkinson taking a hands-on approach during their workout. “To see the head coach out there working with me, helping me shoot, running with me, guarding me a few times, it was different,” said Okafor, who has lost 20 pounds on a vegan diet and says his knee is pain-free. “I enjoyed it.”
Stauskas had a similar reaction. “I love coach Brown, but it was definitely a different vibe in Philly. For Kenny to spend an hour on the court taking us through drills, it was eye-opening because that’s not something we were used to in Philly.”
Okafor arrives packing considerable baggage. As a rookie, he famously was caught on camera in a fight outside a nightclub and was pulled over for driving at 108 miles per hour on the Ben Franklin Bridge.
Asked what he might change to improve his chance for success, he said, “I wouldn’t change anything I did in Philly. Everything happens for a reason, and I’m happy with everything I experienced — the highs and the lows. I learned a ton from being there, and I’m going to try [using it] to help me be successful here.”
No longer the golden child, Okafor is a talented 21-year-old eager to embrace his second chance. “I have a chip on my shoulder,” he said. “This is the first time where people are against me, in a sense, because I’ve always been the hyped-up guy. It’s something new for me, so I’m glad that I am experiencing it.”
It’s uncertain whether either will play when the Nets face Washington on Tuesday night at Barclays Center, but Okafor said, “I’m definitely ready, and I’m tired of sitting.”