The maiden voyage as Nets for Jahlil Okafor and Nik Stauskas took place on rough seas during the worst loss of the season Friday night in Toronto, but Stauskas scored a team-high 22 points while Okafor scraped some rust off his game after playing just 25 points this season with the Sixers. Now, Okafor and Stauskas are primed for their home debut Sunday night against the Pacers.
“I’m so excited,” Okafor said in Toronto. “I’m happy I was able to come out here first and kind of test the water and get some of the cobwebs off so I can try to perform better in front of our home crowd. But I can’t wait to play in Barclays [Center].”
If Stauskas shoots anything like he did in Toronto, where he was 5-for-7 on three-point attempts, he’ll have no trouble winning over the home crowd. “I’m definitely looking forward to it,” Stauskas said. “The crowd’s been great for the two games I’ve been sitting on the bench at home. I’m just excited to see that Brooklyn crowd.”
The Nets were shorthanded in Toronto without starters DeMarre Carroll (rest) and Allen Crabbe (left knee soreness). And the nature of the game allowed coach Kenny Atkinson to give extended minutes to Stauskas (28:04) and Okafor (22:30). But Carroll and Crabbe are expected to return, so it’s uncertain how much playing time the new guys will receive.
Asked if even the fourth-quarter garbage time was valuable to him against the Raptors, Okafor agreed. “I had the last six minutes of the fourth quarter and I was treating it as if it was a tie game, just working on everything, talking on defense,” Okafor said. “Everything for me helps.”
As a three-point shooter, the transition is likely to be much smoother for Stauskas, but he admitted Atkinson’s defensive concepts are different from what he was used to doing in Philadelphia and will take some getting used to.
“The way coach Atkinson teaches this offense, it’s been pretty easy for me and Jah to learn what they like and what they don’t like,” Stauskas said. “Playing in this system is a guard’s dream. If you can handle the ball and shoot it, I think you’re going to thrive in this system.”
Clearly, Okafor’s weight is down and he’s in much improved shape compared to his Sixers days. But game shape is something that only comes with time. “You can run as much as you want on the treadmill but once you get in the game you’re bumping into big bodies, defending, running up and down; that’s completely different,” Okaror said. “Wind is definitely something I need to get better at. That’s just going to happen with playing more games.”
Okafor was solid with 10 points and four rebounds, but Atkinson will be asking him to expand his game. After taking six three-point attempts in his first 105 NBA games and none at all last season, Okafor missed two threes at Toronto and his body language said he was reluctant. Atkinson also plans to try him at power forward, as well as center, an experiment that failed in Philly.
“We’re trying to figure it out,” Atkinson said after the loss to the Raptors. “We tried him at the four tonight, and the five, getting to know where he is physically and where he can fit in with us. He should be able to play both positions.”
Okafor played some power forward with the Sixers with either Joel Embiid or Nerlens Noel at center, adding, “It was nothing that we really stuck with.”
As for shooting threes to help space the floor, Okafor said, “I just have to get comfortable shooting threes in the game. It was my first time shooting it as part of the offense, where it wasn’t the end of the shot clock. That’s the way coach wants the team to play. I’m going to be in the gym constantly so I can knock that down.”
For both Okafor and Stauskas, it’s a new team and a new “process.”