The idea had to nestle in Brett Brown’s mind sometime after the 76ers’ victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves on Jan. 3. Finding minutes for his top three centers almost turned out to be disastrous in that game.
So the defensive-minded coach summoned Jahlil Okafor, his most offensive-minded center. He told last season’s leading scorer things were about to change. Okafor would no longer be in the rotation, Brown explained. The coach was entrusting all of the second-year player’s minutes to the more athletic and defensive-minded Nerlens Noel.
As a result, the Okafor was relegated to end-of-the-bench cheerleader status against the Boston Celtics on Friday and the Brooklyn Nets on Sunday. When a someone does not play (DNP) in the game at all, his line on the official scoresheet is likely to say, "DNP-coach's decision."
“It’s not ideal to put anybody in it,” Okafor said of not playing. “Obviously, it’s a funky situation. Funky for all of us. Right now, I’m the person who’s sitting out.”
This came after the 6-foot-11, 265-pounder had started 14 of 28 games. He started eight consecutive games from Dec. 11-29 before missing the next game with a sore hamstring. He was paired in the starting lineup with Joel Embiid during six of those starts.
But Okafor played only 10 minutes, 10 seconds as the third-string center against the Timberwolves.
He expects to play in Saturday’s road game against the Washington Wizards, assuming that Embiid misses that game to rest his surgically repaired right foot. Bringing the rookie along slowly, the Sixers play Embiid only in one game of back-to-back situations.
Other than that, Brown hasn’t given Okafor a timetable for a return to the rotation. Last month, Brown took Noel out of the rotation. However, that lasted for only six quarters.
“Obviously, it’s not what I want, to be in [that] position,” said Okafor, who averages 10.7 points per game. “I know I’m not the type of player that’s DNP. But that’s what it is right now. Coach Brown has been phenomenal with communicating with me. I know in the long run, I’ll be fine.”
Perhaps he will. For the time being, his registering DNP-coach’s decision is not as surprising as one might assume. He doesn’t pair well with Embiid or Noel. The team’s defense also suffers when the other two big men are not in the game.
But Okafor never asked to be in this situation. The Sixers drafted him third overall in 2015 even though they had acquired Noel in 2013 and Embiid in 2014.
It’s easy to point to the uncertainty surrounding Embiid’s foot for the reason to select Okafor. The 7-2, 275-pounder went on to miss his second straight season following another surgery in August 2015.
But Noel, who sat out the 2013-14 season, was coming off a solid rookie campaign in 2014-15.
“I don’t begrudge him if he doesn’t accept it in relation to the endgame to all this,” Brown said of Okafor’s losing his spot. “It’s not Jahlil’s fault he’s in this situation.”
For now, Okafor has been professional about the ordeal. He cheers on his close friends, Embiid and Noel, during the games. The 21-year-old has also been putting in extra time at the team’s practice facility. After Monday’s morning workout for low-minutes guys, the former Duke standout came back to the gym at 8:30 p.m. for a shooting session.
“I have so much good things going on for me,” he said. “So I can’t do anything but smile every day. Like I said, I’m coming in every night trying to work as hard as I can. I know everything will work itself out.”
Okafor has also been receiving advice from former Sixers teammate and mentor Elton Brand, the team’s player consultant.
“To date, I feel like he has handled it like an adult, like a pro, and his spirit has not taken a dent,” Brown said. “I intend on trying to keep him believing in himself.”
Combo guard Chasson Randle signed his 10-day contract and participated in Tuesday’s practice. Afterward, the former Westchester Knick of the NBA Development League participated in shooting drills with rookie swingman Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot.
Randle graduated from Stanford in 2015 as the Cardinal’s all-time leader scorer with 2,375 points. He was also a first-team Academic all-American.
“I felt like the gym was smarter today,” Brown said.
It’s ironic that Randle’s first game will come against the New York Knicks on Wednesday at the Wells Fargo Center. He was with the Knicks in the preseason and expected to make their regular-season roster as the third point guard. However, they waived him after he suffered a left orbital fracture.