PORTLAND, Ore. — What did we learn about Jahlil Okafor?
Sure the center/power forward led the 76ers with a 17.5-point-per-game average. But we already knew the rookie was a solid offensive player.
We also knew going in that Okafor would be the most skilled first-year big to enter the NBA since Tim Duncan with the San Antonio Spurs in 1997. We were aware of the 6-foot-11, 257-pounder’s defensive shortcomings.
The one thing we didn’t know was that his offensive prowess would far exceed his being, at times, a one-on-one defensive liability. It has, as Okafor is someone with the potential to become a perennial NBA all-star.
“The misperception that we all had was that he was pretty much a low-post, back-to-the-basket player,” Sixers coach Brett Brown said. “That’s not him exclusively at all. At times, I see an excellent balance to his game.
“At times, I see Carlos Boozer. At times, I see [Hall of Famer] Karl Malone. At times, you see a legitimate back-to-the basket post threat.”
But will he be a versatile post threat for the Sixers or another team?
The 20-year-old had season-ending arthroscopic surgery Tuesday to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee. The injury ultimately cost the third overall pick the final 23 games of the season, considering he hasn’t played since Feb. 28.
Before that, the struggles of Okafor and Nerlens Noel to co-exist as Twin Towers were well-documented. Both players are better suited to playing center. The problem for Okafor has been that the team is more successful with Noel at center. There was even a stretch when Okafor was often on the bench late in games. And that’s why the team had moved Okafor to power forward before his injury.
Folks also know that Noel isn’t the only problem for Okafor.
The Sixers hope that Joel Embiid, taken third overall in 2014, will finally make his NBA debut next season.
The 7-2, 265-pounder had bone graft surgery in August to repair the navicular bone in his right foot. He will miss the entire season. He missed what would have been his rookie season after surgery in June 2014 to repair a stress fracture in the same bone.
Similar players, Okafor and Embiid are an unlikely pairing. They are both liabilities guarding athletic power forwards and chasing stretch fours on the perimeter. So the belief is that the Sixers may try to move Okafor this summer if Embiid is healthy. If he isn’t, they have to decide between Okafor and Noel.
The Boston Herald had reported that the Sixers had a deal in place to trade Okafor to the Boston Celtics at the Feb. 18 trade deadline. The team denied that report and has always publicly praised the rookie. And it should. He’s been fun to watch on the offensive end.
Okafor finished with a career-high 31 points to go with eight rebounds in a loss at the Dallas Mavericks on Feb. 22. He’s also had 11 double-doubles and scored in double figures in 35 of the last 36 games he played.
The former Duke standout shot 53 percent after the Sixers acquired point guard Ish Smith in a trade from the New Orleans Pelicans on Dec. 24.
Okafor’s scoring average ranks second behind Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns (18.1) among rookies. He’s also third in rebounding (7.0), fourth in blocks (1.15), and fifth in field-goal percentage (50.8 percent) in the rookie class.
He also went from making just 51 percent of his foul shots in college to 68.6 percent in the NBA.
“When we step back and we review numbers as it relates to other rookies, we’re all going to admit that Jahlil Okafor had a heck of a year,” Brown said.
But this is the only question that matters: Will his perceived bright future be as a Sixer or with another NBA team?