Jahlil Okafor in awkward position amid Sixers' optimism | Bob Cooney

Jahlil Okafor
Trade rumors continue to swirl around the 76ers' Jahlil Okafor.

IT WASN'T HARD to elicit a smile out of any of the 76ers players Thursday as they met with the media after having their season-ending exit interviews with coaches and president Bryan Colangelo. The end of the season brings about relief, especially for a team that once again was severely hindered by injury and whose hard play was rarely rewarded with wins.

Unlike the previous three seasons under coach Brett Brown, when the relief was directly related to the finality of the 82-game, Thursday brought about a different wave of emotions. Yes, the thought of rest and no more traveling no doubt brought excitement (the hot word of the day) to the players, but there was also a clear vision focused on about 22 weeks from now, when training camp will begin.

That's where they see images of Joel Embiid running freely all over the floor, dominating in the low post, blocking shots into the stands, shooting threes, encouraging fans. It's where Ben Simmons throws no-look passes to teammates for easy baskets, and rebounding to start a one-man fastbreak with a strong finish at the rim. The images include Dario Saric playing even better than he did this season, with improvement on his jump shot to go with his tenacious rebounding and wonderful court vision.

There is a productive fast pace, a bevy of three-pointers taken by capable shooters and a hounding defense protected in the back by the shot-swatting Embiid.

But there is a huge cloud that hinders the vision, in particular a 6-11, 270-pound one named Jahlil Okafor. For all of the positivity that surrounds next season, it is still a big obstacle that needs to be addressed by president Bryan Colangelo and coach Brett Brown. Besides the continued progression of health for many of the players on the team, Okafor's situation is the asterisk to the offseason.

Funny how the progression of last June's top draft pick is, in a way, hindered by the team's first pick from the year prior. It's as if one is happily being carried over the threshold of the team's gorgeous, new practice facility while the other one is basically being shoved out the back.

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After averaging 17.5 points and seven boards in a rookie season that was cut short because of a torn meniscus that required surgery, Okafor was thrust into a center logjam. The season presented starts, stints off the bench, and games of never leaving the bench. The knee, deemed a minor tear by the team last March, still hasn't fully healed and the Duke product now finds himself the odd man out, not just at the center position, but seemingly with the whole team. Though he has handled the awkward situation tremendously well, it's about as uncomfortable as you could imagine for Okafor heading into the offseason.

"It was an interesting year," Okafor said. "Something that I'm proud to say I handled the right way. I can go to bed at night feeling I handled everything professionally. A lot of guys in the NBA that I've talked to go through something like what I've dealt with and it's part of being a professional.

"It was different. Joel came out and had an amazing debut. Ben was drafted No. 1 and there was a lot of excitement surrounding our team, and it was something I was happy to be a part of. The city and the fans were excited because they knew great things were coming and are still going to come. I was happy to be one of those guys they were happy about."

Though he might have said it subconsciously, the word "was" came out of Okafor. Having done and said all the right things through this ordeal, he probably knows the best solution for him and the team is for him to be elsewhere next season, where someone can fully use his impressive offensive talents.

And that's exactly what the Sixers plan to do with Simmons, who was cleared earlier this week to move forward toward full basketball activity after missing the season with a fractured foot. The main goal for the organization now is to figure what pieces needed to be added to surround him and Embiid and Saric, whether through June's draft, free agency, trade or all three.

"There were a lot of ups and downs, but at the end of the day I learned a lot just being around the guys and learning the system," Simmons said. "It gave me a great opportunity to learn the game. I had a whole season to just learn. My patience is a lot better now. I think going into next season, it's exciting.

"The fans are unreal. It's just exciting to have the fans there when we're not having the best season. That just makes you want to play here and be here. I can't wait to play with (Embiid). I'm excited to play with him, for sure. He's a fun guy, but at the same time he wants to win and compete, no matter what. It's exciting to see the young guys come together."

Some will stay together; others, like Okafor, will probably have to go, the third overall pick from two years ago perhaps not garnering much on the trade market.

Perhaps there is a way to make it work, if Okafor can accept a backup role and play with a high energy level that is required of second-teamers. Though being the center of attention on the basketball floor won't happen here, you get the feeling Okafor wouldn't mind being a part of the sunny future.

"I see having a long career and playing the game that I love, playing in this league for a while and just trying to get better every day," he said. "I want to play in the NBA for a long time and continue to get better.

"I love being here. I've remained close with everybody here. We have amazing teammates. It's a bunch of young guys that are hungry and looking to get better. Great things are happening here in Philadelphia and I'd love to be a part of it."

cooneyb@phillynews.com

@BobCooney76

Blog: philly.com/Sixersblog

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