Amid trade rumors, Sixers' center Jahlil Okafor staying faithful to grind of working out

SIXR04
Sixers center Jahlil Okafor shoots the basketball during warm-ups before the Sixers play the Indiana Pacers on Nov. 3.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – 76ers coach Brett Brown and Jahlil Okafor talked away from teammates and media in center-court floor seats opposite the scorers’ table at the Golden 1 Center following Thursday’s shootaround.

It was one of many conversations the coach has had with the seldom-used center the team is trying to trade.

“I have … respect [for] how he handles his situation,” Brown said. “So, you are just always communicating with him. You are telling him your thoughts and … at the end of the day, help[ing] Jahlil.”

The main message is for Okafor to stay in shape. That’s only thing he can control, Brown often tells him. On this day, Brown asked him when does he feel as though everything is going to be OK.

“His answer was, ‘When I’m working out,’ ” the coach said.

Okafor’s slimming down to 258 pounds after shedding 20 pounds on a vegan diet is well documented. He’s also been  working on his game and conditioning with Sixers big man/player development coach John Bryant. After the shootaround, the two and assistant coach Kevin Young ran the arena steps.

The third-overall pick hasn’t cheated one day when it comes to working out.

“He’s knows at any moment somebody can say, ‘You’ve been traded to this team.’ You get on a plane and play 25 minutes,” Brown said. “There’s an appropriate fear that you need to have.”

The coach compared it to taking an exam you didn’t study for. The Sixers are trying to avoid that.

They headed into Thursday night’s game against the Sacramento Kings with a 6-4 record. Okafor hasn’t had an on-court role in the team’s success — he’s only played in two games.

He finished with 10 points and nine rebounds in 22 minutes, 9 seconds of a blowout loss to the Toronto Raptors on Oct. 21. And he was scoreless with one assist, one turnover, and three fouls in 3:08 in Tuesday’s victory over the Utah Jazz.

The Phoenix Suns have reportedly expressed interest again in trading for him. Phoenix was engaged in talks with the Sixers heading into the season. Okafor has also been the subject of trade discussions with the New Orleans Pelicans, Chicago Bulls, Denver Nuggets, Boston Celtics, and Portland Trail Blazers, among others.

Brown grades Sixers’ ability to close out games

Camera icon (AP Photo/Chris Szagola)
Philadelphia 76ers’ head coach Brett Brown reacts during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Indiana Pacers, Friday, Nov. 3, 2017, in Philadelphia. The 76ers won 121-110.

What grade would you give the Sixers in closing out games?

Brown gave the Sixers a B for the first 10 games.

“Sometimes lower, but on most times on average a B,” Brown said. “We have been able to close out close game.”

For the most part, the Sixers did a solid job of closing out games while going 6-4. That’s a big reason they’ve won five straight and six of seven games.

They blew an 8-point lead to the Houston Rockets in the final three minutes in their lone loss during that stretch. Eric Gordon’s three-pointer at the buzzer capped a 9-0 run to give the Rockets the 105-104 decision on Oct. 25.

But in the rematch five days later, the Sixers blew the game open with a late 7-0 run and held on to win, 115-107.

In the next game, the Sixers outscored the Atlanta Hawks, 11-0, in the final 2:06 to take a 121-110 victory. JJ Redick scored 9 straight points on a trio of three-pointers during the game-sealing run.

“We need to move up,” Brown said of the B grade. “We want to be as basketball perfect as we can and continue to work on those types of things.”

Excelling out of timeouts

The Sixers headed into Thursday’s game as the NBA’s top team in efficiency coming out of timeouts. They were scoring 1.4 points per possession after timeouts.

That’s a big difference from previous seasons, when the Sixers often struggled to execute, even coming out of timeouts.

“For these guys to be best in the NBA is [the result] of locking in,” Brown said. “I think we are third in side-out-of-bounds. I think we are fourth after free throws.”