Jahlil Okafor felt good Wednesday night, and he deserved it.
Although trade rumors have swirled around him since his rookie season and injuries have sidelined him, Okafor took the initiative to make a difference this off-season with a highly publicized vegan diet and physical transformation.
“I think that’s a huge part of it. I think the drastic changes have really benefited me,” Okafor said. “I don’t think about my knee; there’s no swelling in my knee. I think with me losing weight as well as taking care of my knee has really benefited me out there, so I’m happy to say that.”
It was clear in the Sixers’ preseason opener that he was lighter, more agile, and looking to prove he belongs. He said as much after the game.
“I’m happy that we have four more [preseason games] to get my rhythm and, also just earn my spot on this team and find myself somewhere in the rotation. I’m going to work as hard as I can and earn whatever I can,” Okafor said after scoring 13 points to go with six rebounds and two blocked shots in a little more than 18 minutes.
He has always had good post moves and been able to score, but now the moves are more fluid, he gets up and down the court faster, and he even received praise from coach Brett Brown on his defense against Memphis.
“I thought Jahlil was good. He came in. He had a bounce. He had the energy. He scored. I thought that he was particularly good defensively,” Brown said after the Sixers’ 110-89 loss to the Grizzlies. “The combination of him being able to score like he did tonight and with his improved defense … I thought he was good tonight.”
Okafor finished the game 5 for 6 from the field and 3 for 3 at the free throw line. He showcased spin moves and navigated with ease down low. He wasn’t perfect defensively. There is definitely still room to improve, but he challenged shots and wasn’t lost in transition, things that weren’t as easily said last year or the year before.
“I felt good. I feel like I’ve made strides in the areas I wanted to work on,” Okafor said. “Obviously, it’s not completely there, but I’m happy with the progress that I’ve made and I’ll just continue to work.”
With Joel Embiid yet to be cleared for full-court, 5-on-5 action, and with Amir Johnson sidelined with a sprained right ankle, Richaun Holmes started at center for the Sixers.
Brown said that the competition for the backup center role between Johnson and Holmes has been intense and that both are deserving. Okafor is making the case that he is equally deserving of being in that conversation.