NOT LONG after the 76ers selected Jahlil Okafor with the third pick in the NBA draft last Thursday, coach Brett Brown telephoned Okafor's last coach. The conversation with Duke's Mike Krzyzewski lasted about 30 minutes and provided Brown with more information than he thought he would get.
"I had a fantastic conversation with Coach K and when we hung up, I knew Jahlil had great potential and is a terrific, young prospect, but I hadn't realized what type of person we had, as well," Brown said. "The more I learn about Jahlil, the more you respect his upbringing value and love of the game. I was in the office at 6:30 the other morning, and he's in the gym working with a trainer. You then go upstairs and get ready for a day's work and you feel great. I'm really excited to coach him, and the program is going to realize very quickly how special he is."
Okafor becomes the third center drafted by president/general manager Sam Hinkie in his three times overseeing the team's selections. Many hoped guard D'Angelo Russell would be there for the team to gobble up at the third slot. But the Lakers drafted the Ohio State product at No. 2.
So the Sixers got the only freshman ever to win ACC player of the year and perhaps the most polished offensive big man to enter the NBA in 10 years or so.
Now, how does Brown fit Okafor with Nerlens Noel and Joel Embiid, provided Embiid isn't hindered too much with his right foot problems?
When Brown took over the team two summers ago, his goal was for the group he inherited to own the fastest pace in the NBA. He did just that. This past season, he wanted to keep the pace, but also improve at the defensive end, particularly in transition. The Sixers did that.
Now he adds to that group a player who is known to be a terror in the low post offensively and quite suspect there defensively. Add to that concerns about quickness and ability to run the floor and you can see where Brown has his work cut out for him.
"His presence places a real clarity what to do when it becomes a slow-down game," said Brown, his voice rising with giddy anticipation. "But I think there's a lot more in him than just a horse in the post. To only use him that way, I think, is a disservice to his future. I think how Stan Van Gundy used Dwight Howard and pick-and-rolled him in the post. I watch his nimble footwork, the mobile side. I think he can get out and run. You've heard me say many times: My world is pace, space and pass. We want to continue to run.
"It's a puzzle how we're going to do things, but, at the same time, it's fun to think things out. Once we learn more and ultimately declare to the marketplace what Joel's future is, then I think that my challenge, our challenge, becomes more transparent. I think, in general, it's both puzzling and most definitely exciting. Had I not worked a long time ago with Tim [Duncan] and David [Robinson] in San Antonio, you would be more confused and not see it as clear as I do."
The formula back then was to dump the ball inside to those two and allow them to go to work. When Robinson retired, the Spurs sprinkled outside shooters around Duncan, and they've turned that into 15 years of success.
The Sixers, of course, lack much outside shooting at the moment. Robert Covington is their best shooter, while Brown and company hope that Isaiah Canaan, Hollis Thompson and Jerami Grant can provide some long-distance threat. That area needs to be severely upgraded to best pull out Embiid's and Okafor's offensive skills.
"We need to create space for them, they need shooters around them," Brown said. "We still have that good-to-great [good-shot-to-great-shot] mentality. We will continute to promote the pass. That's how I see it offensively. It's not going to diminish how I feel. We are going to play through Jahlil.
"Ultimately, you're going to need shooters all over the place. It's stuff you all know. You are always influenced by teams that won championships. This year, it's Golden State. When you have dominant post people, you are going to have to grow, develop or draft shooters. It doesn't deviate from the bottom-line path that we're trying to find long-term NBA players. We've said that there's still going to be a level of patience of who we're going to bring in."
Brown doesn't see concerns about Okafor's defense as a true problem yet. Part of it is because he can see improvement in the future for the 6-11, 270-pounder. He also doesn't think Okafor's defensive showing at Duke was a true measure of what to expect. The Blue Devils went only eight deep during their championship run, and having Okafor in foul trouble wouldn't have been prudent. So perhaps there were times when challenging a shot wasn't viewed favorably.
"Duke needed him on the floor and I talked to Coach K about that," Brown said. "I don't see it [an inability to defend]. I watch him running the floor, a nimble man with mobility and big enough that if you use the verticality rules, he's good. He's not a shot blocker, but can play straight up and still be that size and that weight at the rim. I don't see it at first glance as big of a problem that others see it is. I also see a desire to want to play defense. I understand the challenge there, but through coaching and getting his body to the best shape of his life, and we will, I see really good things all over the floor."