Brett Brown: Okafor-Noel pairing deserves a C

Jahlil Okafor shoots over the Kings' DeMarcus Cousins."I'll continue to get better," Okafor said.
Jahlil Okafor shoots over the Kings' DeMarcus Cousins."I'll continue to get better," Okafor said. (YONG KIM / Staff)
Posted: March 15, 2016

Every NBA rookie goes through struggles at times. But it's hard to remember a rookie who had so much on- and off-court issues to deal with as Jahlil Okafor has.

A meniscus tear in his right knee ultimately will cost the 76ers power forward the final 23 games of the season. Okafor had missed two preseason games in October and two regular-season games in December with what the team called soreness in the same knee.

Yet that was the least of his problems.

The 6-foot-11, 258-pounder also served a two-game suspension in December because of his involvement in two street fights in Boston in the early morning hours of Nov. 26. There was also an incident in Old City in which a gun was pointed at his head. And he also received a citation for driving 108 mph over the Ben Franklin Bridge.

So obviously, this was a season that Okafor will always remember - if not one that he hopes to soon forget.

He and the Sixers will tell you that he learned from his off-court incidents and is a more mature person because of them. However, there are still some on-court questions for the player who was drafted third overall out of Duke last year.

Okafor, who played in 53 games, is the team's leading scoring at 17.5 points per game. He became the first Sixers rookie since Allen Iverson in the 1996-97 season to lead the team in scoring with a minimum of 50 games. He also averaged 7.0 rebounds, 1.2 assists, and 1.2 blocks while shooting 50.8 percent from the field.

Yet he and Nerlens Noel didn't mesh well in the Sixers' twin tower experiment. That may have been one of the reasons the team shopped him around the league leading up to the trade deadline.

Sixers coach Brett Brown gave their pairing a C grade.

"With sometimes the excitement of [an] A, no doubt," he added. "Sometimes the disappointment of [an] F. It's not anybody's fault. We all have talked about it and I believe everybody here understands how difficult [it is] taking two [centers] that are 20 and letting them figure out NBA transition defense and matchups and the punishments.

"And the plus-minus in our defense [with Okafor and Noel playing together] reflects that opinion. It was terrible. We went from terrible to poor over the course of time. We improved in that direction. At times it was good. So it was erratic. I'd level it out at a C. We most definitely learned lot."

Despite the off-court distractions and the on-court highs and lows, Okafor is glad he was able to "improve every day."

"That was my goal," he said. "And just everybody in the locker room, despite the adversity and the losing, we've been able to keep our spirits up, stay together, and continue to get better as a team."

Through it all, the 20-year-old learned one important thing.

"I'm confident I can call myself an NBA player," Okafor said. "I can go out and produce. . . . I'm confident with my teammates coming here next year that I'll continue to get better."

kpompey@phillynews.com

@PompeyOnSixers

www.philly.com/sixersblog

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