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After slow start, Okafor looks like real deal for Philadelphia

Sixers' No. 3 pick finishes with 20 points, 9 boards in SL debut

POSTED: Jul 7, 2015 9:24 AM ET

By Scott Howard-Cooper

BY Scott Howard-Cooper

NBA.com

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Sixers vs. Spurs

Jahlil Okafor scores 20 points and grabs nine rebounds but the Spurs knock off the 76ers on Monday.

— He heard his name called during pregame introductions, and bam!

Attack of the butterflies.

"Normal," Jahlil Okafor said. "I get that every game. High school. At Duke. When I do the introductions, I get a little butterflies. Once I step on the floor I'm fine."

His first game as a pro, his first five-on-five game since winning the national championship on April 6, his first time playing since the Philadelphia 76ers picked him third on June 25, but normal. The best possible outcome for Okafor and Philadelphia, in other words.

The Sixers desperately need the typical when 2015-16 arrives, the inside muscle with the ball that makes Okafor the ideal complement alongside the defensive presence of Nerlens Noel as an interchangeable power forward-center combination, no matter what happens with Joel Embiid and his uncertain recovery from a foot injury. The offense from anywhere, really, after they finished No. 29 in scoring, one-tenth of a point ahead of the Knicks for last. If Okafor can just be Okafor -- and a lot of teams think the post game that abused defenses in the one-and-done at Duke will translate immediately because of that advanced skill level, along with being 6-11 and 270 pounds at 19 years old -- Philly instantly moves forward.

Monday night inside EnergySolutions Arena, in the first game of the Utah Jazz Summer League, Okafor got the obligatory hit of nerves just before tipoff. And then he had a very slow start, making just three of 11 shots, mostly from close range, in the opening half. It was early July, so no big deal.

Postgame: Jahlil Okafor

Jahlil Okafor and coach Billy Lange talk to the media about Okafor's NBA debut.

Then came the second half and the taking control inside and the seven baskets in 11 attempts, until he finished with 20 points and nine rebounds (five offensive) in a 74-71 loss to the Spurs. Okafor was being Okafor.

"I've been saying it for a week or so now, with every possession he's going to just grow and grow," said Billy Lange, the Philly assistant coach who is running the bench here. "We've been preparing him for -- everybody's going to come in and try to make a name for themselves against him. He wants to win and he wants to please. He's a great kid, his heart is so pure that he's probably pressing himself a little bit. But once he settled into the third quarter and we're drawing plays up for him and he's getting the ball in spots he probably hasn't seen in a long time ... I thought he did really, really well. And he pushed through. He played (29) minutes in this altitude and, I thought, competed pretty hard."

That was the other thing. Actually, that was the bigger thing: After being knocked by some front offices for a lack of ideal conditioning last season, Okafor played his first organized game in exactly three months, played it at 4,300 feet, and not only lasted the 29 minutes but with his best moments in the second half.

I could have played better. Should have played better.

– Jahlil Okafor on his Summer League debut

The very moment when he could have been falling forward, gassed and needing to get to sea level, was when Okafor stood tallest. It was early July, so big deal.

"The only thing different is the 24-second shot clock," Okafor said of the transition to the pros as a work in progress. "But pretty much all those guys are all college guys that I recently just played against. The only thing that was different was the 24 seconds, a couple times realizing that it was already five seconds left, and I'm used to, obviously, the 35-second shot clock. But other than that, it wasn't too bad."

He gave himself a C-minus for the debut, because "I could have played better. Should have played better." The chance for personal redemption will come Tuesday against the Celtics, then Thursday against the host Jazz, and then a new schedule when all four teams continue to the Las Vegas portion of summer. Okafor has to know he won't have many first-half showings like Monday and that there will be more nights of scoring 20, even in the regular season against real rosters. He must know that will feel normal too.

Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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