Pelicans center Jahlil Okafor on Media Day

Jahlil Okafor believes his improved conditioning will aid adjustment to fast-paced Pelicans

by Jim Eichenhofer

A self-described animal lover, during his third NBA season, Jahlil Okafor took the extremely-rare-in-basketball step of becoming a Vegan, removing all meat and animal-based products from his diet. The center and former Philadelphia lottery pick even filmed a three-minute interview for PETA with retired NBA player John Salley. Now in Year 4 and with his third NBA franchise in New Orleans, Okafor extols the benefits of changing his personal menu – it allowed him to slim down noticeably – but he stopped maintaining strict adherence to that diet, partly due to medical advice.

“I had to stop it,” Okafor said of being Vegan. “A few doctors told me they don’t recommend it for me anymore, because it was affecting my cardio and blood-count level. If you’re going to be Vegan, you have to be super sharp to make sure you’re getting all of the other nutrients you need, (such as) vitamins and minerals.”

No NBA player can afford to experience a dip in their strength and conditioning during the 82-game season, but it became even more critical for Okafor to avoid that when he signed with the Pelicans. Under Alvin Gentry, New Orleans was the league’s fastest-paced team during the second half of 2017-18, and made key roster additions this summer suited for that style. While the 22-year-old’s low-post footwork and back-to-the-basket game would seem to be more fitting on a plodding team, Okafor’s slimmer physique could help him succeed in the Big Easy.

“It’s been a lot of fun,” Okafor said of playing in fast-paced scrimmages with new Pelicans teammates prior to training camp. “It might not have been too fun for me last year, when I was out of shape, but with me being in shape and able to run up and down and use my new body, it’s been a lot of fun. They like to give bigs here the opportunities to rebound, start the break, and get into the flow of things. It’s a fun way to play basketball.”

In addition to adapting to playing at a faster tempo in the Crescent City, Okafor has witnessed a rapid change in what teams expect from the center position, in just the three years since he was drafted No. 3 overall by the 76ers. As a Philadelphia rookie, Okafor often received touches in the low post, en route to averaging 17.5 points and 7.0 rebounds in 30.0 minutes. Partly because players with that deep-post skill set are becoming increasingly rare – and also because Golden State has helped establish a league-wide trend of relying heavily on “small ball” – few teams run much offense through paint-bound bigs anymore. Okafor acknowledged that reality, while noting that he shouldn’t be pigeonholed as a player incapable of doing other things.

“Coming out of college, I got a lot of notoriety for being the old-school center,” the 6-foot-11, 275-pounder said. “I’ve always gotten credit for being a big man who doesn’t want to shoot threes. Throughout my entire basketball career prior to coming to the NBA, I was praised for doing that. When you get to the NBA, you see that they’re looking for you to do a bit more, which I am capable of doing. I can score from 18 to 20 feet out, handle the ball, pass. I don’t consider myself an old-school center. I can play with my back to the basket, but I can face up as well.”

Upon arriving in New Orleans this summer, Okafor provided a lengthy list of reasons why signing with the Pelicans made sense for him. In recent weeks, he’s added more, including benefiting from competing with and against two new frontcourt teammates.

“I’ve been matched up with Julius (Randle) a lot,” Okafor said of voluntary workouts. “I’m just excited about being on his team, not only going up against other teams, but to battle him every day in practice. I think it’s going to make me a lot better. I’m trying to challenge him as well.”

Meanwhile, Okafor actually faced fellow Chicago native Anthony Davis during high school, in a game that was broadcast by ESPN (Okafor’s much deeper squad won handily). Okafor has always looked up to Davis, who’s provided encouragement to Okafor during the younger player’s up-and-down three years as a pro.

“When I was a freshman, he was the No. 1 senior in the country, committed to Kentucky,” Okafor recalled of the ’10-11 scholastic season. “I remember being in awe and hearing all this hype about him, that he was going to a big-time school. It was really motivation for me, seeing someone from Chicago do that. Then when my senior year came around, I ended up being the No. 1 player in the country. He’s always been someone for me to look at, in terms of the success that he’s had. He’s done things the right way, on and off the court.

“There’s no reason why he can’t be the best player in the NBA. He’s my MVP pick for this season. He’s doing a great job with being a leader, especially for me and all the new guys on the team.”

As he adjusts to a new team – the first time in his career Okafor is playing for a club that qualified for the playoffs during the previous season – it’s uncertain how large the Duke University product’s role will be for the Pelicans. Like every player, Okafor wants to contribute as much as possible, but after being relegated to a marginal role in ’17-18 in both Philadelphia and Brooklyn, he looks forward to taking on any responsibility.

“I’m capable of doing a multitude of things on the court,” he said. “Whatever Coach Al (Gentry) wants, I’m buying in.”

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