The best player on Jahlil Okafor’s new NBA roster is a fellow Chicago native, but more importantly, a sounding board and encouraging voice during what’s been an adversity-filled, three-year pro career. The front office of Okafor’s new NBA franchise features the same man who offered the 6-foot-11 center his first Division I college scholarship. On Okafor’s new coaching staff, there’s an assistant who trained him two summers ago.
Combined with a clean bill of health and noticeably-improved conditioning, everything seems to have aligned in New Orleans for the 22-year-old to launch a positive new chapter in his basketball life. The No. 3 overall pick of the 2015 NBA Draft, Okafor signed as a free agent with the Pelicans in August, eager to find a niche in the Crescent City.
“There were a multitude of reasons to come here,” Okafor said Wednesday. “The organization itself, a winning culture. I remember watching them in the playoffs sweep the Trail Blazers. I never thought that I’d be on the team, but I was thinking to myself, ‘Those guys look like they’re all together and fighting for each other and playing for something bigger than themselves.’ That’s what I had been accustomed to since I’ve been playing basketball. When I had the opportunity to come here, it was a no-brainer.”
Okafor played in 53 and 50 games during his first two seasons with Philadelphia, respectively, but knee issues and a gradually declining role pushed him entirely out of the rotation in ’17-18. After only playing in two games for the 76ers, he was traded to Brooklyn, where he again began receiving late-season DNPs. With training camp approaching next week, it’s uncertain how much he’ll play for the Pelicans, but he’s pleased to be surrounded by a slew of familiar faces, including five-time All-Star Anthony Davis. Okafor has known Davis since Okafor’s freshman year of high school, when the two prep standouts played a game against each other in the Windy City. Since coming to the pros as a lottery pick, Okafor has often received positive words from Davis, something he’s appreciated greatly, while dealing with inconsistent playing time, trade rumors and a change of Northeast addresses from Philly to Brooklyn last December.
“Anthony is always someone who I knew if I ever needed any advice, I could always hit him up,” Okafor said. “He’s always been responsive and had my back. I’ve had some rough patches (in the NBA), but whenever I saw him, he’d always say, ‘Keep your head up.’ Little things like that, telling me to stay with it and not get down on myself.”
In addition to Okafor’s connection to Davis, current Pelicans Director of Player Personnel David Booth offered Okafor an ultra-early athletic scholarship to Chicago-based DePaul University, when Okafor was a promising local eighth-grader. New Orleans assistant coach Mike Penberthy worked extensively with Okafor during the ’16 offseason, training him that summer. Those relationships – along with what the Duke University product has perceived to be a team on the rise – have helped make Okafor very optimistic about ’18-19, after spending just a month-plus in the Big Easy.
“I called my Dad last week and told him how happy I was to be here,” he said. “The culture, the environment, it’s family-oriented and I love the way everyone interacts. We were in the locker room (recently) and after workouts, guys usually rush home and do their own thing, but everyone stayed around and were just talking. That’s odd (compared to) what I’ve been accustomed to. Guys usually have their own things going on. But it reminded me of college, where all the guys are super close on the team. I’ve felt the family environment right away.”
Something Okafor also wants to experience in the NBA is being part of a winning team. Coming off its best season in 10 years and only the second playoff-series victory in franchise history, New Orleans has high expectations this fall.
“Since I’ve been in the NBA, I haven’t been in any type of winning environment,” he said. “This is a team with aspirations of winning a championship. I’m all in for that. The leadership we have here, with Jrue (Holiday) and AD, and we just added Jarrett Jack, who everyone knows is a huge presence in the locker room. The veteran leadership to hold you accountable. That’s what I’m really excited about, to know we have a lot of people here who are aiming for the same goal and will hold each other accountable and make everybody better.”
“It’s a huge opportunity for me. Being in the city of New Orleans, meeting the people, it’s been nothing but hospitality and a lot of love,” he said. “It’s really refreshing to see. I’ve had a ton of people who are happy to have me on the team. It gets me excited. I can’t wait for the season to start.”