Jahlil Okafor faces up against Atlanta's Vince Carter

Pelicans 2019 preseason profile: Jahlil Okafor

by Jim Eichenhofer
@Jim_Eichenhofer

With long-range shooting becoming an increasingly vital part of the NBA game, many pros spent the 2019 offseason working on making more threes. Meanwhile, one of Jahlil Okafor’s biggest goals was to figure out how to get more Zzzs.

He didn’t realize it until this summer, but the 6-foot-11 New Orleans center had been suffering from sleep apnea, causing the caliber of his rest overnight to be poor. As a result, Okafor often felt fatigued, even in the morning after what he thought was a good night’s sleep.

“I learn something new every year that changes me in a huge way,” Okafor explained. “Last year was nutrition. This year was sleep. I went to Virginia to a sleep lab, and they told me I stop breathing 20 times an hour (after falling asleep), which means I’m not getting a quality rest. So now I sleep with a CPAP machine. I just feel way different. I used to always wake up tired, but I thought that was normal.”

Okafor reports spectacular results from relying on a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine, such as getting out of bed feeling refreshed on Pelicans Media Day at 5:30 a.m. for an early workout with Jrue Holiday, then fulfilling his day-long obligations with local reporters.

“I’ve been waking up with a ton of energy,” Okafor said. “Before, I would usually wake up last-minute for things, just to try to get as much sleep in as I could. I knew I was going to be tired throughout the day – that was just the norm for me. After practice, I would need to take a nap as soon as I got home. But now that’s completely changed.”

A well-rested Okafor represents another step in what’s been a transformative year-plus for him since signing with the Pelicans in free agency. The third overall pick in the ’15 draft by Philadelphia, Okafor had immense expectations placed on him as a rookie, playing for a 76ers team that went a combined 37-127 over the two previous seasons. He was productive in his debut campaign (17.5 ppg, 7.0 rpg, first-team All-Rookie honors), but Philadelphia actually got worse, going 10-72. Despite his lofty draft status, by Year 3 he was traded to Brooklyn, where he showed brief flashes in 26 appearances, but didn’t make enough of an impression for the Nets to re-sign him.

Trajan Langdon – a member of Brooklyn’s front office when Okafor played there, now in his first season as New Orleans GM – brings a unique perspective on the fellow Duke University product. As critical as it was for Okafor to significantly improve his conditioning, Langdon also believes maturity and a reshaped outlook have benefited Okafor.

“From what I saw last year (with New Orleans), his defense has gotten better, and that’s one thing we really tried to get on him about in Brooklyn,” Langdon said of Okafor, leading scorer for Duke’s national championship team in ’14-15. “(We were telling him) that if you play defense and you rebound, you’ll play. I think his mindset was still (centered) around scoring, which came from his earlier years in Philly, where they just wanted him to score the ball. That predicated his time on the court. I think he’s matured as a young man, and his best years are ahead of him.”

Okafor wasn’t on the court much during the first few months of ’18-19, but as New Orleans frontcourt injuries piled up, he eventually became a fixture in the rotation. The Chicago native responded with six games of 20-plus points and seven double-digit rebounding performances. Defensively, he registered a dozen multi-block games, with 11 of those coming after Jan. 1.

“He’s in a place where he’s primed to succeed,” Langdon said. “I think he’s in a good mental state. When we had him in Brooklyn, I don’t think he was nearly as confident as a player as he is now. When you talk to him (now), what stands out is the way he rededicated himself and really worked on his body last summer. So in the last calendar year, he’s been able to keep his physique and keep his shape, which I think was huge in the way he performed (last) season, especially in the last couple months.

“We’re excited to have him and fortunate to have him, because he’s only 23 years old. I think a lot of people forget that, because he’s been in the league for (four) years. Sometimes it just takes time, and it happens for different players at different stages. He’s coming into his own in terms of his realization of who he is as a player.”

When he entered the NBA, Okafor was frequently described by draft analysts as a “throwback” big man, a rarity in this era who possesses a genuine low-post, back-to-the-basket offensive arsenal. Although Okafor still does some of his damage in that methodical way, he’s also shown he can face the basket and use quickness and athleticism to beat defenders.

“People always had it in their head that I was just an old-school, post-up guy,” Okafor said. “But if you watch any of my highlights from high school, I’ve always been able to handle the ball. Jrue and other guys call me ‘Big Guard,’ which is like an inside joke, because they know I can handle the ball. If you haven’t actually seen me play, you wouldn’t know.”

Langdon: “He is a tremendous offensive talent with great touch in the lane, great ballhandling ability.”

When a disappointing and drama-filled ’18-19 season finally concluded in April, it was a merciful ending in many ways for the Pelicans, but Okafor wrapped up the campaign playing his best basketball, averaging 18.0 points and 8.5 rebounds that month, while shooting 60.4 percent from the field. In Game 82, he poured in 30 points vs. Golden State, after going for 23 and 14 in a win at Sacramento.

“It wasn’t all back-to-the-basket,” Okafor pointed out, eager to build on his initial Pelicans season. “It was pick-and-rolls, running the floor, getting easy baskets. Each year I learn something new that can help me improve. I’m excited to show what I’ve got this year.”

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