Seltzer's Notebook: Okafor Enjoys Battling Embiid, McConnell's Message, Christmas' Shot?

by Brian Seltzer
Sixers.com Reporter

Okafor Enjoys Competition With Embiid
Last week, Brett Brown expressed his hope that, at some point this season, Jahlil Okafor and Joel Embiid will situationally create an imposing frontline tandem for the Sixers. 

Every now and then in practice, however, the two find themselves on opposite sides, as was the case during the portion of Monday’s workout that was open to the media. 

“We’re going back and forth, we’re going at it,” said Okafor. “It’s a lot of fun.”

Okafor was chosen third overall in the 2015 draft, one year after the Sixers selected Embiid at the exact same slot. The centers have developed a solid friendship during the 14 months they’ve been with the organization. 

Still, there seems to be a valuable dynamic to the relationship that only competition is able to bring out. 

“We love playing against each other as well as playing with one another,” Okafor said. “The coaches are trying to limit us playing against each other right now, just because of my knee, and bagning against each other.”

Okafor’s on-court activities this preseason have, for the most part, been limited, due to him managing soreness in his right knee.

“When they let us off our leash, and let us play against one another,” he said, “it’s a lot of fun.” 

Okafor reaffirmed Monday his expectation to be available for Wednesday’s regular season opener.

A Year Later, McConnell Reflects

Last year, on the eve of the regular season, when teams across the NBA were faced with 15-man roster decisions like they were again Monday afternoon, T.J. McConnell was waiting to learn his fate.

A determined undrafted point guard, the Arizona product made the most of his invitation to Sixers training camp, and made an instant impression on the coaching staff through his work ethic, toughness, and skill. The combination of those factors was, of course, enough for him to make the final cut, and stick around.

Following Monday’s practice, a few hours before the Sixers announced the group it will take into Wednesday’s opener, McConnell looked back on his frame of mind this time a year ago.

“A lot of emotions, but I had no regrets because I know I left it all out there, and same for this year,” said McConnell.

Throughout the preseason, McConnell was willing to serve as a sounding board for the Sixers’ 2016 crop of rookie free agents.

“For the guys that came in this year, I kind of just told them put yourself in a good spot in management’s and coaches’ eyes - get here early, try to be the last one to leave, and just work as hard as you can,” McConnell said. “If you leave it up to chance, and you live with regret, that’s going to haunt you for a while, but I told them just have no regrets, and go out there and play as hard as you can.”

Christmas Hoping Latest Shot Comes with Hometown Team
Dionte Christmas was getting ready to hop on a plane to Athens, Greece Sunday. Then his phone rang. It was his agent, informing him that his hometown NBA team had come calling.

The Sixers were prepared to offer the Philadelphia native a contract. 

“Kind of like a last minute thing,” Christmas said Monday.

The signing was formally announced Monday, right before the end of the club’s practice in Camden, New Jersey. Christmas observed a portion of the session from the sideline, then got up a few shots, as his new teammates were going through individual work.

“Any time I get a chance to come and represent for Philadelphia, and get a chance to...play in my city, might as well take that shot,” said Christmas, a Temple product who played his high school basketball at Samuel Fels. He went to prep school at Lutheran Christian Academy.

Since departing Temple in 2009 as one of four players in program history to surpass the 2,000 career point mark, Christmas has gained a wealth of experience. His first formal professional assignment came via the Sixers months after he graduated in the Orlando Pro Summer League.

Christmas also suited up for the Los Angeles Clippers’ 2009 summer league entry in Las Vegas, but was unable to land a job in the NBA that season. Such was also the case the following year, despite contributing to Sacramento’s summer league squad. 

Christmas finally received his first, true pro opportunity in 2011, when he latched on with a franchise in Greece. His biggest break to-date came two years later in Phoenix, as he made the Suns’ opening night roster, and remained with the team through the entirety of its 49-win campaign.

“I learned a lot,” Christmas said of his only stint in the NBA, which lasted 31 games. “I just picked up a lot of little things, from the basketball standpoint, and off the court, and all around being a pro. I think that right there has helped me grow to be the leader and guy I am today.”

In the seven years since his run at Temple came to an end, Christmas believes he’s evolved into a more complete player. He could always score and shoot, but now feels his defense and strength have improved. 

“I think I can help the game in a lot of ways,” he said. 

Christmas spoke briefly with Brett Brown following Monday’s practice. It was the first time the two had met. Christmas, who worked out with Jahlil Okafor and other Sixers players this summer, offered several qualities that appealed to Brown and the front office. 

“Philly, can score, great guy,” said Brown prior to adding, “ticks a lot of boxes, can come in and we can give him a look. Maybe he ends up part of our D-League program.”

And perhaps the Delaware 87ers could be Christmas’ final destination.

As part of a series of transactions made to reduce the Sixers’ roster to a league-mandated size of 15 players, Christmas was waived Monday afternoon. 

“He’s a legitimate name,” Brown said, referring to the stock Christmas holds in NBA circles.

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