Seltzer's Notebook | Embiid Takes Important Step, Okafor Wants to Earn Spot

by Brian Seltzer Reporter

Embiid Participates Fully in Practice

The morning after the 76ers’ first pre-season game, there was additional cause for excitement. Joel Embiid was a full participant at practice, including the full-court, 5-on-5 scrimmage portion of the workout.

“It felt great,” said Embiid, who last season averaged 20.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, 2.1 assists, and 2.5 blocks in 25.4 minutes per game. “I worked hard to get back, so I just got to keep on working to get back to playing shape.”

His return was a welcomed sight for Brett Brown. 

“It’s great to see him just be up and down,” said the head coach. 

Brown was especially impressed with Embiid’s conditioning. The changes the center brought to the court Thursday - offensively, defensively, in the overall mood in the gym - was hard not to detect, according to Brown.

“He’s a big man. He comes in and really does make an impact - and immediately - on whatever we’re doing.”

Listening to Embiid talk during his six-minute media availability, it was clear he views himself as a leader, and feels a subsequent obligation to be on the floor with teammates, actively helping the Sixers towards their goals. 

“I’ve been working pretty hard the whole summer until now,” Embiid said, “so I just got to keep on pushing.”

The Sixers also announced Thursday that Embiid won’t play Friday, when the club hosts the Boston Celtics at The Center.

A Closer Look at Okafor’s Defensive Contributions

Without a doubt, Ben Simmons led the list of top individual performers from the Sixers pre-season opener Wednesday night.

Right behind him, though, would have to be a third-year big man intent on carving out a role on the roster.

Looking fresh, a seemingly feeling the same way, too, Jahlil Okafor left a positive imprint on the Sixers’ outing against the Memphis Grizzlies, a 110-89 loss.

That he cranked out 13 points - going 5 for 6 from the field, and a perfect 3 for 3 from the free throw line - in nearly 19 minutes was reassuring, but, in the context of Okafor’s skill set, wasn’t necessarily revealing. Scoring, after all, has been the Chicagoan’s calling card for virtually his entire basketball-playing life.

Arguably most eye-opening about Okafor’s efforts Wednesday was the aggression, and effectiveness he exhibited on defense, as well as his overall physical fitness.

“I feel good,” said Okafor, following his first dose of NBA action since March 22nd. “I felt like I made strade in the areas I wanted to work on. Obviously, it’s not completely there. I’m happy with the progress I made, and I’ll just continue to work.”

Fine-tuning his body and game were among the primary items on Okafor’s summer to-do list. One week into the preseason, he appears to be reaping the rewards of his willingness to adjust his lifestyle, and adopt a vegan diet. 

Brett Brown saw promise in Okafor’s showing.

“I thought Jahlil was good,” said the Sixers’ coach. “He came in, he had a bounce, he had the energy, he scored. I thought he was particularly good defensively. The combination of him being able to score like he did tonight and with his improved defense, he looks more nimble with his body.”

Keeping the focus on defense for a moment, Okafor quickly made his presence felt on that end of the floor shortly after being brought in off the bench. Check out a couple of the gifs below for evidence.

On the first of Okafor’s two blocks in Wednesday’s first quarter, watch the center stand his ground in the lane, and challenge a driving Mario Chalmers. Not only does Okafor turn the guard away, he forcefully claws the ensuing loose ball down from the cylinder for one of his six rebounds.

Minutes later, in the final seconds of the period, Okafor served up another swat. In this instance, he relies on his reach to extend over the shoulders of Deyonta Davis, to stuff Chalmers yet again.

Another impressive defensive sequence involving Okafor surfaced midway through the third frame. Keeping his feet moving on this play, he manages to mark three different players (#21 Davis, #0 JaMychal Green, and #7 Wayne Selden) on the same play. As a byproduct of him sliding into the paint to help Ben Simmons shut off Selden, a travelling call is whistled, resulting in a forced turnover.

On the heels of an auspicious debut, Okafor is eager to continue getting more reps as the Sixers’ exhibition slate rolls along.

“I’m happy we have four more of these, be in my rhythm, and earn my spot on this team, find myself somewhere in the rotation,” said Okafor. “So I’m going to work as hard as I can and earn whatever I can.”

Putting Preseason into Context

What should be made of a preseason?

The answer, and emphasis, perhaps hinges on the player, or the coach, for that matter. 

For NBA newcomers, like Ben Simmons, Markelle Fultz, and Furkan Korkmaz, the argument could certainly be made that the more exposure to exhibition action they get, the more they stand to gain in terms of their transition.

For established, proven veterans, such as JJ Redick, points of emphasis at this stage of the year might be somewhat different.

“You sort of use preseason for different things at different times of your career,” the 12th-year shooting guard said Wednesday. “I felt like, when I was a young player, I kind of used preseason as a proving ground almost.”

Redick then went on to tell a story about how, in his second or third season, while he was with Orlando, the Magic were facing the Atlanta Hawks in pre-season match-up. Redick was “playing pretty well,” as he remembered it, which prompted a few words of encouragement from an accomplished counterpart. 

“Joe Johnson came over to me and was like, ‘Hey man, good job,’ and I said, ‘Thanks man,’” recalled Redick.

At the time, Johnson, now 36 and with the Utah Jazz, was in the midst of his All-Star prime. His approach and focus to the preseason, however, was decidedly different than Redick’s.

“He goes, ‘Yeah, I’m just trying to use this for conditioning, just get up and down a couple times,’ and go back to the bench,” said Redick, who scored 11 points on 2 for 7 shooting against Memphis. “That was his mindset. So, I feel like for me now, [ pre-season goals are] obviously staying healthy, but being in a new system, just continuing to get acclimated with what we’re doing, and also trying to catch a rhythm offensively, and using this as well for conditioning.”

From a coaching standpoint, Brett Brown, set for his fifth go-round on the Sixers’ sideline, looks at the preseason through the same lens, year-in and year-out.

“We judge it critically,” Brown said of his staff. “You can’t help but judge it like, did they do well or didn’t they? You go from there on justifying or figuring out why good things or bad things might have happened.

“To sort of dust off pre-season games, and not really sort of scrutinize and pay attention, that’s not how I do it. I feel like when these guys are on the floor, there’s a body of work - albeit not completely filled - that is enough for them to compete and play in a structured environment, and you want to see people play and compete and how do they pick up things. It’s stuff right from the get-go you’re going to make judgments on. That’s just how I am wired.”