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Sixers lose to Celtics, Jahlil Okafor proves the haters wrong in NBA debut

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After a strugglesome — we're making that a word — preseason, Jahlil Okafor had something to say to his growing number of doubters in his sterling NBA debut.

Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

BOSTON — As Isaiah Cannan drained his second three-pointer of the game, capping off a 13-6 76ers' run, Brad Stevens called timeout with his Celtics trailing 26-17 and 2:31 remaining in the season's opening quarter. Four Sixers starters jogged over to the team's bench, while Brett Brown waded out several feet onto the parquet and met his lumbering center before Jahlil Okafor could reach the pine.

Okafor had scored 10 points on 5-7 shooting, adding two rebounds and a stifling block against Marcus Smart. Yet Brown, privy to his euphoric ways, found the pause in his team's momentous run as a perfect teaching moment.

"[I was] just reminding him of floor spots and spacing," Brown said postgame. "I've been really lucky to have been around a Spurs team that was littered with bigs and we learned how to space around Tim Duncan. [I was] trying to remind him, where he's gotta go when we post up Nerlens, there's different floor spots that can lengthen double teams and have Nerlens know where his outlets are. He's a good young man. He wants to be coached. He's willing to learn and listen, like all players that want to stay on the floor.

Okafor often muttered Duncan's name throughout the pre-draft process, citing the ageless wonder as a role model both on and off the court. He drew comparisons to another Spur great during his NBA debut, however,

Okafor would finish with 26 points on 10-16 shooting from the field, the 11th-most points for anyone in an NBA debut since 1963 and the second-most for a center behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (29 PTS), also per our own Max Rappaport. After Okafor's shaky preseason play sparked plenty of skepticism, the No. 3 overall pick certainly rose to the occasion. He added seven rebounds, two blocks, one assists and one steal, as well.

"I got into a good rhythm, a good flow," Okafor said. "This is my dream. This is what I always wanted to do. I wanted to come into the NBA right away and assert myself."

He still had his struggles. Okafor was pretty baffled once the Celtics started double-teaming him in the second and third quarters. He had eight turnovers on the night, and his lone assist came on a gorgeous, cross-court dime to Hollis Thompson for an opposite-corner triple, but only after the double team forced him to dribble all the way out past the three point line and nearly out of bounds.

It's a difficult balance Okafor will need to find: In one-on-one post-up situations, it's towards his advantage to take his time and feel where his defender is guarding him, while passing out of double teams requires quick, precise reads. Meanwhile, he's already seemed to find a terrific balance with Nerlens Noel on both sides of the floor. The third-year shot-blocker finished with 14 points, 12 rebounds, three steals, two blocks, and two assists of his own. Noel appeared to show a better understanding of where to move during Okafor's post-ups as well.

"Jahlil's a big body, he takes up a lot of space. So I'm reading, trying to creep over and cut to the basket and he has great vision so I know he'll find me," Noel said.

Overall, it was a solid showing from Brown's club. Without a true, NBA point guard and the team's expected top-two three-point shooters, the Sixers' didn't leave much more to be desired in their season opener. They'll be back in action Friday when they host the Jazz at The Center.

Here are some more thoughts:

  • Noel alluded to this above, but there was one instance in the first quarter where Jared Sullinger moved Okafor several feet off the block. That's when Noel slashed from the opposite elbow to the ball-side block Okafor had originally tried to post at. Noel turned it over, but that cut could prove dynamic in situations where Okafor is forced far out from the basket.
  • Christian Wood was the first big off the bench ahead of Richaun Holmes. Each rookie only played six minutes, however, so I wouldn't read too much into it. Neither played in the second half, which was puzzling.
  • Okafor looked pretty solid in one-on-one post defense, stuffing David Lee once and then bodying up Amir Johnson. But he looked gassed on several occasions, most notably when Zeller beat him down the court for an easy layup in the first quarter and he watched Marcus Smart chase down a long rebound in the second quarter that Okafor could have grabbed. Don't let the 38 minutes fool you: Okafor still has a long way to go conditioning-wise and Brown agreed during his postgame comments.
  • During the preseason, aggressive Jerami Grant was really fun on offense. The regular season introduced us to over-aggressive, Jerami Grant, however. Dude tried to tomahawk jam everything. JaKarr Sampson was far more under control out of the two, hyper-athletic wings.
  • Speaking of out-of-control, Hollis Thompson reverted back to some of his rookie season struggles, when the speed of the NBA games often left him looking like a deer in headlights. He got the start for an injured Nik Stauskas — who was a scratch due to back spasms which acted up literally minutes before tipoff, according to Brown — and proceed to start 0-9 from the field. He finished 3-15 and 3-9 from three-point land. Often times, Thompson needed to take a deep breath and a dribble to slow his momentum down and pull-up in rhythm, rather than just hurling the ball towards the rim the second it hit his hands.
  • It took until the 7-minute mark of the third quarter before Brown used a lineup that didn't see two traditional big men on the court. For the first 29 minutes of the game, at least two of Okafor, Noel, Wood and Holmes were on the court. Grant was mixed in at some small ball 4, but Brown seems truly committed to playing with two traditional bigs at all times. Screw, small ball. It's all about bringing violence at the rim.
  • Isaiah Cannan is clearly a better shooter than he is a point guard. And he was also able to mix in some penetration as he scored a few off the bounce. Brown's well aware of this as well. And that's why we saw plenty of Cannan and T.J. McConnell sharing the back court in the second half.
  • Brown compared McConnell to Matthew Dellavedova pregame. He played 28 minutes, scoring four points and added four assists. It was a decent showing for an undrafted point guard that nobody expected to be on the court this time of year back in July.