The basketball world stopped and focused on Jahlil Okafor for two hours, as the 76ers tipped off their Utah Summer League slate with encouraging performances from Richaun Holmes (nine points, 3-6 FGs), Jordan McRae (15 points, 4-13) and Ja Rule (20 points, 10-22) himself.
The final score of a 74-71 loss is irrelevant in terms of evaluating this team's progression and development, as looking beyond the box score is key in the exhibition wasteland of summer league.
Throwing out Okafor's shiny 20-and-nine performance for a second, there was a lot to be optimistic about with his play after not having played competitive five-on-five ball in three months, though some of the concerns raised about his weaknesses in the pre-draft process were still on display, as they will be for some time.
Okafor's defensive awareness, like most rookie big men in the non-Nerlens Noel division, is poor. He looked confused as to whether go for a steal, jump for a block and risk a foul being called or to stand his ground and take a charge as a Spurs guard cut towards the rim in the frontcourt, in the first quarter, ultimately deciding on "none of the above," as he let the swingman go free for a basket. With Brett Brown and Sam Hinkie in the crowd in Utah, it's something they obviously know is an issue and are keen on having Jah improve on that end of the court.
Okafor seemed a little nervous early as well, a common occurrence that could pop up when a top lottery pick has huge expectations thrown on him and is in the middle of his pro debut. Okafor seemed to be wading from "too slow" to "too rushed" in the first half, only make three of his 11 shots in those two quarters. Once the third quarter came around, however, the post game that made Okafor so dominant at Duke began flashing in Salt Lake City:
With Holmes' made three-pointer and 20-foot basket aiding him, Okafor looked revitalized in the second half, finishing with 14 points on seven of 11 shooting from the field in that half alone and shrugging off his prior jitters with a handful of composed and-1s.
The Sixers lack adequate spacing in their frontcourt outside of when Holmes is stretching the floor, giving some doubts about how non-shooting or non-rolling bigs will be able to work alongside Okafor as the team progresses towards the season. Furkan Aldemir has two valuable NBA traits: screen-setting and offensive rebounding. That isn't enough at this point to warrant major playing time aside Okafor this fall.
While the game didn't end in the Sixers' favor, those elements of Okafor's game that aren't listed in the box score were apparent outside of his highly-developed post game.
There was Okafor gazing around the court as he palms the basketball with one hand in the fourth quarter, not out of trepidation, but just his pure passing instincts coming out. These are the moments that are just as welcoming of signs as any and-1 slam or turnaround jumper, as Okafor works out the kinks in his game while making his transition to the NBA, displaying confidence while doing so in just his first NBA peformance.