By Harry Allison
Sixers coach Brett Brown started his third season last night in Boston, and for the first time since he was hired he has a true stud to work with.
“He has capabilities beyond what I thought,” said Brown said about Jahlil Okafor after watching the debut of his 6-11 rookie center. “We consider him to be a low-post, force-type player.”
In the absence of reliable perimeter shooting or experience at point guard, Okafor led the shorthanded 76ers with 26 points on 16 shots.
“He can shoot a 16-footer, he can put it to the floor and make moves facing up,” Brown went on. “He’s got an instinct for scoring in more versatile ways than I originally expected.”
Okafor, the No. 3 pick who led Duke to the national championship last year, had struggled to define himself in preseason alongside 6-11 Nerlens Noel, the former center who is now trying to become a complementary power forward.
Then the lights brightened, the pressures intensified and Noel went for 14 points and 12 rebounds overall. Okafor sank his first five shots whether he was turning around, facing up or driving off the dribble.
“Still just trying to get comfortable,” said Okafor, who looked entirely at ease. Even as he committed eight of his team’s 22 turnovers, Okafor remained adamant that the Celtics would react to him rather than the other way around.
He looked like a Rookie-of-the-Year favorite, and the Celtics responded in kind by going small sooner than they had planned. Such are the dispassionate decisions that inspire so much faith and optimism in Stevens.
The Celtics brought 6-9 power forward Jared Sullinger off the bench to body up against Okafor, and they doubled him sooner and more often than even Okafor had anticipated.
The Sixers’ early 26-17 lead began to deflate as soon as Okafor needed a rest toward the end of the first quarter. In his absence their halfcourt offense vanished. Over the next nine minutes they would score two points, supplied by Okafor on a midrange jumper, and they would finish the half with two assists altogether.
The Sixers would remain within reach until the very end, and yet they never seemed capable of winning — not with nine players in uniform, not with wing starters Robert Covington and Nik Stauskas sidelined, not with undrafted rookie TJ McConnell having to play 28 minutes (four points, four assists, three turnovers).
They came away with something more important than this outcome, however — the certainty of building around Okafor, whose interior scoring should be enhanced in the near future by the perimeter shooting of Stauskas and Covington.