Okafor shakes off slow start to impress in summer league debut

SALT LAKE CITY -- The butterflies hit Jahlil Okafor around the time his name is announced in pregame lineups, and they typically subside when he steps on the floor for the start of games. It's been that way since he can remember.

And while Okafor, the No. 3 pick in last month's draft, suggested that the script did not change on Monday night, when he made his pro debut for the Philadelphia 76ers during a 74-71 loss to the San Antonio Spurs at the Utah Jazz Summer League, he sure seemed to overcome a bit of early-game unsteadiness before firmly asserting himself.

Okafor missed eight of his 11 shot attempts in the first half -- airballing his first attempt from close range -- but utilized a dominant third quarter to finish with 18 points on 9-of-21 shooting to go along with 10 rebounds and two blocks in 29 minutes of action.

Okafor's night was diminished slightly by four turnovers and four blocked attempts, but he was his own harshest critic. Asked to assess his debut, Okafor gave himself a C-minus grade. Why so stern?

"I could have played better," Okafor said. "That's all it is. I could have played better."

Shaky through the first six minutes, Okafor started squashing any stray butterflies midway through the first quarter. Collecting the ball in a late-clock situation near the right elbow, he calmly jab-stepped, then spun to his right when a help defender approached from the left and hit a fadeway jumper while being fouled.

Okafor had just six points at the intermission, but turned it on to start the third quarter. There was an easy hoop on the low block, then a bull-like drive to the rim for an and-one layup. He added a putback, finishing with eight third-quarter points on 4-of-5 shooting.

The 76ers bench, which included Nerlens Noel, offered constant encouragement for Okafor, and his coach heaped praise after Monday's game.

"I've been saying it for a week or so now -- with every possession, he's going to just grow and grow," said 76ers assistant Billy Lange, who is running the summer squad. "We've been preparing him because everybody is going to come in and try to make a name against him.

"He wants to win, he wants to please," Lange said. "He's a great kid. His heart is so pure that he was probably pressing himself a little bit. But once he settled into the third quarter and we were drawing up plays for him and getting him the ball in spots that he probably hasn't seen in a long time. I thought he did really, really well."

Okafor, 19, noted this was his first game-intensity 5-on-5 work since winning the national title game at Duke in April. He suggested he's still shaking off a bit of rust and getting used to his new teammates.

He's also adjusting to being a pro and the responsibilities and demands that come with it. Okafor said he leans on his family more than ever now and credits them for keeping him from being overwhelmed.

What's obvious after even just one summer league game is that Okafor has the offensive skill set to be an immediate impact player. You'll hear plenty of way-too-early comparisons to Hakeem Olajuwon and Tim Duncan. Okafor has a long way to go at both ends, though Lange complimented his defense in his first pro game.

What is the most glaring area that Okafor needs to improve?

"I think it's quicker decisions," Lange said. "I think it's understanding where the rotations and the double teams are, the angles and where he has to get the ball against these type of players. Scouting reports and all those things. They are going to come, time after time after time."

Even with an overstocked cupboard of big men, which includes recent first-round picks in Noel and Joel Embiid, the 76ers have to love the early returns from Okafor. If he plays like he did in the third quarter of Monday's game, it'll be his defenders battling a case of the butterflies.