Jahlil Okafor’s slow path to the Brooklyn Nets’ rotation is finally about to hit the fast track. His career has been stuck in park since his rookie season in Philadelphia. Instead of getting the bump in minutes he anticipated following his trade to the Nets last month, the former No. 3 overall pick has been inactive for all but one game and hasn’t seen action since he played 23 minutes against the Toronto Raptors on Dec. 15.
Following that trial run, Nets coach Kenny Atkinson found some issues in his conditioning and placed Okafor on a fitness regimen to chisel him into proper game shape. According to New York Post reporter Brian Davis, the Okafor experience is finally set to roll off the lot on Wednesday against the Minnesota Timberwolves.
“I expect to see him against Minnesota. I think I’ll start to get him some minutes,” Atkinson said Monday before the Nets beat the Magic 98-95 at Barclays Center. “He’s been doing a phenomenal job getting ready physically with our assistant coaches, learning what we’re doing. So collectively we feel that he’s ready to get some minutes.
“That’ll be a progression. We’ll build him up. We’ll evaluate where he is physically and game-wise. Like anybody, you’ve got to earn it with play.Let’s see him in small doses and hopefully build him up to bigger minutes.”
“It was more than just being fit enough. It was being in the environment, learning the system. I don’t want the message to just be me being fit enough,” Okafor said. “But [Atkinson] just told me a few hours ago, I was comfortable with the plays, with my teammates, the coaches. I’ve been working hard the last two weeks.
“But he just informed me like an hour ago, he texted me last night and said he wanted to talk to me [Monday]. And he delivered the message that he expecting to play me Wednesday against Minnesota. … I’m excited.”
It’s a fitting team for Okafor to make his return against. He and Karl-Anthony Towns were once the top two 2015 prospects on most draft boards. Towns still has a long way to go, but he projects to be a future MVP candidate. Okafor is trying to fit his antediluvian low-post skills into a modern, pace and space rotation.
It appears Okafor will be playing with a minutes restriction, according to Atkinson’s comments. The sooner Okafor hits the ground running, the better. His rookie contract expires at the end of this season and we are nearing the regular season halfway point. Time is running out for him to make an impression before he hits free agency this summer and his value is declining fast.
A year ago, Okafor was worth a top-20 protected first-rounder and by November, the Sixers struggled to offload him for a second-round pick.
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