Jahlil Okafor pulls a blanket over his lap, leans back in the leather recliner, and gazes up at the projector screen. The lights dim and Reese Witherspoon begins to narrate the opening sequence of Home Again, a romantic comedy that proves to be light on both romance and comedy. But Okafor doesn’t much care about the plot. He’s here for the setting.
Okafor’s girlfriend rests her head on his shoulder. A plate of sweet potato fries sits on a small, circular table that stems from the console between their two chairs. This is just the first of two movies he’ll watch on this September afternoon, both in the comfort of the iPic luxury theater at New York’s Fulton Market. Okafor is in town for a week of physical therapy and workouts, but he’s been known to take a train from Philadelphia to Manhattan just to catch a flick or two at the iPic. By the end of this trip he’ll have seen every film the theater offers.
“People want to know why I like going to the movies so much,” Okafor says. “If I was a psychologist and I had to evaluate myself, maybe I like how dark the room is and I'm able to sit there like a normal person and not be bothered and just enjoy watching a fantasy.”
Okafor has become accustomed to the darkness. He was once the top recruit in a high school class that included Karl-Anthony Towns, Myles Turner, and D’Angelo Russell, then earned an NCAA championship and first-team All-America honors in his lone season at Duke. But the past two years have not gone nearly as smoothly. The basketball world has judged Okafor harshly, labeling him as a delinquent after a series of off-court incidents as a rookie and a bust following two seasons of neglectful defense and injuries. Yet he kept to himself, content to let others shape the narrative of his pro career.
This past summer, he sank deeper into anonymity. When Joel Embiid christened the 76ers’ young core as the “FEDS,” (Markelle Fultz, Embiid, Dario Saric, Ben Simmons), Okafor’s name was conspicuously absent, despite the fact that he was the third pick in the NBA draft just two years ago. While his teammates posted group photos on Instagram, Okafor swore off social media. As trade rumors swirled — and continue to do so — he stayed mum.
But silence should never be mistaken for apathy or acquiescence. The past two seasons affected Okafor deeply. He addressed his physical issues this summer, adopting a vegan diet that left him 20 pounds lighter and free of the chronic knee swelling that hampered him last season. But the offseason was about emotional growth as well, as Okafor finally arrived at a place where he is ready to open up about all that has transpired and where he goes from here.
“I'm unsure if I'm still on the team,” Okafor says now. “Am I really a part of this process? Am I really a part of this culture? That's why the guys have been out there on social media, but I've just kind of been in the dark. I'll go to a Sixers event, smile, take pictures with the kids and stuff like that, but I’m still thinking, ‘am I a part of this team?’”
Between the two showings at the iPic, Okafor heads to midtown Manhattan, where the National Basketball Players Association has installed a fully outfitted court in its Sixth Avenue office. Rick Lewis, who has trained Okafor since he was 13 years old, puts the 6’11 center through a series of perimeter-focused drills: length-of the-floor dribbling; hundreds of three-pointers; pull-up jump shots. Beads of sweat drip down the back of Okafor’s neck and he tosses his shirt to the side, revealing his newly trim waist and a nascent six-pack.
For most of Okafor’s life, scenes like this were his refuge. His mother died when he was just 9 years old, and he buried his grief in hours of jump shots. “Each time I would go into the house where my mother used to be, I would start crying,” Okafor recalls. “I would just always go right back outside and start shooting and forget everything.”
As a rookie, though, basketball turned from an outlet to a burden. In November of 2015, Okafor was involved in an altercation outside a Boston nightclub; video emerged of his swinging at a man who had taunted him. In the aftermath, two other stories surfaced in the Philadelphia Inquirer. One revealed that police had stopped him for driving 108 mph on the Ben Franklin Bridge earlier that month. Another report claimed that a man had pulled a gun on Okafor during a verbal dispute outside an Old City nightclub in October.
Reactions were swift and predictable: Another young athlete was immature at best, a bad person at worst. The Sixers suspended him for two games, and Okafor apologized in a series of perfunctory tweets. Inside, though, Okafor was struggling. For two weeks following the Boston incident he hardly left the house, sending friends and family members to pick up food.
“I was embarrassed, to say the least,” he says now. “They started criticizing the way my dad raised me. And that was the biggest thing that hit me, because I know when my mom passed, he did everything he could to put me in the best situation.”
Those around him say Okafor was deeply ashamed. During games, he wanted to hide. “I had to go on the court in front of all these thousands of people, and I know they had all just witnessed what I did in that video and were judging me for it,” he says. “So I remember not wanting to be on the court, being embarrassed to be out there. That was the first time basketball wasn’t my escape.”
It wasn’t until a long talk with Lewis in a Memphis hotel room that Okafor began to find his way out of his funk. His longtime coach talked about recovering from mistakes, referencing Bill Clinton as an example of moving past infamous moments. The key, Lewis preached, was owning up to those transgressions. But Okafor was 19 at the time, and anything more than a surface-level apology was uncomfortable. Two years later, self-reflection comes easier.
“We were almost about to win that game against the Celtics and it ended up getting away from us in the fourth quarter,” Okafor says of that night in Boston. “I remember just being upset because I thought we were about to get our first win. And I just decided I'm going to go out that night. I don't remember a lot of it, because I was really intoxicated. And me being drunk, I wasn't in my right state of mind. I remember being taunted — just random stuff I would hear all the time on the court. I just reacted differently.”
Those early experiences hardened Okafor. He was shocked when the speeding ticket became major news, then again when a rumor spread that he’d used a fake ID at a bar near his house, an allegation he vehemently denies. As the public made snap judgments about his character, he felt his trust in others erode.
“When you watch the [Boston] video, you’re gonna say ‘what a bad guy,’” says Lloyd Pierce, a 76ers assistant coach. “It was a one-off and who knows how and why it happened. But if you’ve never seen that one day, and you’ve judged Jahlil by everything else, you know he’s the sweetest, nicest, best teammate, upbeat. He’s a great guy. You’re never going to have a bad encounter with Jahlil Okafor.”
But that’s not how the public saw him. And Okafor couldn’t help but think back to a lesson from grade school. “Growing up, I remember hearing that one mistake changes everybody's idea of you,” he says. “I remember my teacher said that you could go on the school bus every day and not throw up for 300 days, but if you throw up that one day, everybody's going to know you as the kid who threw up on the bus.”
Following his rookie year, Okafor has kept a low public profile. Rehabbing his image as a basketball player, though, has proved to be more difficult. As much as the video of the Boston fight has haunted Okafor, another clip has caused more lasting damage. Last season, footage went viral showing Okafor standing flat-footed in the lane while the Heat missed a short jump shot, grabbed an offensive rebound, and eventually scored. It became the Zapruder film of Okafor’s defense, Exhibit A of his ineptitude at that end of the court.
Last season, Okafor ranked 61st out of 62 qualifying centers (ahead of only Towns) in defensive Real Plus-Minus, a stat that measures a player’s estimated on-court impact on his team’s defensive performance. According to basketball-reference.com, the Sixers were 4.9 points per 100 possessions worse on defense with Okafor on the court last season and 2.5 points worse when he was a rookie. Says one league executive, “He can’t guard anybody and he doesn’t try to guard anybody.”
Pierce doesn’t agree, particularly when it comes to questions of Okafor’s desire. He says Okafor sought him out after the video hit Twitter, asking what he’d done wrong. Pierce told him that he’d handled his assignment correctly — Okafor was supposed to retreat and keep the ball in front of him. It was Okafor’s listless body language that made the play look so bad. “Could he have done more on the play?” Pierce asks now. “Always. But he was where we want him on the floor. It always comes down to perception, optics. In 48 minutes, you’re going to find a clip on every single player on every team.”
Okafor, of course, didn’t go third in the draft because of his defensive merits. He was a dominant low-post scorer in college who mixed size and power with deft footwork and a soft touch around the hoop. He found open shooters when double-teamed and handled the ball well for his size. Though he wasn’t much of an outside shooter, Okafor loved to face-up his defender at the elbow and attack off the dribble. A good portion of those skills translated immediately to the NBA; he averaged 17.5 points per game as a rookie before a meniscus tear in his right knee ended his season in early March.
Things changed last season. After missing two years due to injury, Embiid finally took the court. Along with Okafor and Nerlens Noel, that gave the Sixers three centers who were recent lottery picks. When all three were active, there weren’t enough minutes to go around. But the trio was also frequently injured, giving coach Brett Brown little opportunity to see how they fit together. Okafor and Embiid played just 80 minutes as a tandem; the Sixers were outscored by 34 points during that time.
Okafor’s playing time fluctuated and some nights he didn’t dress at all. His frustration reached a peak in January, when Brown called him into the coach’s office, took out a calendar, and informed Okafor that he would sit out the next four games. “That whole week I was just pissed off,” Okafor says.
He returned to the lineup at Washington. Two minutes into the game, he caught the ball on the right wing against Wizards center Marcin Gortat. Okafor turned, backed into Gortat with a pair of hard dribbles, and then accelerated toward the middle of the lane. He scooped the ball into the hoop with his left hand, drew a foul and set a tone. For the rest of the game he attacked relentlessly, even staring down his own coaches after several baskets. Okafor finished with 26 points and nine rebounds. “It was just me being pissed, kind of saying to our organization that I think this is unfair,” Okafor says. “Just letting the basketball world know that I'm still the guy that everybody thought I was.”
The Sixers hoped other teams would notice, because they realized they would have to trade one of their centers. In February, negotiations over an Okafor deal intensified to the point where the 76ers told him to stay home while the team traveled to Charlotte. But the deal fell apart and the next day Okafor boarded an American Airlines flight to rejoin the team in Boston. An uncomfortable situation grew worse.
“It was awkward,” Okafor said. “I'm at home, watching my team play on TV, not a part of that team, but not a part of any other team. I was anxious. Eager to figure out where I was going to be. Kind of excited to have an opportunity to be with a new team and have a fresh start. Sad that I was leaving my teammates that I'd gotten really close with. And then I ended up playing the next night. I can't really put into words how difficult it was.”
So Okafor remains a Sixer — for now, at least. The 76ers continue to discuss trade options, but they have yet to find a suitable offer, in part because his value has plateaued. Says a rival general manager, “Everybody knows he’s been on the block. The fact that he’s been injury-prone obviously doesn’t help — he’s only played 103 games total in two seasons.”
He also represents an increasingly irrelevant NBA archetype: the back-to-the-basket center. As the NBA hurtles into the pace-and-space era, teams are searching for big men who shoot well enough to spread the floor and move well enough to contain ball screens and protect the rim. That’s not Okafor’s game. Not yet, anyway.
This past spring, as Okafor’s knee pain persisted, he read that dairy products can cause swelling. On a whim, he cut it out of his diet entirely. A week later, he visited the team’s trainers and they were amazed: The fluid in his knee was gone. So next he cut out chicken, then steak, then all animal-based products. And so it was that Okafor found himself shooting a spot for PETA at a vegan restaurant in Philadelphia last month.
Now 20 pounds lighter and pain free, Okafor is noticeably quicker. And in Okafor’s mind, if his body wasn’t a finished product before this summer, neither was his game. “I would hear somebody else get criticized, like ‘oh, this person is not good at that, but oh, he's going into his second year,’” Okafor says. “But when it's me, it’s ‘well, he's not good at that, he'll never be good at it.’ I never got the ‘oh, he's going into his second year.’”
Okafor has a point: He is still just 21. The early statistical evidence against him might be damning, but it’s not absolute. When Marc Gasol was a rookie, for instance, the Grizzlies were 5.8 points per 100 possessions worse on defense when he was on the court. He merely went on to win the Defensive Player of the Year award in 2012-13. But Gasol’s anticipation and awareness are otherworldly. By contrast, Okafor has struggled to pick up on the nuances of positioning at both end of the court. Those who have watched him closely point out a host of subtle flaws. Instead of rolling hard to the basket when he sets a screen, he tends to float on the perimeter. He lets defenders push him off the block, instead of working to establish deep position. On defense, his lack of quickness is magnified by the fact that he hasn’t grasped spacing and positioning, a problem that also leaves him out of place to rebound effectively.
Still, even the executive who trashed Okafor’s defense isn’t ready to give up on him: “I think he can get a lot better, but he has to know that he’s not good enough,” the exec says. “It’s going to take a total egoless approach.”
That might not be possible in Philadelphia. Two years of criticism, of loss after loss, of fans turning against him, have taken their toll. If Embiid has come to represent the fruits of The Process — to the point where he has adopted that moniker as his own — Okafor has become a discarded byproduct overshadowed by his young teammates.
“I definitely feel like I'm the scapegoat for a lot of The Process issues,” Okafor says. “Something I learned is that when you lose, people find a reason why you're losing and I think that's where the defense thing really blew up — ‘oh, he can't play defense, that's why they only won 10 games.’ But there were a lot of other reasons why we only won 10 games that season.
“And then the second year rolls around. It's JoJo's first year playing NBA basketball, so he doesn't get the blame. And it's Dario's first year, so he doesn't get the blame. Nerlens just had surgery and Ben wasn't on the court either, so I felt like it was me again as the scapegoat.”
Against that backdrop, he begins his third season in Philly. Pierce raves about Okafor’s attitude and professionalism; if he’s unhappy, he hasn’t shown it. But internally, frustration continues to mount. “I was kind of already thinking that I'm not really a part of this future,” he says of his teammates’ photos and tweets. “So it wasn't like 'oh my goodness, they left me out.’ I kind of left myself out.”
So is it time to move on? Okafor pauses. He wants to make it clear that he respects the organization. That he loves his teammates. That he has no complaints about how he has been treated. But, he confesses, “Sometimes I do think it would be great to get a fresh start, be on a new team, new surroundings, new teammates. I think about that often and I think that's something that could benefit me.”
He lingers in the fantasy, at the chance to find a way out of the darkness, a chance to feel home again.