WASHINGTON - Jahlil Okafor's time has arrived, and the Sixers are ready to welcome him back on the court.
Okafor will play Saturday against the Wizards after sitting the last four games as a DNP-coach's decision. He has been out of the Sixers' lineup as Brett Brown as narrowed the rotation down to 10 players with centers Joel Embiid in the starting lineup and Nerlens Noel in the second unit (see story). Embiid's restrictions in back-to-back games created an opportunity for Okafor to get in the game.
"He has been unbelievable," Brett Brown said Friday. "You want to talk about a young man going through a life lesson … to date, it has been all class, all professional. He hasn't backed off a second from his work ethic and putting in his time. His day is going to be tomorrow. My level of appreciation and respect for Jahlil Okafor has grown dramatically."
Okafor had been in the mix for most of the season. He started 14 games and averaged 22.4 minutes overall. After the Sixers experimented with pairing him and Embiid in the starting lineup together for six games, they shifted their rotations. Brown went with a traditional four-five duo of Ersan Ilyasova and Embiid while Noel, who had been odd man out, received a minutes boost off the bench.
During this time, the former third overall pick has stayed engaged by working out with low-minute players, spending extra time at the training facility and showing his support from the bench.
"Seeing his preparation through this whole process has been fantastic," Noel said. "He's the first [one in] and last one to leave the gym. He's prepared for this, like anybody else should be. He's getting ready for his opportunity and I think he's going to play very well."
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Brown said he would discuss their use for Okafor before Saturday's game in terms of a starter or bench role. There is a rust element whenever a player returns, in any capacity, from time off the court. Okafor last played Jan. 3, 10 minutes against the Timberwolves. The Sixers know what Okafor is capable of, and they also are mindful of the long layover.
"Offensively, he gives us a lot of boost as far as on the post. They try to double team him and he always finds the open guys," Ilyasova said. "It's tough obviously for him going through what he's going through. I'm not saying it's easy [to return], a lot of factors involved as far as conditioning. We'll try to help him out as far as just feeling comfortable and all he has to do is just play the game."
Okafor is averaging 10.7 points and 4.8 rebounds this season. He scored 19 points (8 for 11 from the field) with five rebounds as a starter against the Wizards in November.
"He's going to give us that edge on the offensive side," Robert Covington said. "Jah commands just as much respect as Joel does, that's one thing that's not going to be a drop off. He hasn't played in a while, but he just has to come out with the mindset that he's got to come out and do what he does."
The Sixers enter this game on a hot streak, winning three straight and five of their last six. Embiid has been a key behind this success and a confident Okafor will contribute in his absence.
"I hope Jahlil comes back and has a great game," Embiid said.