The Sixers “Process” Failed Jahlil Okafor

Update: Jahlil Okafor was suspended for two games by the NBA on Wednesday afternoon after evidence of a second physical altercation on a Boston street was released by TMZ. Coach Brett Brown called it “tough love”.

For weeks, Jahlil Okafor had been a trending topic on Lakers social media sites as the number three draft pick was having a very good start to the season for Philadelphia. In 7 out of 19 games Okafor had 20+ point outputs. In 17 out of 19 games he scored in double figures. Compare that with the Lakers lottery pick, D’angelo Russell.

Russell hasn’t had a 20 point performance this season. In 8 games out of 17, Russell has been in double figures. More disappointing, Russell hasn’t been the playmaker he was advertised to be.

Okafor, who the Lakers passed on in the draft because of the ‘star’ potential of Russell, highlighted Russell’s struggles and basketball immaturity with his exceptional rookie scoring. Fans of the Lakers complained nightly about Russell while drowning their sorrows in Okafor’s routinely efficient performances.

And then Okafor did this: two fights in one night in Boston. Heckling with a fan and a gun pulled out on him. Driving 108 miles an hour on a 40 mile an hour bridge.

The Lakers exhaled, fans included. Okafor in L.A. with all the accompanying distractions of women, alcohol, clubs, fast cars, aggressive fans, a party culture, would have been a disaster.

It’s the Sixers problem now and it’s the Sixers who dropped the ball from day one. The Sixer had a responsibility to Okafor who will be 20 years old in two weeks. But they neglected to make sure Okafor was ready to handle the incredible burden that losing inflicts upon the soul.

The Sixers like to call it “the process”. It’s their excuse for just about everything. Be patient and trust “the process”. Let the kids develop and “the process” will take care of everything. The trades of Jrue Holiday, Elfrid Payton, Evan Turner and Michael Carter-Williams had to do with “the process”.

“The Process” was a team of young players on the roster to the exclusion of anyone else. Let the young players develop together at the same time, at the same pace. Get rid of the ones who are too good, they inhibit the rest. Let the kids be on a NBA court, night after night. So what if they lose. So what if they are humiliated. So what if they can’t compete. At all. Their development today will aid them in the future. This is how you rebuild.

What the Sixers failed to understand was development happens in two separate ways. There is the development of the physical game and the accompanying learning curve of how to play the professional game. It takes three years to master the nuances and subtleties, at the very least.  For the talented it takes much less.

And then there is the psychological development. The ability to fight through adversity is a skill just as important as a jump shot. There is no greater adversity than losing night after night after night. In addition, young players have to learn how to maintain a competitive advantage whether they are winning, and especially if they are losing.

Psychological development happens when rookies are part of teams with veterans and those veterans become teachers, like when Dr. J. told Charles Barkley to return those newly purchased cars he had just spent his money on and Barkley obeyed. The veterans give life lessons. They explain the ropes. How much sleep to get. How to break down film. How to take care of your body. How to deal with hecklers on the road. How to deal with fans at home. How to deal with groupies, the women who mysteriously show up in your hotel room after a game. How to win. How to lose. How to handle media criticism. How to deal with the coach eviscerating your game in film sessions. It is a rite of passage for rookies.

Each one, teach one.

When Kobe Bryant entered the NBA, he had a 12 year veteran on his team, Jerome Kersey. The other rookie on the team, Derek Fisher, had 4 years of college and was 22 years old. Fisher would have a 18 year career.

When Tim Duncan entered the NBA, he had a 10 year veteran on his team, Chuck Person. The next youngest player besides Duncan was Malik Rose, who was 23 years old. Rose would have a 13 year career.

When LeBron James entered the NBA, he had a 8 year veteran on his team, Eric Williams. The next youngest player (James was 18 years old) was Carlos Boozer, a 22 year old. Boozer had a 13 year career.

When Jahlil Okafor entered the NBA, he had a 8 year veteran on his team, Carl Landry, who doesn’t play. The rest of the team has three years experience or less. It’s hard to say who, if any, of the young kids will have a long career. Nerlens Noel? Isaiah Canaan? Robert Covington?

Because they had a head start, the rest of the Sixers team has found a comfort level with losing that Okafor, from a winning Duke program, doesn’t have.

Okafor is no different than a lot of 19 year olds. He likes to have fun, he likes driving fast and he hates losing. He doesn’t quite know how to manage the game itself when losing is the natural outcome. Okafor has played well and lost. He has played poorly and lost. It is the losing that messes with the mind, night after night after night. Okafor compensates in ways that can be dangerous, even fatal, and there is no one in the Sixers organization who was clued in to his need for leadership, mentorship, guidance and friendship.

That is the biggest indictment of “the process”. It is one dimensional. It doesn’t factor in the whole person, the 19 year old struggling to make this work, to keep his head above water. Okafor hiring a security guard to accompany him doesn’t mean the problem is fixed. It just means he passed the job of maturing on to someone else. It is now a paid employee’s job to be mature. Neither Okafor nor the Sixers can do it on their own.

The Sixers statement on Okafor after he was suspended:

Jahlil is a very important part of our organization and our future. While we are disappointed with his recent actions, we have faith in him as a valued member of the Sixers. We will provide the necessary resources to support him on his journey and will do our part to help him succeed both on and off the court.”

photo via llananba