Jahlil Okafor’s off-court troubles are just a ripple effect of “One-And-Done”
Things are gonna get easier
Ooh, child, things’ll get brighter…
Even for the most casual sports fan, unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past week, you can’t help but have heard about former Duke University prodigy Jahlil Okafor’s acting out in his rookie year with the Philadelphia 76ers. From speeding tickets to public scuffles (two, at alleged last count), to trying to use a fake ID to enter a bar, Okafor has the dubious distinction of becoming TMZ’s sports media darling du jour.
I’m sure that the less than savory rumblings are already beginning from those who are quick to assign blame in such matters, especially in legal matters regarding a young, Black male. You know: broken home, drugs, poverty, etc. For the record: Okafor came from a single-parent home, but not by choice: his mother, Dacresha Benton, died from bronchitis-related complications when he was nine years old. His father, Chucky Okafor, stepped up and left his old habits behind so that he could be the father and role model that his son needed. Okafor was a bright student with good grades, and had no criminal history when he landed in Durham, NC to play for legendary coach Mike Krzyzewski at Duke — a significant accomplishment for a young, Black male growing up with ties to Chicago’s infamous South Side. He played for the program for one year, helped the Blue Devils win the 2015 NCAA championship then bolted for the NBA, where he was taken as the #3 overall draft pick.
What people are perhaps choosing to overlook is that Okafor was 19 years old when he transitioned from a college player to a professional one. Nineteen. He is one year removed from being able to vote, to join the armed forces. In the eyes of United States law, he is a man. He will turn twenty on December 15.
Had he made a different decision, Okafor would be a sophomore in college now. He’d be in the student-athlete grind of practices, games, girls, and exams. He’d be attending college parties with other students, not star-studded celebrity events such as the NBA All-Star game. He’d be playing NBA 2K with his friends, instead of trying to get his ratings up as a featured player option (a la Hassan Whiteside of the Miami HEAT) during the regular NBA season. He’d be surviving on his athletic scholarship and meager per diems, eating cafeteria food, instead of sitting on a seven-figure bank account and dining at reserved tables in the finest restaurants. He’d be on Thanksgiving and Christmas vacations at home, instead of playing in scheduled games. He’d be carefully monitored and supervised, instead of left to his own devices.
In a league increasingly filled with “one-and-done”ers (players who only attended and played one year in college before declaring for the NBA draft), it’s a miracle that incidents such as Okafor’s aren’t more commonplace. Young men who are still trying to navigate college life among their chronological peers are suddenly thrust into a world of men literally old enough to be their fathers; men with wives and children, and charitable foundations, and championship rings; men who have long crossed the Rubicon of young adulthood and thus have limited tolerance for young man issues (I mean, they have their own children, at home, to raise).
The pressure to fit in, to know your role, to rise to (sometimes improbable) expectations increases exponentially. If the young man is a first-round draft pick, that pressure goes from zero to sixty at warp speed, as most of those players are drafted by teams that are seeking to rise from the bottom of the league’s standings. Such players are expected to come in and magically right sinking ships, despite the fact that in the month prior to the draft, they were taking their final exams and packing up their dorm rooms.
These players are, for all intents and purposes, children.
Okafor is no exception. His ability as a big man who could lock down defenders in the post was attractive to the Sixers, who at the time of the draft were dealing with a re-injured Joel Embiid (who had already missed the 2013–14 season with a foot injury) and Nerlens Noel, who had just returned from a knee injury that sidelined him for the same season. Okafor stepped into his role as potential Sixers savior with the grace and, ironically, the maturity for his age that he was known for at Duke. Until recent incidents, many had praised his work ethic and were even drawing early comparisons to the San Antonio Spurs’ Tim Duncan in his prime.
Some day, we’ll get it together
And we’ll get it all done
Some day, when your head is much lighter
But everything comes with a price, especially success. Okafor is a shining gem in a miserable setting of a team, one that flaunts its blatant tanking/rebuilding strategy in the face of league rules and unspoken protocol among the owners. The tandem of Okafor and Noel hasn’t quite worked out as hoped; there is no “Twin Towers” synergy as with notable big-man duos such as Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan (Los Angeles Clippers); Paul Millsap and Al Horford (Atlanta Hawks); or Duncan and David Robinson in the late ‘90s-early 2000s, for the Spurs. In fact, there is little synergy among the entire team — not the type of synergy that leads to a .500 record, let alone a championship ring. As mentioned previously, there are no veterans on the team to help the younger Sixers learn how to win, and win the right way — which includes understanding just how much the personal affects the professional. Coach Brett Brown, though he publicly states his commitment to grooming this young team, always seems to be on the verge of walking off the court in frustration during a game, and never returning.
Okafor is far away from both the Chicago and Durham areas, where he had trusted advisors and friends with whom he could immediately visit if he had a problem. To do that now would more than likely require a long-distance phone call, or FaceTime, or Skype. He has a lot of unstructured time on his hands, money to burn, and no clue what to do with either, or how dangerous that combination can be. His idols — those who could be positive professional influences — are not only on rival teams but have their own young teammates to train up (and, in the case of Kobe Bryant, is about to retire). He is coming to the unpleasant realization that team management is sympathetic to his plights as long as he is productive; when his PER slips, or his attitude is perceived to infect the team in a negative way, he’ll be the subject of a trade rumor faster than the media can tweet it. He is a commodity: nothing more, nothing less.
The plight of the one-and-done player is similar. These are man-children, thrown off the cliff and expected to fly based on relative success across a relatively small sample size of games, in a much less challenging playing system. The league and the NBA Players Association need to recognize this and find a more cohesive and comprehensive way to deal with it. The NBPA, which represents the interests of the players, should try to find a better way to help the incoming young players better adjust to the league, especially on young teams with no true veteran presence.
While the NBA offers the Rookie Transition Program as a means to try and avoid the very incidents in which Okafor (and others before him) has found himself involved, it can only go so far. With the upcoming collective bargaining agreement expiring soon, and the issue of raising the age at which college players can enter the draft already a contentious issue, it would be in the best interests of the NBPA to try and head any potential increases in mishaps off at the pass. There is no need to give the league any more ammunition in its fight to raise the current player age limit from 19 to 20 (and 21 probably wouldn’t be far behind).
Some day, yeah
We’ll walk in the rays of a beautiful sun
Some day, when the world is much brighter
As Okafor matures, he’ll calm down. He’ll get used to the player protocol, the NBA life, the being the focus of every available smartphone and YouTube or Vine upload. Rajon Rondo did it, and he’s none the worse for the wear. As the Sixers (hopefully) approach the end game of their rebuilding madness, they will acquire someone (or a few someones) who will not only take some of the load off Okafor, but will be around to give him the guidance needed to have a long career in the league. His dad remains a constant presence in his life, but the league is outside of his purview. Okafor needs a Kevin Garnett, a Paul Pierce, a Duncan, or even a Carmelo Anthony to show him the errors of his ways and guide him from being a man on paper, to an NBA man of substance. A player who is a positive reflection both on and off the court.
Things are gonna get easier
Ooh, child, things’ll be brighter
Okafor was suspended for two games by the Sixers. He has expressed remorse for his actions. The Sixers have stated that they will have security accompany Okafor when he’s on personal time. Okafor seems to have a support system, including his father, that will do its best to encourage him to get his head right and keep it right. The Sixers won their first game of the season, thus avoiding the tag of having the worse starting season record ever in the NBA. The 2016 draft is approaching, and hopefully Sixers GM Sam Hinkie’s “process” will bear fruition by the time the 2016–17 season rolls around — or some trades will happen between December 15 and the All-Star game that will keep the Sixers from crashing and burning completely. If Okafor can ride out this bump in his personal and professional development, he will more than likely turn into a quality player in all aspects.
If you just wait and see
How things are gonna be…
Thanks for stopping by.
Lyrics from “Ooh Child” by the Five Stairsteps. (c) 1970