Brooklyn Nets

Did Tuesday signal the end of Okafor in Brooklyn experiment?

Add Jonas Valanciunas to the list of NBA bigs who have decimated the Brooklyn Nets this season.

The list is long. We ran one at the turn of the calendar and even then it was, as we called it, murderer’s row.

Valanciunas came to Barclays Center and clubbed the Nets on Tuesday, finishing with 26 points and 14 rebounds in a 116-102 win over Brooklyn, a game in which the Nets actually ledd 67-57 at halftime and dropped a season-high 40 first quarter points. Valanciunas shot 60% (12-of-20) from the floor in a performance which spanned only 27 minutes of game-high.

Throughout the night, the Nets mostly threw Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Dante Cunningham at the 7-foot Raptor, both of whom spent some time at ‘center’, the Nets’ near positionless version of it anyway, in the absence of Jarrett Allen, who was sidelined for the night with a sore left foot, a decision announced just two hours prior to Tuesday’s 7:30 p.m. tip-off.

Just 15 minutes after that, Kenny Atkinson mentioned Hollis-Jefferson and Cunningham, along with Quincy Acy as forwards who would likely see more time filling in the sizable shoes of the 6’11” Allen.

Jahlil Okafor, who missed eight games before appearing in Sunday’s loss against the Philadelphia 76ers, also received a mention. Technically Atkinson didn’t say Okafor would play, even though that was the expectation with the absence of Allen.

“We have Jah also, who gives us a big body,” Atkinson said pre-game after saying the team could give Hollis-Jefferson and Cunningham more minutes, which did occur. “We’ll figure it out by committee.”

Against Toronto, Cunningham, who started in place of Allen, logged 24 minutes and scored 10 points. Hollis-Jefferson came off the bench and had 19 points combined with seven rebounds in 27 hard fought minutes, and Acy played 17 minutes, coming away with five points on six field goal attempts, all but one came from three-point land. At no point did the Nets have a player taller than 6’8” on the floor.

So why no Okafor?

We asked, and Atkinson said that he and the Nets simply went with quickness in favor of strength, which the 6’11”, 260-pound Okafor, comparable to Valanciunas in size, unlike the aforementioned three forwards, has plenty of.

“I thought Dante was good when he was in there. It’s speed versus size and we went with speed,” said Atkinson post-game. “Could’ve made the move but didn’t, and listen, the kid (Valanciunas) had a heck of a game. He has good games against big guys. Obviously with Jarrett out we decided to go with Dante and Rondae and D.C. (DeMarre Carroll) and those guys. I thought ‘Q’ (Acy) gave us some good minutes.”

As we know, Okafor is a formerly traditional ‘back-to-the-basket’ big man who does his dirty on the inside. It’s a large reason for his lifelong success in basketball (up until he got to Philly), which include an All-Rookie Second Team honor in 2015-16 after averaging 17 points per game one season after leading Duke to a National title.

Basketball has moved away from that … and Okafor’s defense leaves much to be desired.

Maybe the Nets see the writing on the wall, and with Okafor set to hit free agency in a few months, this could be all she wrote. It’s possible that, given the nature of that December deal which landed Okafor (along with Nik Stauskas and a 2019 second-round draft choice at the cost of Trevor Booker), that the pick, not the player was the prize all along.

Questions were raised right away. How would Okafor fit in the Nets’ pace-and-space style? Is he in good enough basketball shape to run with the team? Could he ever reclaim his early NBA success?

We don’t know, but Atkinson did confirm that Okafor’s skills may be lost in the changes in the NBA, which the Nets have fully embraced.

“The game’s not a post-up game anymore,” he said. “Going to go on a rant here. I wasn’t afraid or anything. Valanciunas got most of his stuff on the pick-and-roll, that’s really what happened. It was two post-ups maybe so it wasn’t like they were dumping it down like the old days and they were beating us in the post. A lot of it was from pick and rolls. If you look at our rim protection numbers Jarrett’s our best guy …”

With 14 games left, some decisions have undoubtedly been made. Okafor’s future or lack of same, at least in Brooklyn, may be one of them.

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