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092416_Embiid_AP Chris Szagola/AP

Philadelphia 76ers' Joel Embiid, right, of Cameroon plays around with Jahlil Okafor, left,prior to the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Chicago Bulls, Thursday, Jan. 14, 2016, in Philadelphia. The Bulls won 115-111 in overtime.

October 18, 2016

Could an Embiid-Okafor pairing work? The Sixers plan to try it out

September 30, 2016 — a date that will live in infamy.

Not only did Ben Simmons fracture his right foot on the last day of Sixers training camp at Stockton University, Jahlil Okafor also felt increased knee soreness after matching up against all 7’2”, 250 pounds of Joel Embiid in a five-on-five setting that same day. What a disaster. Okafor iced his knee on the bus ride down the A.C. Expressway to Philly, and when he woke up the next morning, it was “really sore.”

As most are aware of, Simmons is estimated to be on the shelf for three months with his injury. Okafor, on the other hand, participated in his first scrimmage in close to three weeks on Monday afternoon at the Sixers practice facility in Camden.

How is Jah’s knee feeling? To know for sure, you’re going to have to check back later today.

“I felt good out there, now the priority is to see how I recover, how I feel tomorrow when I wake up,” Okafor said.

For the tiny sliver of practice that we were permitted to watch, unlike the no-good, very-bad last day of training camp, it was news to see Okafor playing alongside Embiid. The mere mention of this 4-5 combination understandably raises eyebrows, considering that the league is generally trending in the opposite direction of the twin tower frontcourt. As a matter of fact, that is precisely why Okafor found his name was in trade rumors all summer.

“I like to think that I’m a guard so playing with him, I’m going to try to let him get his space It gives me the chance to work on my outside game.”

Both Embiid (“Offensively, I think it’d be easy”) and Brett Brown (“Offensively, I think it doesn’t take much thought. You post it, you post it deep.”) believe that scoring wouldn’t be an issue. If so, that’s excellent news for a Sixers team that hasn’t been able to throw the ball in the ocean throughout the preseason. Still, I have some reservations.

Almost by default, you can make the argument that these are the two best pure scorers on the roster. Okafor raved about Embiid’s skill, and for his part, the third-year rookie doesn’t mind making room for his friend’s low-post game to thrive. In theory, at least.

“I like to think that I’m a guard so playing with him, I’m going to try to let him get his space,” Embiid said. “It gives me the chance to work on my outside game.”

Brown believes that both players are willing passers, and they better be if you’re going to play two traditional bigs at the same time. Alas, their stats say otherwise. Neither has shown an aptitude for making quick decisions and on-target passes at the NBA level as of yet. Okafor took a step back from his post passing at Duke as a rookie, and well, Embiid currently has a 0-to-16 assist-to-turnover ratio. There is much work to be done here for both players.

Passing out of the post is sort of like playing quarterback in the NFL, where you often win with your brain. If this pairing were to work offensively, it will be because the game slows down for Okafor and Embiid in time.

“The game for both of them is coming at warp speed right now,” Brown said. “People out of the blue come from a whole different angle. You’ll hit a post and cut five times in a row, then on the sixth time, the guy guarding the cutter will just come back and jump the post.”


Defensively, in transition and then guarding the three-point line, an Okafor-Embiid pairing also looks extremely dicey on paper. A force in the paint all preseason, it would be irresponsible to play Embiid at any position other than the 5 defensively. Okafor has certainly worked himself into much better shape, but it’s still a major ask for him to guard players  beyond the arc.

Okafor’s minutes with Nerlens Noel were an abject disaster last season, but it’s fair to wonder if Embiid’s more well-rounded skill set could work with both players (separately, of course). As for Embiid and Okafor, Brown said that while he doesn’t plan to start both players together, closing games with the two bigs is on the table.

“I think if we can figure it out, we can definitely be a force together,” Okafor said.


Follow Rich on Twitter: @rich_hofmann