Both Jahlil Okafor and Justise Winslow were selected within the top 10 picks of the 2015 NBA draft. Both were coached by the legendary Mike Krzyzewski and adored by the masses at Duke. Heck, the two even lived on the same floor of Wilson Dorm on East Campus.
But the situations they find themselves in this season could not be any more different. For two of the Blue Devils’ national championship winning freshmen from a year ago, the stability of the organizations that selected them may be much more important than where their names ended up on the draft board.
When Okafor was selected third by the Philadelphia 76ers, many envisioned the skilled center putting up monstrous stats on a nightly basis for a team that would lose often. Most of that has come to fruition—the rookie has averaged 17.5 points and 8.2 rebounds per game and sure enough, the 76ers sit at 0-18, tied for the worst start in NBA history.
There was no sign that just two months into the season, a video of a combative Okafor pushing a heckler would emerge or that the former Blue Devil would be clocked driving 108 miles per hour on a 40 mile per hour bridge. But how stunned can we really be that a 19-year old with a brand new $3.8 million contract is having trouble adjusting to the limelight?
So many times, the tutelage of veteran players around a young guy can shape the course of a career. Take a look at the struggles Rajon Rondo has had since he left the leadership of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen in Boston or the success Kawhai Leonard has had with Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili in San Antonio.
But looking around Okafor on the 76ers roster, there is barely a veteran presence in sight. In an ongoing disservice to the NBA and its fans, the 76ers organization has assembled a team comprised of many low-cost options, with the seldom-used Carl Landry the only player older than 24. On Philadelphia’s 16-man roster, Landry is the only player to enter the league prior to 2012. Without any sort of guidance of how to carry oneself and deal with life as an NBA player—which consists of more than just a couple classes, two games per week and celebratory trips to Shooters—Okafor has undoubtedly struggled with a transition made all the more difficult by playing for a historically bad team.
Now this isn’t meant to excuse the rookie’s actions and Okafor realized this himself in his latest apologies on Twitter. Learning to handle losing on and off the floor is an important part of every NBA player’s development. The 6-foot-11 center did not have to experience that much during his one year in Durham or on the high school circuit, which makes the transition especially challenging for a 19-year old. Following the release of the video to TMZ.com last week, the media began to scrutinize Okafor even more than when he was at Duke, which should be a wake-up call for the rookie moving forward.
Compare this to Winslow, who slid on draft day into the arms of Pat Riley’s Miami Heat at No. 10 after experts felt the former Blue Devil could be picked as high as fourth. Waiting for Winslow was Dwyane Wade—a once-dynamic athlete who has brought home three championships during his 12-year career.
As a lifelong Heat fan, I knew the moment NBA commissioner Adam Silver announced the pick that Winslow had found a place where he could mature as both a player and an individual. With a support system around him including Wade, Chris Bosh, former Blue Devils Luol Deng and Josh McRoberts and, of course, Riley, Winslow has had little trouble adjusting to the bright lights of Miami, even as his game continues to develop on the floor.
If you think a stable organization isn’t important, take a look at the case of the great Kobe Bryant, who announced that he would retire at the end of the season Sunday. After the passing of legendary owner Jerry Buss—who won 10 NBA titles in 34 years at the helm—the Los Angeles Lakers finished last in their division in consecutive seasons—with an average of just 24 victories—as Bryant’s career slowly began to fade. The past two offseasons presented consecutive disappointments when the Lakers’ front office was unable to land marquee free agents as Buss’ children share control of the franchise, leaving Bryant with little supporting cast as he begins his swan song.
Although Okafor and Winslow have only played about a quarter of a season in the NBA, both players have the talent to stick in the association for years to come. But when comparing the success of the two both on and off the court, the career paths of the former teammates will remain an interesting testament to the importance of being drafted into a stable situation.