Mannix Mailbag: What's Jahlil Okafor's ceiling?
1:22 | NBA
Mannix Mailbag: What's Jahlil Okafor's ceiling?
Wednesday November 4th, 2015

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — For months, there’s been one question I wanted to ask Brook Lopez: Why? Why, Brook, after two years of hearing your name swirl around in trade rumors, after being yanked out of the starting lineup by a head coach that clearly had some issues with you, after watching your team slowly strip away its veteran parts, would you decide to re-sign with Brooklyn? The money? The money was good. A three-year, $60 million deal is nothing to dismiss. But Lopez is 27 and one of the best offensive centers in the NBA. Surely he could have gotten a comparable deal somewhere else.

A few minutes after the Nets finished practice on Tuesday, I had a chance to ask him.

“I looked at different options,” Lopez said. “But at the end of the day there was no question I wanted to stay. I just think this was a great opportunity, and I wanted to take advantage of it.”

Here’s a simple truth about Lopez: He likes New York. A lot. It’s as big a surprise to him as it might be to you. California-born and raised, Stanford-bred, Lopez’s first time out in Manhattan was the week of the 2008 draft. The lifestyle was an adjustment; so were the people. Lopez recalls an early interaction with former Nets assistant coach Tom Barrise, a New Jersey native. During one practice, Barrise was getting on Lopez. Or so Lopez thought. When Lopez barked back, Barrise called him over. I’m not mad at you, Brook, Barrise said. This is just how we talk around here.

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“There is an in-your-face attitude out here,” Lopez said. “But I like it. I like everything about New York City. “I love how diverse it is. I love how everything you need is right here. It’s just a great place.”

In re-signing, Lopez knew what he was getting into. The Nets are rebuilding. Paul Pierce was the first to go. Then it was Kevin Garnett. Last summer, the Nets bought out Deron Williams. None of it fazes Lopez. As a Net, he has seen the best of times (a 49-win in 2012-13 season) and the worst of times (a 12-win in ‘09-10). Whatever direction Brooklyn headed, Lopez was ready for it. He just had one request: Cool it with all the trade talk.

“We asked them to temper those ideas,” Lopez said. “We told them to pump the brakes a little.”

And the Nets response?

“They said they would, but it’s a business,” Lopez said. “It’s the way it is sometimes.”

Thus far, Lopez has been one of the few bright spots in a forgettable start to Brooklyn’s season. He’s averaging 18.3 points on 53.1% shooting. Good numbers, yes, but better when you factor in the Nets turnover at point guard (Jarrett Jack and newcomer Shane Larkin have taken over for Williams) and coach Lionel Hollins's still inexplicable unwillingness to feature Lopez more prominently. Too frequently Lopez is a decoy in the Nets offense. In Monday’s loss to Milwaukee, Hollins left Lopez, who picked up his fifth foul with 4:44 to play, sitting on the bench for most of the final five minutes.

Lopez admits his relationship with Hollins still has its moments (“We will always get at each other,” Lopez said) but says he has a much greater understanding of what Hollins expects from him.

“It was an adjustment, getting used to what he wants from his players and the system he has and him getting used to the type of player I am,” Lopez said. “I enjoy playing at the elbow, popping, and we have found the ability to do it within the offense without hurting our team. We’re doing things now that I can take advantage of.”

Most important: Lopez is pain free. His surgically repaired right foot isn’t giving him any problems, and is responding in ways it wasn’t last season.

•​ Mannix: Knicks' strong start, Danny Green Q&A and more Open Floor

“It took longer than I expected to get right,” Lopez said. “I played a lot last year but was still kind of getting back into it. It takes awhile to get to that point where you have that full trust. It’s not even a real conscious thing. I guess it just takes time mechanically for your body to get back into it.”

“But I feel great out there. I’m moving well, I’m enjoying my time with my teammates. The injuries were frustrating. It kept happening and it was taking away a huge chunk of my career. Close to three years. You don’t take for granted your time on the court now. I worked so hard this summer so I can be the player I am.”

On to a few of your tweets ...

Mannix: Regardless of what you think about the Sixers rebuilding plan—and I think it’s both embarrassing and potentially damaging to the team’s young players to lose so much for so long—you have to like the possibilities of an Okafor-Noel front line. It’s a classic offense-defense combination. In the season opener against Boston, Okafor and Noel combined for 40 points, 19 rebounds and four blocks; last Monday, in a loss to Cleveland, the two totaled 40 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks.

I love Okafor’s offensive potential. He has predictably been terrific in the post (he’s connecting on 56% of his shots inside eight feet, per but he’s shown a nice touch from the perimeter (41.7% from 8-16 feet). What he lacks defensively is made up by Noel, whose superior length and impressive timing has already made him a lethal shot blocker.

Mannix: It’s going to be a wild season in the West, so it’s best not to overreact to a few games at the start of the season. Golden State has been impressive. Stephen Curry is the best player in basketball (again), and that 50-point pasting of Memphis on Monday was a reminder to the rest of the league that the road to the Finals goes through Oakland. That said, I’ve been equally impressed by what I’ve seen from Oklahoma City. Kevin Durant is healthy, Russell Westbrook is a freaking monster and Billy Donovan can look down his bench and see three or four guys that could be starters on other teams. Good teams, too.

I’ll tell you what I’m hoping for in the West: No injuries. Because I badly want to see a healthy Golden State/Oklahoma City/San Antonio/L.A. Clippers Final Four in May.

Mannix: There doesn’t seem to be any urgency on Derek Fisher’s part to make any changes in the starting lineup, at least not until Arron Afflalo is ready to play. Galloway was a nice pickup last season and has shown signs early this season that he can contribute to a decent team. Grant will be interesting, though. Calderon has shot the ball poorly (29.2%) and can’t defend anybody. Put simply, if he’s not making outside shots, he’s useless. Grant is more athletic and a better defender and has shot the ball well in the first week of the season. If Calderon continues to struggle, look for Fisher to give the rookie a chance to start.

Mannix: Here’s what I like about Fred Hoiberg: He’s using his bench. The Bulls basically have a 10-man rotation, and that doesn’t include veteran Kirk Hinrich. Hoiberg has handed bigger roles to Doug McDermott (10.2 points per game) and E’Twaun Moore (5.6), who have both been effective in early action. I’ve said all along, the Bulls ability to win the East hinges on Derrick Rose’s ability to resemble something close to the player he was before being ravaged by injuries, and Rose’s shot has been awful. Chalk some of that up to the double vision Rose has been dealing with, some of it to rust, but Rose has to be better if Chicago expects to be a factor.

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