Much-maligned 2015 lottery pick Jahlil Okafor is the latest NBA player to open up about his struggles with mental health, following in the footsteps of All-Star trailblazers DeMar DeRozan and Kevin Love.
The 22-year-old Okafor discussed his bout with anxiety in an Instagram post that also illustrated his physical transformation during a summer that saw him sign a minimum-salaried contract with the New Orleans Pelicans — just three years after he was drafted third overall by the Philadelphia 76ers.
“I’ve learned how to identify and manage different stressors such as anxiety,” Okafor wrote. “Learning how to identify certain stressors has also allowed me to overcome them. Often times because of my size and profession people may view me in a certain way, but in reality I deal with the same struggles as countless others. Mental health awareness is a cause I will fight for the rest of my life and if you’re struggling today don’t be afraid to speak with someone and seek help.”
Okafor also thanked Love for sharing his experience with panic attacks and therapy in a Players’ Tribune piece this past March and “for helping me identify my feelings and informing me what I was dealing with was in fact normal,” which is a pretty wonderful thing to see in an industry where men are so often viewed by outsiders as emotionless gladiators. This is remarkably swift progress.
Jahlil Okafor’s on- and off-court struggles
When the 6-foot-11 Okafor declared for the 2015 NBA draft after his freshman season at Duke, there was earnest debate about whether he was more worthy of the No. 1 pick than Kentucky’s Karl-Anthony Towns. While Towns has risen to All-Star status, Okafor stumbled out of the gate in Philadelphia.
Off the court, Okafor was cited for speeding 108 miles per hour on the Ben Franklin Bridge and involved in a street fight in Boston. On the floor, he fell behind fellow lottery picks Joel Embiid and Nerlens Noel in a crowded frontcourt rotation due to his defensive struggles. By the start of the 2017-18 season, Okafor wanted out of Philadelphia, and the 76ers were working to find him a new home.
This past December, the Sixers sent him, along with Nik Stauskas and a second-round draft pick, to the Brooklyn Nets for Trevor Booker, a player they soon released. Okafor may have been seeking a fresh start with the Nets, but he began his Brooklyn tenure by ripping the Sixers’ coaching staff. He appeared in just 26 games for the Nets, ultimately falling out of a lottery-bound team’s rotation.
Kevin Love and DeMar DeRozan paved the way
The Nets did not renew his contract, and Okafor found few free-agent options before landing in New Orleans on a two-year minimum contract. It’s impossible to tell how much of a role his mental health issues played into his basketball downfall. Okafor did make reference to his struggles in his own Players’ Tribune piece in January, when he talked about the impact his mother’s death had on his life as well as his desire to resurrect his career. Friday’s Instagram post is a positive step in that direction.
Before Love shared his story, DeRozan opened up about his bout with depression, moving the goal posts forward on an issue former first-round Royce White fought against less public acceptance in 2012. Love and DeRozan appeared in a public-service announcement on the value of strong mental health during the playoffs. Love received an award for his contributions to the conversation, and the Cleveland Cavaliers forward will appear on the “Today” show Monday to further discuss the topic.
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