Jahlil Okafor: A Fall From Grace

 

Jan 13, 2017; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia 76ers center Jahlil Okafor (8) watches on from the players bench during the fourth quarter against the Charlotte Hornets at Wells Fargo Center. The Philadelphia 76ers won 102-93. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Life comes at you hard. Just two short years ago, Jahlil Okafor was on top of the basketball scene. As a freshman at Duke University, he helped capture a national championship along with fellow standouts Justise Winslow, Tyus Jones, and Quinn Cook. A few months later he was selected with the 3rd overall pick by the Philadelphia 76ers and looked poised to progress “The Process” forward. In Okafor’s rookie season, which saw nearly 20 roster moves and a 10-72 record, he was able to provide a bright spot in a season of “Processing”. On the year Okafor averaged a team high 17.5 ppg to go along with 7 rpg, and just over a block in 30 minutes of action per night before being shut down with a torn meniscus. His rookie campaign was good enough to garner NBA All-Rookie First Team honors and help Jahlil finish fifth in NBA Rookie of Year Award voting.

In year two, Okafor saw reductions in minutes and overall stats with the log jam created by the implementations of rookies Joel Embiid and Dario Saric, along with fellow big man Nerlens Noel.  As the season progressed, Embiid continued to impress, providing elite rim protection on the defensive end, and a smooth touch on offense. The Sixers had found their guy in Joel, which left the likes of Noel and Okafor on the trading block for the best offer possible. By this time, teams saw Okafor’s little to no improvement in the flaws which prevented him from being worthy of the first overall pick in 2015.  One scout described Jahlil Okafor’s play coming into the draft:

“My biggest issue with him is conditioning. He’s never been in shape anywhere. He’s a good post defender, but he’s not great laterally. A beast physically. He’s a terrific passer when he’s doubled. I thought he would have been a better rebounder. He predetermines a lot of his moves in the post, but he’s bigger and stronger so he gets away with it. Defensively, he’s not a real presence at the rim. I’m sure he’ll work on his free throw shooting, but many bigs have improved on that?”

At the peak of Okafor’s trade value during his rookie season, Danny Ainge had reportedly offered the 2016 unprotected Brooklyn Nets 1st round pick in exchange for the big man. The deal never went through because the 76ers got cold feet during the trade deadline. To show you just how quickly his value dropped around the league, during the trade deadline the following year the 76ers couldn’t even trade the big man for viable assets and had to settle for a trade with the Mavericks. In that trade, they sent Nerlens Noel to Dallas in exchange for Andrew Bogut, Justin Anderson, and a protected 1st round draft pick (which really meant two second round picks). So, you mean to tell me the offers coming in for Okafor were worse than that?

Regardless, after that the 76ers seemed to treat Okafor like their red-headed step child, varying his roles from starter to backup to no playing time at all. You could clearly see the team favoring Embiid and eventually Saric after they shut down Embiid for the season. The 76ers apparently came to grips that Okafor was nothing more than an elite post player and a defensive liability.

In the summer of 2017, Okafor decided to go vegan in hopes of improving his health, play on the court, and improvement in the teams’ rotation. The result was a 20-pound weight-loss, dropping Okafor to 258 pounds. Coming into the pre-season, Okafor said he felt lighter and better than ever before and his play certainly showed it. In just 16 minutes of action this pre-season, Okafor notched 9 ppg to go along with 3.3 rpg. These were promising signs for a guy we weren’t entirely sure would be able to keep up with the Sixers new up-tempo style of play.

One would certainly think his pre-season stats alone would solidify him in the rotation at the very least. That was wishful thinking. When the season rolled around Jahlil Okafor was not even stepping foot on the court aside from the Toronto Raptors game early on. This left many fans, including myself, puzzled at Brett Brown’s decision to not play the young big man. After five games into the season coach was asked the question that had puzzled us all, “Why is Jahlil not in the rotation?!”

I’m playing Amir (Johnson) ahead of him and that’s just the situation,” Brown said. “[Okafor] doesn’t let people know. He comes in and his head’s good and his spirit’s good. And he and I talk all the time, but that is the bottom line. He is not in the rotation.”

He went on to say, “I think it’s going to be Amir’s spot to lose,” Brown said. “If I see that there’s a decline in performance, then it’s going to be his spot right now to lose. It’s always competitive, but the competitive nature has shifted toward Amir’s performance.”

So not only did the Sixers fail to maintain Okafor’s market value by benching him, they also declined to pick up Okafor’s fourth-year option which makes him a free agent this coming summer. Logically, Jahlil Okafor wants a buy-out and who can blame him? The guy just wants to play basketball and the 76ers are standing in his way. However, the Sixers insist on receiving assets back for the young big man instead of letting him walk for nothing this summer. No team is going to satisfy what the Sixers are looking to get out of Okafor because they’ve driven their seller power way down, thus leaving them at the mercy of any team willing to take a chance on Jahlil.

In recent days teams have shown some interest in Okafor as a reclamation project of sorts. One team that has had their eyes on Okafor is the Phoenix Suns. In order to make it happen in Phoenix, they would first need to solve their own drama in Eric Bledsoe who has also asked to play elsewhere. If a Bledsoe deal were to occur, it would create enough cap room around the league for a team to absorb Okafor’s rookie deal. The cap room would certainly be there, but the Sixers would most likely be reluctant to give up their young big for an assumed low-ball offer. Another team that has surfaced again is the Boston Celtics, however, it has been reported that they’d be unwilling to part with a first-round pick for the former 3rd overall pick.     The bottom line is that there are plenty of teams willing to give a 21-year-old former top prospect an opportunity. But the 76ers aren’t giving him away for free.

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