What if the 76ers decided to keep Jahlil Okafor?
By now, even some of the most casual NBA fans know that the Sixers have been attempting to trade their reserve center for some time.
It’s hard to imagine Okafor’s remaining in Philadelphia past the Feb. 8 trade deadline. His place of employment could change before December if not sooner if his knee continues to hold up.
But what if the Sixers decide to keep him?
The organization has already shown that it will trade Okafor only for what it deems equal value.
And tha could be difficult since he hasn’t lived up to expectations after being selected third overall in the 2015 NBA draft. That’s partly because each of his first two seasons was cut short by an ailing right knee.
So it will be interesting to see if Sixers president Bryan Colangelo opts to keep Okafor if he doesn’t get the right offer.
From what we have seen this preseason, keeping Okafor wouldn’t be a bad alternative.
He has slimmed down to 258 pounds after shedding 20 pounds on a vegan diet. The weight loss has enabled him to be more mobile and enabled him to keep up with the Sixers’ up-tempo style. Okafor has also incorporated a three-pointer into his game and improved his defense.
A Sixers squad intent on making the playoffs could find a role for him as a situational backup. Okafor could come off the bench and provide instant offense from the post. Plus, he could be insurance in case Joel Embiid has a setback in his recovery from a meniscus tear in his left knee.
Now, it’s not as simple as saying, “Jahlil, go down there and be our backup for the foreseeable future.” He wants to become a starter in this league. And Okafor should want that. In most instances, that will provide more money. It would also enable him to regain the spotlight he had when he played at Whitney Young High School in Chicago and at Duke.
But, for now, Okafor has been doing and saying all of the right things.
“I wouldn’t mind it,” he said of the role of reserve go-to guy. “I’ll still be myself as an elite player. We have Joel here, who is also a high-elite guy.
“I’m still looking for my role if I end up here, which I’m obviously here right now. I’m still looking for whichever role Coach [Brett Brown] wants me to pursue.”
Okafor’s mind-set is helping the group that he’s playing with on the floor win.
That was evident Wednesday night in a preseason-opening loss to the Memphis Grizzlies. Sixers point guard Ben Simmons garnered most of the headlines, posting six points, nine assists, and seven rebounds in his debut. But Okafor had the team’s best performance.
He finished with 13 points on 5-for-6 shooting to go with six rebounds and two blocks in 18 minutes, 37 seconds off the bench. Okafor graded out at a team-best plus-six, meaning the Sixers outscored the Grizzlies by six points when he was on the floor.
“We all get the fact that he can score,” Brown said. “But I think when you see his body, and you see him moving his feet and being a much higher level of a rim protector, you start getting more of a two-way player.
“It’s deeper than he can just score. He’s getting better.”
If he continues to improve, Okafor’s trade value will also increase.
Right now, he has been held to a higher standard in Philadelphia because of his draft position. It also didn’t help that Okafor was often injured and struggled defensively during his first two seasons. Oh, and he had to deal with being compared to New York Knicks standout Kristaps Porzingis, who was drafted one spot behind him in 2015. An athletic, three-point-shooting and rim-protecting 7-foot-3 power forward, Porzingis would have been a better option for the Sixers’ style of play.
We all know that, and Okafor has heard it thousands of times. But it’s not his fault that the Sixers drafted him, even though they already had two starting-caliber centers and he didn’t fit their style of play.
Okafor didn’t ask to come to Philadelphia, where his defensive shortcomings were discussed more than his stellar post moves. He had to deal with a few regrettable off-the-court situations and the public scrutiny and embarrassment that came with them early his rookie season.
He also has had to deal with trade discussions on what seems to be on a monthly basis. Last season, the Sixers sent him home from a game and he didn’t accompany his teammates on a flight because a possible trade was close to being finalized.
To his credit, Okafor never complained to the media. He always talked about being focused on remaining a Sixer.
Now, he’s in the best shape of his career and could become a huge piece off the bench. The trade offers will become more enticing if he continues to be productive. It probably won’t be the equivalent of a No. 3 draft pick, however.
So right about now, it appears the Sixers might be better off keeping him.
They already have a dominant post presence in Embiid. The Sixers also have athletic reserves in post players Richaun Holmes and Amir Johnson. Okafor has unique post moves for someone 6-11.
His ability to provide instant offense off the bench is something that could help propel the Sixers.
What if the 76ers decided to keep Jahlil Okafor?