Ford: Jahlil Okafor, once a Sixers cornerstone, can't defend this one

SIXR15-D
Sixers Jahlil Okafor (center), Joel Embiid (left), and Gerald Henderson guard the Raptors' Cory Joseph during the fourth quarter on Dec. 14, 2016.

Incredibly enough, after all that has transpired, Jahlil Okafor is the last center standing for the 76ers, the only one of the Big Three available to take the court in the final month of the season. Now that he has survived being out of the rotation, the question becomes whether he can survive being part of it.

That question came into sharp focus Wednesday when Okafor became a national laughingstock after a defensive play against Miami that was pretty ugly even by his standards, which aren't all that high.

You would think a February game between two sub-. 500 teams would be allowed to come and go without drawing much notice for the level of play, and that would have been the case if Okafor hadn't appeared to tiptoe away from playing actual defense the way a 5-year-old at the beach throws it in reverse when a wave rolls in.

The play immediately lit up the Twitterverse that lives for the grand snark of such a moment and suddenly the former No. 3 pick in the draft, a guy considered a cornerstone of a developing franchise not that long ago, was not only trending, but, in the eyes of Sixers fans, trending downward rapidly.

"This Horrendous Defense by Jahlil Okafor is Truly Something to Behold," was the headline on Deadspin. "Jahlil Okafor Plays 12 Seconds of the Worst Defense You've Ever Seen," said SB Nation.

And those were the nice ones.

Maybe it's too much of a reaction to the moment, but it's clear Okafor's career in Philadelphia may have ended with that one play. Can he ever recover in the eyes of fans and be accepted here, even if - heaven help us! - Joel Embiid's injury struggles continue next season and beyond?

Things happen quickly on the court in the NBA, and there are a number of interactions at the same time, so no individual action can be viewed in a vacuum. On the play in question, Miami point guard Goran Dragic drove past a pick set by Hassan Whiteside on the right side of the key that rubbed off T.J. McConnell just enough to allow Dragic to get by. If McConnell had been in front of Dragic, it wouldn't have happened, but he was playing off the left hip of the left-handed Dragic to keep him from driving the middle, which is probably the correct play.

Once past the pick and into the lane, Dragic was met, sort of, by Okafor. If the center had stepped up aggressively to stop the guard (maybe even jumped), a couple of things could have happened. Whiteside would have been expected to dive past Okafor to the rim or swingman Rodney McGruder, spotted up in the right corner, would have dashed to the open basket area. The latter would have been easy because Nik Stauskas had neglected to seal the baseline on his man.

All of this probably occurred to Okafor, who has put his hand in the mousetrap of an NBA pick-and-roll so often that he knows it will usually hurt him. He doesn't know how to avoid the snap of being caught flat-footed, and knows he doesn't have the speed to cover his mistakes, so he's gotten shy about committing. That's understandable, but it's no way to play professional basketball.

Dragic pulled up about five feet from the basket and Okafor actually backed up a little, which looked really bad. Dragic's shot rimmed out, but Okafor was still marooned between the shooter and the basket and couldn't get the rebound when McGruder came in from the corner (past Stauskas) to grab it. McGruder circled the lane area, with Okafor nailed to his spot, and handed the ball to Whiteside, who made a casual little jumper.

A lot had to happen for Okafor to look as bad as he did on the play, but it all happened, and there's every indication it would continue to happen in the same situation. It isn't that Okafor is necessarily passive by nature on defense - although that could be the case - it could be that he is just mystified about how to play it in the NBA. Frankly, that's worse.

Former coach Jim Lynam, in his postgame analysis, said he, as a coach, would have hesitated to show the film of that play to the full team for fear that Okafor could never regain the respect of his teammates if they saw it. Pre-internet and pre-Twitter, in the case of an isolated play in a meaningless game between mediocre teams, that might have been a reasonable plan, but it won't work now. Everyone saw it. The teammates. The fans. The front office. And, oh by the way, the other 29 general managers in the NBA.

Any team that might consider trading for Jahlil Okafor has to be aware that the clip of Okafor mesmerized by the drive of 6-foot-3 Goran Dragic will be played endlessly in that market on the day of the trade. Welcome to wherever, Jahlil.

Bryan Colangelo has to find that trade, however, most likely on draft night. He has to do it even if the team isn't sure Embiid will ever be fully reliable. It's too bad, because there are some things Okafor can do well, and because the team tanked an entire season just to get him. But he can't stay here. Being bad is one thing. Being laughed at is another one entirely.

bford@phillynews.com

@bobfordsports

Continue Reading