During the heady run from the lottery drawing to the NBA draft, as the 76ers gained the third pick, then traded up to get the first selection, the team’s training complex in Camden was a frenetic swirl of activity. There were press conferences with the general manager, workouts with draft prospects, and more private team practices and drills amid the building anticipation of what might come next for The Process.
Throughout it all, the excitement was easy to see. The future of the roster’s core, in the person of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, who were always hanging around the court during the workouts and public sessions, was also easy to see. What wasn’t easy to see – in fact, almost impossible on a daily basis – was the guy who just two years ago was considered as central to the team’s development as anyone else. But finding Waldo is a snap compared to finding Jahlil Okafor these days.
The descending arc of Okafor’s status with the Sixers, from indispensable to invisible, is both precipitous and a cautionary tale regarding all of them. With the third pick of the 2015 draft, after Minnesota had taken Karl-Anthony Towns and the Lakers had taken D’Angelo Russell, Okafor was the best and safest pick on the board, considered no less a sure thing at that spot than Ben Simmons in 2016 or Markelle Fultz last week. To suggest that Sam Hinkie blew it by not taking Kristaps Porzingis, which might become true in hindsight, is revisionist history of the most convenient kind. Given the same decision, 29 other general managers would have taken Okafor, too.
And why not? Okafor was the No. 1 prospect in the country before college, rated that highly by Rivals, Scout, ESPN and the Recruiting Services Consensus Index. He was the national high school player of the year according to USA Today, McDonald’s and Parade. Playing in the U.S. national team program, he was a gold-medal winner at the U-16, U-17 and U-19 world championships.
In his one season at Duke, Okafor was the ACC player of the year, averaging 17.3 points on 66.4 percent field-goal shooting and 8.5 rebounds. He played 30 minutes a game and missed only a handful. He finished as a first-team all-American by five rating services, won the Wayman Tisdale Award as the best freshman in the country (which means a lot these days, by the way), and was selected for the Pete Newell Big Man Award. With Okafor’s demonstrated low-post scoring skills and flawless resume, drafting him wasn’t just the right decision for the Sixers — it was a no-brainer.
So, what happened between then and now, between his being a valuable card in their hand to being a player they couldn’t even throw onto the discard pile at the trade deadline? The answer isn’t an easy one, and maybe there is still a lot of Okafor’s story to tell with the Sixers, but when the phones were ringing off the hook in the sales office and season tickets were being scarfed up by the win-starved public, it’s a safe bet that Jahlil Okafor didn’t sell a single one. Just two years ago, that would have been impossible to imagine.
“I want to find a situation that’s great for us and great for Jahlil, and if that means him staying here, then that’s great,” Bryan Colangelo said after last season came to an end. “He’s a great kid and a great player, and we’re going to see how he fits with this group.”
To this point, the answer has been “not very well.” In Okafor’s rookie season, when he averaged 17.5 points and 7.0 rebounds before being shut down late by a knee injury that required “minor” arthroscopic surgery, coach Brett Brown was charged with devising a system in which Okafor and Nerlens Noel were compatible on the court. He never found it, learning that taking Okafor away from the basket destroyed the player’s offensive game, and taking Noel away ruined the entire team’s defensive game.
Last season, with Embiid added sporadically to the brew at the center position, the three big men were rarely on the floor together. Noel was benched after Okafor came back from his knee rehabilitation, then the benching was reversed, then Embiid was injured, then Noel was traded, and then Okafor was shut down because of recurring soreness in his allegedly repaired knee. Okafor finished averaging 11.8 points and 4.8 rebounds, and he went from 30 minutes per game to 23 minutes in the 50 games he played.
“It was just a weird year for me – playing and then not playing,” Okafor said after the team’s exit interviews in April. “The fluctuating minutes might not have been the best thing for my knee, but I’m going to do what I can to make the best of it.”
The strangest juncture of the season for Okafor came just before the trade deadline when he was left behind from a road trip because the team obviously thought he was about to be moved. That didn’t take place, and he went back on the court as if nothing had happened. For him, it hadn’t. Through it all, he never complained, never took a public shot at his multiple demotions and humiliations, never did anything but show up and act professionally.
That part was commendable, but doesn’t solve the problem of what to do with him now. He is signed only through this season. The Sixers hold a club option on him for the 2018-19 season at $6.3 million and could retain first-refusal rights for the 2019-20 season by extending a qualifying offer of $8.3 million. None of that is out of the question, but does it make sense if his spotty defense and ponderous transition skills render him a liability in Brown’s vision of a game in which the ability to defend and run are preeminent?
Probably not, and for the moment, Okafor remains merely an insurance policy against another injury suffered by Embiid, assuming Okafor himself is healthy, or a potential piece of a February trade-deadline deal, additionally assuming another team would be willing to take on a faded prospect soon to come off his rookie contract.
That assessment is a long way from the one made on draft night in 2015, and a good reminder that sure things aren’t always. As the Sixers embark on the next phase, with telephones ringing and excitement everywhere, their situation should be a cause for celebration because of the core pieces that everyone can see, but also tempered somewhat by the lesson of the one who has faded from sight.