DALLAS – Jahlil Okafor was drafted by the wrong team.
The 76ers were the wrong team based on both his position and the team’s culture.
Everything was out of control his first season, from the off-the-court altercations to the speeding ticket.
On a team loaded with young guys, the center didn’t have the veteran teammate who might have steered him to make wiser choices.
Basketball-wise, it didn’t make a lot of sense to draft him. At the time, the team already had two starting-caliber centers in Nerlens Noel and Joel Embiid.
Now, in his third season, the Sixers have decided that Okafor, the third overall pick in the 2015 draft, isn’t even a rotation player. And that’s sad considering Noel is no longer around after being traded to the Mavericks, who entertained the Sixers on Saturday night in Dallas.
Okafor did not attend the game because of an upper-respiratory infection. Because he is an afterthought in this season’s plans, it probably wouldn’t have mattered if he was inside the arena or not.
And that’s unfortunate because Okafor has talent.
He probably would be having a solid career had not the Sixers drafted him. Okafor would have fit in well with a team that would have paired him with a bruising power forward. And he would have learned how to become a professional by being on a veteran team.
To their credit, the Sixers have been trying to trade him for the last two seasons. However, teams are unwilling to give up what the Sixers believe is equal value.
Okafor’s injury history and the perception that he is a defensive liability have a lot to do with why the Sixers have been unable to move him.
However, the 21-year-old is better than his perceived current trade value would suggest. If and when he does get traded, he’ll be in a much better situation and be regarded as a better player.
But it doesn’t help the trade value if he’s not playing.
In a perfect world, the Sixers would play him no matter what. His offensive skill set would benefit the team. Plus, playing Okafor would increase his trade value and show that he’s healthy. One has to imagine that the team’s front office would be in favor of doing that.
However, Sixers coach Brett Brown has to be feeling the pressure to win.
As much as they get along publicly, Brown wasn’t hired by Sixers president Bryan Colangelo. Team presidents and general managers typically like to bring in their own guys. That’s why Brown has to feel some pressure, especially with the Phoenix Suns firing Earl Watson last week for lack of production. It also doesn’t help that published reports list Brown among other coaches who could potentially get fired.
Despite the organization’s rhetoric about being patient, he knows there’s always the chance he’ll be let go if things get ugly.
That’s why the defensive-minded coach is set on playing players he believes provide the best opportunities to win. Veteran Amir Johnson, a better defender, is Brown’s preference. Plus, the team signed Johnson to a one-year, $11 million free-agency deal in July to play – not to sit the bench.
Despite Brown’s defensive philosophy, Okafor is the better offensive player.
He has also slimmed down to 258 pounds after shedding 20 pounds on a vegan diet. The weight loss has enabled Okafor to be more mobile and keep up with the Sixers’ up-tempo style. Okafor has also incorporated a three-pointer into his game and improved his defense.
So some aren’t buying the fact that he’s still regarded as a defensive liability.
But the Sixers basically messed up the moment they drafted him. It’s just now that the Sixers are inadvertently saying that he doesn’t fit what they are trying to do.
Think about how they added him to an already crowded position on draft night. Meanwhile, 7-foot-3 power forward Kristaps Porzingis was taken by the New York Knicks with the next pick.
Embiid and Porzingis would have been an unbelievable frontcourt for years. The face of the Knicks, Porzingis is averaging 26.5 points and 7.8 rebounds.
He’s one of the league’s young stars, while Okafor is buried on the Sixers bench.
Despite that, one should expect the Sixers to pick up his fourth-year option before Tuesday’s deadline.
At $6.3 million, it’s not a lot of money by NBA standards. Plus, his trade value will go down if they don’t pick it up. Teams don’t want to trade for a young player who will become a free agent at season’s end. If the Sixers pick up the option, teams know that he’ll have another year left on his rookie contract.
So the best scenario is for him to be moved quickly.
But, boy, did the Sixers do him and themselves a disservice by drafting him.