Jahlil Okafor’s roller-coaster tenure with the Philadelphia 76ers ended not with a bang but a whimper.
That the Sixers were willing to package Okafor with Nik Stauskas and the New York Knicks’ 2019 second-round pick to acquire Brooklyn Nets veteran big man Trevor Booker, per ESPN.com’s Zach Lowe, speaks to how low the former No. 3 overall pick’s stock has fallen in three years’ time.
In Brooklyn, however, Okafor will have a chance to breathe new life into his NBA career.
Dating back to the 2015 NBA draft, there were immediate questions about Okafor’s fit in Philadelphia. Even with Joel Embiid sidelined for the 2015-16 campaign due to a second foot surgery, Okafor and 2013 No. 6 pick Nerlens Noel didn’t have the complementary skill sets that would allow them to form a dominant frontcourt tandem. As pace-and-space offenses swept across the league thanks to the Golden State Warriors, the Sixers had one defensively challenged first-year center and one offensively challenged third-year center, neither of whom could shoot three-pointers.
It ended as poorly as you might expect.
When the Sixers declined Okafor’s fourth-year team option earlier this fall, it was only a matter of time before he found his way out of Philadelphia. At that point, the question became how low the team was willing to sell on its once-prized prospect, and how long it would wait before allowing him to continue his career elsewhere.
Nets general manager Sean Marks, ever the opportunist with the limited deck of cards he inherited, sensed yet another chance to pounce on a buy-low window. Between Okafor and D’Angelo Russell, who Marks acquired in June alongside Timofey Mozgov for Brook Lopez and this year’s No. 27 overall pick (which turned into Kyle Kuzma), Marks now has two of the top three picks from the 2015 draft on the same roster. He accomplished that despite his predecessor, Billy King, trading away Brooklyn’s 2014, 2016 and 2018 unprotected first-round picks to the Boston Celtics for Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry.
In Brooklyn, Okafor’s time for excuses has run out. He’s no longer competing for minutes with Embiid, Noel and Dario Saric; instead, he’ll be jostling with the corpse of Mozgov, Tyler Zeller and rookie big man Jarrett Allen. If he can’t carve out considerable playing time ahead of those three, it’ll be fair to wonder whether he has a place in today’s NBA at all.
Coming out of college, one of Okafor’s biggest selling points was his low-post acumen. As Matt Kamalsky noted at DraftExpress, 54 percent of the big man’s possessions at Duke were post-ups. He churned out 0.922 points per possession on 8.4 such plays per game, according to Kamalsky, and he drew a foul on more than 18 percent of those possessions, per Jonathan Givony and Mike Schmitz of DraftExpress. While Okafor’s lack of lateral quickness figured to pose issues on defense, particularly against pick-and-rolls, his offensive touch drew comparisons to Tim Duncan.
During Okafor’s rookie year, the Sixers catered their offense to fit the big man’s preferred style of play. He averaged 5.9 post-up field-goal attempts per game that season—tied for the third-most in the league—but he averaged only 0.85 points per possession on such plays, putting him in the 54th percentile leaguewide. While he still managed to finish ahead of Andre Drummond, Anthony Davis, Pau Gasol and Hassan Whiteside in post-up efficiency, the passing ability he flashed at Duke all but disappeared upon his arrival in Philadelphia. That lessened the effectiveness of his frequent trips in the paint, as opponents could double-team him without fearing a kick-out to an open three-point shooter.
Okafor thrived during his first year in Philadelphia, averaging 17.5 points on 50.8 percent shooting, 7.0 rebounds, 1.2 assists and 1.2 blocks in 30.0 minutes across 53 games, 48 of which he started. Advanced metrics painted a concerning picture—he had the seventh-worst real plus-minus among 423 qualified players, according to ESPN.com—but it often takes years for young big men to master the nuances of the NBA game. Early struggles are not only unheard of; it’s an outlier when a young frontcourt player doesn’t get tripped up.
Unfortunately, Okafor’s rookie season represented the peak of his NBA career to date. He suffered a meniscus injury in mid-March that prematurely ended his first campaign, and what he initially deemed minor ballooned into a long-term issue that plagued him throughout his sophomore season. With Embiid making his NBA debut in 2016-17, Okafor found himself progressively nudged out of Philadelphia’s rotation. He averaged roughly seven fewer minutes per game, finishing with averages of 11.8 points on 51.4 percent shooting, 4.8 rebounds and 1.0 blocks in 22.7 minutes, while the team started feeding Embiid more frequently in the post than Okafor.
Coupled with another horrifying finish in real plus-minus—ESPN.com dubbed him the third-worst player across the NBA, ahead of only Memphis’ Wade Baldwin IV (who the Grizzlies waived in mid-October) and Mario Hezonja (whose fourth-year option was likewise declined this fall)—it was becoming progressively more difficult to imagine Okafor carving out a long-term role in Philadelphia. The decision to decline his fourth-year option only sealed the inevitable.
Can he revive his career in Brooklyn? Stylistically, he’ll have a few things working against him.
First, the Nets currently run the fifth-fewest post-ups among all teams in the NBA. In part, that may be a chicken-or-the-egg dilemma—do they avoid the post because they lack a dominant frontcourt scorer, or does head coach Kenny Atkinson avoid that low-efficiency territory by design?—but a full-scale redesign of the offense may not be in order. The plodding Okafor may struggle with Brooklyn’s uptempo pace, too, as the Nets currently run the third-most possessions per game of any team.
With that said, Okafor’s freedom from NBA purgatory could be just the jolt he needs to get his career back on track.
He lost 20 pounds this offseason by adopting a “mostly vegan” diet, according to Jessica Camerato of NBC Sports Philadelphia, and the knee problems that plagued him throughout the 2016-17 season appear to be a thing of the past as well. Both of those things should help him acclimate to the Nets’ up-and-down style, as should his experience in Philadelphia’s system. (The Sixers currently rank fourth leaguewide in pace, within one possession per 48 minutes of Brooklyn.)
With Jeremy Lin out for the year and Russell sidelined after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery in mid-November, the Nets lack any semblance of a go-to scorer for the time being, too. Not counting Russell (20.9 points per game), Lin (18.0 points in his lone appearance) and Booker (10.1 points), Brooklyn has six players averaging at least 10 points per game, but the highest scorer among that bunch, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, is only chipping in 14.2 points per night.
If Okafor can supplant Zeller in the Nets’ starting lineup, Atkinson could run the first unit through him, relying on the danger he poses in the post to draw double-teams. Okafor will have to resuscitate the passing ability he demonstrated at Duke, where he averaged 1.3 helpers in 30.1 minutes per game, but the success Detroit is having with Andre Drummond as an offensive hub should serve as inspiration to Atkinson and Brooklyn. The Nets may also encourage Okafor to begin stretching out his shooting range, even though he’s only 1-of-6 from beyond the three-point arc to date for his career. For him to carve out a long-term NBA career, a consistent long-range stroke is almost a necessity for big men these days, particularly those who struggle on defense.
Okafor played just 25 minutes all season in Philadelphia, which makes it difficult to assess whether his offseason weight loss boosted his lateral quickness. He doesn’t ever project to be an All-Defense-caliber player, but even a jump to mediocre or average from cover-your-eyes horrendous would represent a significant upgrade. Opponents relentlessly targeted Okafor in pick-and-rolls, where he allowed 1.03 points per possession against roll men as a rookie (putting him in the 28th percentile leaguewide).
For the Nets, acquiring Okafor is the definition of a low-risk gamble. Giving up Booker, who doesn’t factor into their long-term plans, for two lottery fliers in Okafor and Stauskas and a potential high second-round pick is the definition of a no-brainer. If Okafor and/or Stauskas don’t pan out in Brooklyn, the Nets can cut bait on them at the end of the year and still reap a second-rounder for Booker.
But if they can harness Okafor’s strengths as a low-post brute and mitigate his defensive weaknesses, particularly against pick-and-rolls, Marks’ yeoman’s work as general manager may further accelerate the team’s ongoing rebuild.