Jahlil Okafor stepped in front of a group of reporters on Wednesday morning and made it clear: he wants off the Philadelphia 76ers.
Kyle Neubeck of Philly Voice reported Tuesday afternoon that the 76ers had decided not to exercise their fourth-year option on the rookie contract of Okafor, whom former Sixers general manager Sam Hinkie chose with the No. 3 overall pick in the 2015 NBA draft, despite having previously used top-six selections on centers Nerlens Noel and Joel Embiid. Okafor has found himself rather firmly on the outside of the Sixers’ frontcourt rotation, and so, rather than commit to paying him $6.3 million to lock him in for next season, current Philly GM Bryan Colangelo decided to cut him loose, putting the 21-year-old big man on track for unrestricted free agency in the summer of 2018.
In one light, the decision was stunning. You typically don’t see third overall picks, especially not ones who have proven capable of averaging 17.5 points per game in the league, cut loose this quickly. In fact, we have never before seen one have his fourth-year option declined.
In another, though, it was the logical next step in the slow, steady circling-the-drain of Okafor’s time in Philadelphia — one that began in confusion (“another center???”), continued in chaos and controversy, and has since stumbled into silence, with the former consensus First-Team All-American appearing in just one of the Sixers’ seven games this season.
Okafor, for his part, wants to crank the volume back up on his career. And now that it’s out in the open that the Sixers don’t want him around — as opposed to the mere incessant rumors on that topic that have been attached to his name virtually since he arrived in the league — he’d very much like to do it somewhere else, and immediately, please and thank you:
Jah confirms that he did ask the Sixers for a buyout.
— Rich Hofmann (@rich_hofmann) November 1, 2017
“It could be a buyout, it could be a trade,” he said, according to Jessica Camerato of NBC Philadelphia. “I just want something to happen rather quickly.”
Here are Okafor’s full comments to the assembled media on the Sixers not picking up his option, courtesy of Rich Hofmann of The Athletic:
I was fine with that. I honestly didn’t want them to pick up my option. I’ve been going through a lot since I’ve been here, so the fact that I know that at the end of the season that I’ll at least have an opportunity to play elsewhere, that’s great. Now I’m just in a position to where, how can I get on the court? That’s not happening here and I want to play.
And Bryan knows that. I’ve talked with him about it. And now it’s tough, because my option didn’t get picked up. Teams are not really looking to give anything up when somebody can walk out of the door at the end of the season. So it puts me in a tough spot, because I want to be on the court.
This is my life. This is my career. And I’m not getting an opportunity here. Which is fine. The team looks great, and I’m not a part of that. They’re going to continue to do great things. But at the same time, I want to play.
Okafor’s Wednesday comments confirmed developments reported Tuesday night by Marc Stein of the New York Times, suggesting that the Sixers’ decision to cut bait after the season would lead the third-year Duke product to push for a buyout that would allow him to catch on elsewhere and showcase his wares ahead of hitting the free-agent market in July. Stein also reported that Okafor had been frustrated with Colangelo’s unwillingness to pull the trigger on deals that the 6-foot-11 center believes have been on the table for him at multiple points in the recent past, a topic on which Okafor expounded a bit on Wednesday.
“[Colangelo] said that he felt that if he bought me out, another team would be getting me for free,” Okafor said, according to Camerato. “But that’s where we stand today because you waited so long to trade me. There’s nothing else to do. I’m not playing here and at the end of the season, I’m an unrestricted free agent. So I want to get on the court and play and produce.”
(Here’s where we remind you that Hinkie, architect of the Sixers’ now-infamous rebuilding “Process,” was reportedly ousted in favor of a Colangelo takeover in part because various franchise and NBA powers that be believed the former Phoenix Suns and Toronto Raptors personnel chief was better at creating and fostering relationships with players, agents and stakeholders around the league. Yeah.)
We might not have predicted the specific nature of how it all unwound, but this sort of ending is ostensibly what many of us saw coming on the night of the 2015 draft.
Maybe then-decision-maker Hinkie believed he needed to hedge his bets and get some interior insurance behind the injured Embiid. Maybe he was shook by fellow top 2015 prospect Kristaps Porzingis’ saber-rattling about not wanting to go to Philly.
Maybe he believed he could short Okafor, pumping up his stats with plenty of minutes and shots before flipping him to a team impressed by his counting stats for bigger future assets. (Hello there, Michael Carter-Williams.) Evidently, he wasn’t sold that the likes of D’Angelo Russell, Emmanuel Mudiay, Mario Hezonja and Devin Booker provided compelling answers to the Sixers’ persistent backcourt woes.
Whatever the motivation for the move, when Hinkie decided to pull the trigger on Okafor, it wasn’t all that difficult to project that his frontcourt experiment would end in tears. And now, here we are.
The logjam in the middle hung over the Sixers like the sword of Damocles. At some point, whoever was in charge of the team would realize that Philadelphia didn’t have room for three starting pivots, and would need to untangle the knot in the middle of the rotation. The resolution began last season, when Embiid finally got healthy (for a while) after two seasons lost to a broken navicular bone in his foot and started looking like a superstar. That pushed Noel, who had shown flashes of being a legitimately useful defensive center and dive-man in the pick-and-roll, to the periphery; he sat, and stewed, and eventually got moved.
Okafor, though, only saw his opportunities dwindle. The specific flaws virtually every scout saw prior to draft night — partly the lack of stretch in his elbows-and-in offensive game, which ate up space in which Embiid could operate and clogged up driving or passing lanes for Philly’s playmakers; chiefly the slow awareness and slower feet that made him a liability whether guarding the pick-and-roll in space or attempting to protect the rim — became magnified against NBA opposition.
With Embiid finally healthy and entrenched in the starting lineup, and the Sixers fully committed to his ascent to maximum-salaried stardom, and Colangelo and coach Brett Brown preferring other options behind him — veteran mentor big man Amir Johnson, and, when healthy, enticing stretch shot-blocker Richaun Holmes — Okafor got crowded out of the sunlight. Now that the start of his career has withered on the vine, he’s looking for a transplant to richer soil, and a second chance to grow into something.
And he could! As understandable as it is for teams to look to build around big men who can space the floor and block shots in a league playing faster and more freely than ever before, deft interior scorers who can bully smaller defenders still have a place in the NBA. LaMarcus Aldridge is currently undergoing a renaissance as the top dog for the Kawhi-less San Antonio Spurs. Enes Kanter poured in buckets and crashed the glass for the Oklahoma City Thunder, and now does so for the New York Knicks.
After a false start in Wisconsin, Greg Monroe has rebuilt and rebranded himself as a bruising closer for the Milwaukee Bucks. Jonas Valanciunas slogs through trade rumors and look-offs for six months every season before beating the hell out of some poor sap on the interior in the Toronto Raptors’ first-round series every year. Jusuf Nurkic is, basically, the Portland Trail Blazers’ best hope of developing into a real contender.
The cases aren’t the same, of course. Aldridge is a superior shooter, an All-Star scorer, and an underrated defender. Kanter and Valanciunas are superior rebounders. Monroe’s made big strides defensively. Nurkic brings a level of nuance and menace on both ends that Jahlil’s not yet shown. There are roles, though — places where a guy who can score, draw defensive help and make plays to open teammates can matter. Someday, maybe it’s coming off the bench for a good team. For now, maybe it’s eating minutes for a bad team — like, say, the long-rumored return to his hometown of Chicago — while trying to put enough improvement on tape to make one of those good teams give you a look in July.
Whenever his chapter in Philadelphia ends, at age 21, it’s too early to close the book on Jahlil Okafor. Once he finally gets free, though, it’ll be up to him to write something that keeps our interest.
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