Two years ago, the Philadelphia 76ers thought enough of Duke center Jahlil Okafor to use the third overall pick in the NBA draft on him. Now, he’s barely able to get off the bench for a 1-4 team, having made only one appearance in five games and logging just 22 minutes thus far in the 2017-18 NBA season.
Sixers coach Brett Brown told reporters on Friday that the 21-year-old center is officially “not in the rotation,” confirming his preference for playing veteran big man Amir Johnson over Okafor as the backup center behind rising star Joel Embiid.
“I’m playing Amir ahead of him and that’s just the situation,” Brown said, according to NBC Sports Philadelphia. “[Okafor] doesn’t let people know. He comes in and his head’s good and his spirit’s good. And he and I talk all the time, but that is the bottom line. He is not in the rotation […] I think it’s going to be Amir’s spot to lose. If I see that there’s a decline in performance, then it’s going to be his spot right now to lose. It’s always competitive, but the competitive nature has shifted toward Amir’s performance.”
Given the actual facts of Johnson’s performance — 3.6 points and 5.0 rebounds in 15 minutes per game, shooting 30.4 percent from the floor and 50 percent from the foul line, with Philly getting outscored by 12.5 points per 100 possessions in his 75 minutes to date — it sure seems pretty damning that Okafor hasn’t convinced Brown to take another look at “the competitive nature” of that position battle. But with Embiid and Johnson handling center minutes, and Ben Simmons and Dario Saric holding down the power forward spot (with Brown experimenting with Saric as a small-ball five in some reserve units), there just aren’t many minutes available for a throwback back-to-the-basket center who struggles to defend in space and protect the rim.
There figure to be even fewer once backup big man Richaun Holmes comes back from his fractured left wrist; he’s reportedly set to be reevaluated next Thursday. Hence Okafor’s DNP-CDs … and hence a renewed round of rumblings that player and team are working on an exit strategy. From Chris Haynes of ESPN.com:
With the role of Jahlil Okafor further diminishing, his representatives and the Philadelphia 76ers are collaborating to find a suitable trade, league sources tell ESPN. […]
Okafor has a fourth-year option of $6.3 million that the Sixers have to make a decision on by Oct. 31. According to league sources, whether they pick it up or not depends on the trade discussions, but it’s likely that it’s exercised.
At the moment, there are no frontrunners, sources say.
I know that last line’s probably just intended to communicate that it’s an open race. But man, “At the moment, there are no frontrunners” really makes it sound like there’s just nobody interested in a guy who was a consensus First-Team All-American all the way back in 2015 and who averaged 17.5 points per game in the NBA in 2016. It’d seem crazy … if it also didn’t make a lot of sense.
Yes, Okafor scored and rebounded well enough for the 2015-16 Sixers to earn an All-Rookie First Team nod. But his maiden NBA voyage on a still-cratering Philadelphia side also included off-court lowlights — the street fight in Boston, the incident in which a gun was pulled on him outside a nightclub, the citation for reckless driving after going 108 miles per hour on the Ben Franklin Bridge — and on-court troubles related to his struggles on the defensive end.
Okafor’s one-sided game, and the limited success he had meshing with defense-first former top pick Nerlens Noel, made him a divisive player even before he suffered a season-ending meniscus tear that wound up keeping him off the court far longer than expected. With his own play raising questions, and the ever-looming specter of injured but transformational uber-prospect Embiid waiting in the wings to take over the starting center spot when physically able, both Okafor and Noel found their names constantly involved in trade rumors, which Okafor admitted he found very frustrating.
But despite the Sixers’ very clear and very public logjam in the middle, Philly entered last season with Embiid, Noel and Okafor all on the roster. Embiid proved exactly the sort of burgeoning star he’d been projected to be. Noel sat, and stewed, and eventually got moved. Okafor … well, he stayed put, playing some, sitting some more, and quietly averaging a shade under 12 points and five rebounds in 23 minutes per game.
Once the highest-profile prep prospect in America, Okafor had become an afterthought. He felt it, intensely, and found himself wondering if the Sixers even considered him part of the team. Five games and four DNPs into the season, Okafor and his representatives have their answer. Now, we wait to find out if any other team decides they’re willing to ante up to become the frontrunner in one of the saddest races of this young NBA season.
More NBA coverage:
– – – – – – –