Jahlil Okafor seemingly has been on the trade block since the day he attended his introductory press conference with the Philadelphia 76ers. While the franchise’s other lottery picks have been ingratiated into “The Process” with open arms, Okafor has always seemed to be stuck on a team that didn’t want him. He was the stopgap in case injuries prevented Joel Embiid from achieving his potential. On a franchise that is investing so much into developing young prospects, Okafor has been a disappointment, though much of that sentiment has been for reasons outside of his control.
Now that Embiid has become a near-$150 million centerpiece, Okafor might as well be a pawnshop discount reserve. He’s the Darko Milicic of 2017. Instead of being drafted alongside three-quarters of the 2003 Banana Boat Crew, he was selected third overall in 2015 between Karl-Anthony Towns, D’Angelo Russell and Kristaps Porzingis, three players who would have been better fits with the 76ers than a plodding one-dimensional big. Two years later, he begins the 2017 season in limbo, and shared his weariness about being disregarded in Philadelphia with Jordan Brenner of SB Nation:
“I’m unsure if I’m still on the team,” Okafor says now. “Am I really a part of this process? Am I really a part of this culture? That’s why the guys have been out there on social media, but I’ve just kind of been in the dark. I’ll go to a Sixers event, smile, take pictures with the kids and stuff like that, but I’m still thinking, ‘Am I a part of this team?’”
That’s not as acerbic as Nerlens Noel proclaiming, “I’m too good to be playing eight minutes,” but it gets the message across just as efficiently. Okafor is an anachronism in the pace-and-space NBA era. He’s not nimble enough to stretch his game to the perimeter and he’s not a rim protector. Ten years ago, teams would have been falling over each other to deal for a 21-year-old who averaged 17.5 points and seven rebounds in 30 minutes a game as a 20-year-old rookie.
The regression in his second season was due in part to his recovery from a right knee meniscus tear. Soreness in that same right knee ended his 2017 season a few games early. Further complicating Okafor’s precarious position are the team’s versatile players who can man the forward positions: Ben Simmons, Robert Covington, and Dario Saric. More from Brenner:
This past summer, he sank deeper into anonymity. When Joel Embiid christened the 76ers’ young core as the “FEDS,” (Markelle Fultz, Embiid, Dario Saric, Ben Simmons), Okafor’s name was conspicuously absent, despite the fact that he was the third pick in the NBA draft just two years ago. While his teammates posted group photos on Instagram, Okafor swore off social media. As trade rumors swirled — and continue to do so — he stayed mum.
Okafor isn’t just in a bad place for his career to blossom, but Philadelphia has also been detrimental to his mental health as well. Sometimes we forget that he was drafted as a teenager, and while he hasn’t quite been abused on the level of Kwame Brown, the team’s apathy toward him is arguably just as terrible.
Unfortunately for Okafor, he won’t reach restricted free agency until 2019 and has no control over his fate. Philadelphia has never been interested in getting Okafor to co-exist with Embiid, instead using him when Embiid was sitting or injured. Interviews like this probably won’t help Okafor’s trade value, especially considering the poor returns 76ers GM Bryan Colangelo received for sending Noel to Dallas. Whatever Okafor’s future holds, hopefully he can begin his next chapter sooner rather than later.