It was only a few years ago that the Los Angeles Lakers appeared to be heading straight toward a fully reconstructed frontcourt. Jahlil Okafor seemed to be the easy pick for the Lakers as the second team selecting in the 2015 NBA Draft. Could Jim Buss really turn down the allure of drafting a new big man, with touted footwork and skills, as the franchise centerpiece?
It turns out he could, and D’Angelo Russell was the name called that fateful night in Brooklyn. Fast forward, and Russell’s been turned into Brook Lopez, Kyle Kuzma and cap space. That’s a dream scenario for the Lakers compared to what’s happening with Okafor and the Philadelphia 76ers right now.
The Sixers are a legitimate playoff team in the Eastern Conference for the first time in four seasons, their rebuilding efforts finally coming together. Strangely enough, it’s not being led by the first pieces of their puzzle in Okafor and Nerlens Noel. Noel was a trade deadline sendoff to the Dallas Mavericks, while Okafor has become the talk of the NBA in his third season. Unfortunately for him, it’s not because he’s tearing it up alongside Joel Embiid.
Okafor has played in just two games this season despite being perfectly healthy. Philadelphia ran him in all five of their preseason games, though, where he averaged 8.6 points and 4.2 rebounds in 16.9 minutes per game, while shooting 66.7 percent from the field.
Jahlil’s struggles aren’t necessarily box score related, though. He has traditional big man skills with his back to the basket, but that’s become a thing of the past. For a team trying to push the tempo like Philly is (fourth in pace behind the Lakers), he simply doesn’t fit.
Pair that with the fact that his defense as a big man is as problematic as many Lakers fans feared heading into draft night, and Okafor is now strapped to the bench. The Sixers gave up 124.3 points per 100 possessions in the 25 minutes he played this season. Imagine the Lakers playing him alongside Julius Randle these last few years.
It’s clear the Sixers have moved on from wanting to build with him as part of their team, and the franchise has been taking trade calls on Okafor, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN. What Philadelphia has found is that the value of Jahlil is in the realm of a second-round draft pick. Considering just how low that bar is, Okafor is hoping for a resolution to come “quickly” (via ESPN):
"I would like for them to just send me somewhere where I can get an opportunity," Okafor told ESPN. "I've done everything they've asked of me and I would just like to get an opportunity to play with a trade or a buyout. I just hope something happens quickly.
"This is my third year in the NBA, and I know it's a business. I don't know if it's fair or not, but in talking to other people in the NBA, talking to retired players, one thing I've heard them say is that what's going on with me isn't right and they've never seen anything like this before.
"I know it's business, but in my eyes, I don't know if it's good business."
Philadelphia still wants to leverage Okafor as an asset to work with around the trade deadline, and much like the front office has very publicly made it clear they’re not investing into him as a player, Jahlil has returned the favor by making it clear he’s not happy with the way things are going.
FREE JAH— Devin Booker (@DevinBook) November 27, 2017
NBA players, meanwhile, are taking notice of the situation. The #FreeJah movement may be harmless, but it does reflect a sentiment from players that Philadelphia is doing one of their own dirty with how they’ve managed the situation. The 76ers, a franchise that’s blatantly tanked for years, is already fighting to adjust the optics around how they operate.
It’s a messy situation, but one that should be resolved by the trade deadline. The problem? That’s not until February, and Okafor unloaded his side of the deal to ESPN in late-November. That leaves a lot of time until the Sixers, from a “business” standpoint, will feel compelled to buy his contract out. It might be a “worst case” scenario for Okafor, but there’s little movement from NBA teams to bring the former No. 3 pick in as even a reclamation project.
Maybe things with Okafor shake out differently if he’s a Laker, or maybe the Lakers aren’t even able to turn their 2015 lottery selection into cap space, a legitimate stretch-five, and the draft pick that turned into Kuzma once Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka decide it’s time to move on. Who knows.
And really, that’s the overarching point. D’Angelo is out indefinitely with a knee injury, Okafor is out indefinitely from the Sixers’ rotation, and the Lakers might be better off without both players in the long run. What feels like Lady Luck on lottery night may ultimately just be a mirage for fan bases crawling through the desert that is the bottom of the NBA.
*All stats via NBA.com/stats