Jahlil Okafor was running out of options. His calls for a trade went unanswered, the clamors for a buyout fell on deaf ears. The Process failed the 76ers big man, a gifted inside scorer who was drafted No. 3 overall just three summers ago, but fell from grace and watched his value plummet ever since.
Riding the pine seemed more than a foregone conclusion. It was his destiny in Philadelphia.
Now, much like D’Angelo Russell, the Nets’ new big man will have a shot at redeeming himself and his NBA career in Brooklyn.
Jahlil Okafor hasn't played all year and was out of the 76ers rotation last season. Kenny Atkinson is going to put him in a position to play like he did his rookie year. Nets fans should be happy. pic.twitter.com/kpdyN8bMN4— Kristian Winfield (@Krisplashed) December 7, 2017
Okafor’s fall from grace began his rookie year
Okafor, like Russell, was projected to be one of the highlights of the 2015 NBA draft. At Duke, he averaged 17.3 points on 66 percent shooting to go with 8.5 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game. He and a cast of future Duke pros led the Blue Devils to an NCAA Championship victory over Wisconsin. Little did Okafor know that would be his last taste of victory for some time.
From there, the 76ers took Okafor No. 3, one slot after Russell, two spots behind Karl-Anthony Towns, and one pick ahead of Kristaps Porzingis. For at least part of his rookie season, he looked like he belonged in the discussion with those players.
In his first year, Okafor mirrored his college numbers, putting up 17.5 points, seven rebounds, and just over a block per game. When a team wins only 10 games in a season, though, numbers don’t mean anything. Those numbers are worth even less when that player has a November-December riddled with law enforcement interactions.
Okafor was involved in a well-publicized altercation outside of a Boston nightclub in Nov. 2015. The language in that video is not for the faint of heart. The next day, reports surfaced of Okafor being held at gunpoint outside of a Philadelphia club after Okafor tried to punch a car driver through his window. A day after that, reports surfaced that he was stopped for driving 108 miles per hour over the Ben Franklin Bridge that has a 40 mile-per-hour speed limit. The video to that legitimate high-speed chase is online.
To put the icing on the cake, TMZ posted another video in early December of Okafor confronting a heckler on the same night outside of the same Boston nightclub. That footage ended with someone getting knocked out cold in the middle of the street, though you can’t tell who threw the punch.
Philadelphia immediately suspended Okafor for two games. They had to. And Okafor immediately apologized. He had to. What a month.
I hold myself to a higher standard than anyone else ever could and I'm not proud of some of my decisions over the last few months.— Jahlil Okafor (@JahlilOkafor) November 29, 2015
I own my choices both personally and now publicly. At this point I am cooperating and respecting the process I have to go through.— Jahlil Okafor (@JahlilOkafor) November 29, 2015
Going forward I don't want to be a distraction for my team and am grateful for the support and guidance those close to me are giving.— Jahlil Okafor (@JahlilOkafor) November 29, 2015
I am 100% focused on my responsibility to the League, my teammates and fans.— Jahlil Okafor (@JahlilOkafor) November 29, 2015
Meanwhile, Okafor’s rookie counterparts flourished. Towns won Rookie of the Year. Porzingis placed second, and Denver’s Nikola Jokic emerged for third place. Okafor received three runner-up votes and 25 for third place.
He completely plummeted when “The Process” came along
On Oct. 26, 2016, Joel “The Process” Embiid made his NBA debut with 20 points, seven rebounds, and two blocks in 22 minutes against the Thunder. That was the day the Process Sam Hinkie started began to officially reap its benefits.
It was also the day Jahlil Okafor’s clock formally started ticking.
Here was Embiid, a potential all-world two-way big man taking the NBA by storm as a rookie. There were comparisons to a modern-day Hakeem Olajuwon. Meanwhile, Okafor was his embattled backup who could score, but did little else. His ball-stopping tendencies in the low-post could be an eye sore, as was his minus effort on defense. Okafor, Embiid, and Nerlens Noel logjammed the Sixers’ center position.
Philly traded Noel to Dallas at the trade deadline. Then Embiid tore his meniscus and ended his season after 31 games. He averaged 20 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 2.5 blocks on a minutes restriction.
Okafor averaged 12.6 points, five rebounds, and a block in 21 minutes per game in the final few games of the season, but his year ended early due to right knee soreness. That was the last the world would see of Jahlil Okafor.
This year, the 76ers took flight without him. Philadelphia is 13-11 in the eighth seed of the East after winning just 10 games two seasons ago and only 28 last year. The Process has given birth to a core of Embiid, Ben Simmons, Robert Covington, the injured Markelle Fultz, and Dario Saric, with other talented young prospects in the rotation. Okafor has been on the outside, but not looking in.
Two years after he was taken No. 3 overall, Okafor found himself on the bench, further outside the rotation than anyone else. He played in only two games for Philly this season, and when the Sixers couldn’t find a trade for him, they also refused to buy him out. They then declined the team option on the final year of his rookie contract.
Then the ‘Free Jahlil Okafor’ movement began. And after weeks of uncertainty, the Sixers indeed set him free by trading Okafor to Brooklyn.
Now, Okafor has a shot at redemption
D’Angelo Russell didn’t have any run-ins with the law, nor did he have a gun pointed at his head or get into scuffles outside of a nightclub. But from the perspective of an NBA locker room, his transgression was equally egregious. You remember: Russell secretly recorded then-teammate Nick Young admitting he was cheating on pop star Iggy Azalea, his fianceé at the time.
That video somehow got out, and suffice it to say the two are no longer engaged.
Russell’s reputation among NBA players went up in flames and was doused in lighter fluid. His Lakers teammates reportedly made him sit alone at breakfast, and a team official anonymously destroyed him in the media.
This was the same No. 2 overall pick that went ahead of Okafor, the same talented, cerebral guard out of Ohio State that was supposed to be a part of a Lakers’ world without Kobe Bryant. Magic Johnson took over as team president and dealt Russell and Timofey Mozgov to Brooklyn for Brook Lopez and the pick that became Kyle Kuzma. While pushing Russell out the door, Johnson also questioned his leadership.
Russell is now showing signs of career rebirth in Brooklyn, averaging almost 21 points, six assists, and five rebounds per game in Kenny Atkinson’s free-flowing Nets offense. He hasn’t arrived to star status just yet, but he’s reminding fans of the promise he had coming out of college. If anything, he’s back on track.
The same can happen for Okafor. The ex-76ers big man has his deficiencies, and they’re not minor. His defense will have to be addressed, as will his willingness to move the ball. But Atkinson has built a successful system in Brooklyn by putting his players in a position to succeed, a phrase he recycles over and over.
For Russell, that’s meant finding a mix of pick-and-roll opportunities and time off the ball, a dynamic they’re still working through. For Allen Crabbe, another player showing signs of life in Brooklyn after a lukewarm stint in Portland, that meant creating 6.2 open looks at three-pointers per game for a career 41 percent shooter.
For Okafor, we don’t know what that means. It could be a Brook Lopez-type role if he can extend his range out to three-point land. With Russell out due to arthroscopic knee surgery, Brooklyn could use a scoring punch. Okafor could be the jab-cross-uppercut off the bench.
The Nets also landed Stauskas as part of the trade. He was drafted No. 8 overall in 2014 and is now on his third team in five years. In Brooklyn, both Okafor and Stauskas have at least one more shot at an NBA do-over.
Just like D’Angelo Russell.