Nearly two months ago, New Orleans Pelicans fans witnessed the brief resurgence of Jahlil Okafor’s career. He put up gaudy numbers and helped distract fans in the midst of the Anthony Davis trade demand saga. Unfortunately, recent play indicates that reality —be it cruel— is sinking in.
The early years in Philadelphia
Jahlil Okafor’s numbers in his rookie campaign showed promise. So did Dion Waiters’. And so have many rookies before them. The connection here is that those players put up numbers on bad (like, really bad) teams. Nonetheless, averaging 17.5 points and 7 rebounds per game on 50.8% from the field as a 20 year-old is worth mentioning.
So what went wrong in Philadelphia for the former 2015 third overall pick? During the time, the Sixers organization was still in “the process” of turning things around and heading back to NBA relevancy. In 2013 and 2014, they used lottery draft picks to select Nerlens Noel and Joel Embiid. Okafor was the third straight center they selected in the NBA Draft.
It does not take an NBA analyst to see a problem with their selections. You cannot have a starting five consisting of three big men (you technically could, but it’s heavily advised against). Philadelphia’s front office decided that Noel and Okafor were not going to be a part of their immediate future and eventually moved on from both.
Okafor takes New Orleans over (for a week)
To get back up to speed, let’s hop in the DeLorean, crank it up to 88 MPH, and jump back to this season. In hindsight, the 76ers made the right call in basing the foundation of their heralded “process” around Embiid and Simmons. Nerlens Noel found his way to OKC where he has been fighting for playing time for his entire tenure spent with the team.
That leaves Jahlil Okafor. After a brief stint in Brooklyn that showed no growth, the Pelicans decided to take a chance on Jah. And for a while, the move looked like it was paying off. Until it stopped.
From January 21st through January 30th, the world was Jahlil Okafor’s and we were just living in it. With the team in shambles after an Anthony Davis trade demand went public, Jahlil Okafor went on a stretch of games that softened the blow. During this time, he was putting up 20 points, 10.5 rebounds, and 2.3 blocks per game on a ridiculous 70% shooting percentage from the field.
Return to normalcy
It was nice to see Jahlil Okafor reemerge in the NBA, but the novelty wore off quickly. Over the course of his next six games, those impressive numbers dwindled. With his minutes descending, Okafor put up 11.6 points, 6.7 rebounds, and 0.7 blocks per game. Since then, his true form has reared its unflattering head.
See, when the 76ers moved on from Okafor, it was not a shot in the dark. They saw immense potential in Joel Embiid (who missed his first season due to injury) and decided that he would be the cornerstone of their franchise. It was a calculated move. Okafor had glaring weaknesses in his game.
For one, he is a defensive liability. Often looking like a deer in the headlights in a half-court setting, that aspect of his game never matured. As a Pelican this season, you can often find him either lost on a pick and roll or just being positioned wrong in general. Though he can put up large defensive numbers at times that make him have the appearance of an All-Defensive first team member, there’s just no consistency in that area of his game.
When the ball finds its way to him in the low block, it usually dies there. Never billed as a “passing big,” Okafor never worked on his ability to find teammates once the ball is in his hands. That can kill the fluidity of your offense. Likewise, not being able to stretch the floor in any sense remains a defect in his game in the modern NBA. He can put up nice numbers in the paint, but the game has evolved. Unfortunately, he has not done what it takes to keep up with the times.
Signing Jahlil Okafor last offseason was a low risk, high reward situation for the New Orleans Pelicans that was worth the gamble for just $1.56 million this year with a club option entering the 2019-2020 season. What the future holds for him is uncertain, and the Pelicans have more questions than answers entering this summer. But his immediate future, just like it did in Brooklyn and Philadelphia, does not appear bright.