November 27, 2017
Aside from the mystery surrounding Markelle Fultz's jumper, the Jahlil Okafor saga has been the only real negative to start Philadelphia's season. Even then, it has mostly been in the background as the Sixers have surged to an 11-7 start, because it's hard for fans to think too much about a fifth-string center.
Not content to stay quiet any longer, Okafor and his agent, Bill Duffy, went to the most powerful NBA reporter on the planet in order to send a message. In a conversation with ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski, Okafor opened up once again about wanting to get out of Philadelphia and onto a team interested in giving him regular minutes.
I would like for them to just send me somewhere where I can get an opportunity. 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.
In a bit of reporting attached to the story, Wojnarowski mentions that Sixers GM Bryan Colangelo has pretty consistently dropped his asking price for the young center, and his value has clearly reached its nadir. These days, Colangelo is asking for a mere second-round pick for Okafor, according to Wojnarowski, and yet the Sixers haven't found anyone willing to take the plunge.You can sympathize with both parties here. Colangelo doesn't have much personal stake in Okafor, but if teams are excited over the prospect of signing him once he's bought out, why not sit on him and wait for an opportunity to strike? Injuries can happen at any moment, and some team could turn to Okafor in a crisis between now and the deadline. The franchise's priorities have changed, and the days of using the 15th roster spot to take chances on D-League players are behind us.
Okafor doesn't have much of a case to play over the guys in front of him in the rotation, but you can't just dismiss the human element either. He feels he's talented enough to warrant a bigger opportunity, and he put in work this offseason to get himself prepared for the year. Completely shifting your diet over the span of a few months is no small task.
However, I think we have officially reached the point where calling Okafor a "good soldier" has to cease. You lose the right to that distinction when you start using the biggest NBA reporter in the world as your megaphone, if you didn't lose it when you spoke out on the matter earlier in the season. There are plenty of high picks who have flamed out and ended up stuck on the bench, and very few of them have garnered sympathy because an organization decided they were better off not playing them. Okafor is a teammate of one such player, Nik Stauskas*, and nary a thought is given on an average day about whether it's fair for Stauskas to ride the pine or not.
*Stauskas is currently out with an ankle sprain, but his absence in the rotation was made clear long before the injury was a factor.
Okafor's rookie-year numbers are pointed to as an example of how he might be different from other young flameouts, a suggestion that he just needs a fair chance. If NBA teams agreed with that assessment, someone would have stepped up and paid a pittance to acquire him long before we reached this point. The Sixers' asking price has been low for a while now, per sources familiar with the situation, but Okafor has been a negative on the court dating back to his freshman season at Duke. When the on/off data shows his teams have consistently been better when Okafor has been on the bench, teams would rather wait until they can take a chance on him at no cost.
In the few chances Okafor has had to get on the court this season, the same flaws are apparent despite his lifestyle change. Long stretches on the bench or not, this isn't good enough.
There's a natural counterpoint to this line of thinking: why would the Sixers bother keeping someone like this on the books, when both parties have no interest in a future together? It's not totally out of line, but it's also not the first time a team held onto a player hoping to get some value out of sending him packing. An injury elsewhere could prompt another team to turn to Okafor for center depth, and Okafor's contract could be a salary-matching ingredient if the Sixers go shopping at the trade deadline.
I don't think it's worth the headache to keep Okafor around anymore, nor do I think the Sixers' front office is concerned Okafor will turn into a completely new player and make them look bad at his next home. All things being equal, cutting him loose is probably the right thing to do.
Let's just stop treating this like some major indictment of the franchise every time Okafor speaks up. Jahlil Okafor has played 2,750 minutes of NBA basketball, and those are a lot more meaningful than the slot he was chosen in the NBA Draft. There are a lot of players around the NBA who believe they deserve bigger and better opportunities. Not all of them can be right.