On December 7th the somewhat sarcastic movement #freeJahlil finally reached its goal. The 76-ers traded Jahlil Okafor, Nick Stauskas and a second round pick to the Brooklyn Nets for veteran Trevor Booker. After a period of frustration and awkwardness it all came to an end for both parties. Philadelphia freed up a roster spot and finally made it clear who are the players the team will build around. Meanwhile, the 22-year-old center found the location which best suits his need of development and provides lower expectations. This move has put an end to plenty of speculations and shifted the trade scene in the NBA. While several teams are actively pursuing centers or power forwards we all know that one player is off the trade block. At least for now.
Although considered to be nothing special, this change in the Eastern conference can have greater implications than people think. Now, it is nearly impossible to talk about Jahlil Okafor without mentioning two essential aspects of his short career – his underdeveloped game, accompanied by a passive approach, and the double-nature of the “Process” in Philadelphia. Alas, the discussion about Okafor’s future is necessary.
The critical moment is what type of return to the basketball court will Jahlil have? After missing out a big part of 2016-17 and most of 2017-18 season it would be a surprise if he suddenly puts up his rookie year numbers. We are talking about 17 points and seven boards on average. Unfortunately, after being benched for such a period this stat line seems a little too ambitious.
So what can happen in Brooklyn after the trade?
Scenario number one: Okafor improves his game and fits well in the Nets system
So far this season coach Kenny Atkinson proved he can manage a rotation which keeps players active but not worn out. This may help Okafor start things out slowly and gradually become one of the team’s main play makers. Plus he has all the reasons to put in work. His motivation (and assurance) can derive from two separate but fundamental aspects of the Nets situation.
First of all, Timofey Mozgov’s contract is a burden but it’s not a reason to force him into play. This means Okafor will get a solid amount of play time and will most definitely be a starter. The situation itself is the best he could get. Most of the teams looking for big men want somebody who isn’t a liability. Therefore, even if they landed him in a trade, they wouldn’t have given him such a major role for fear of getting slow on offense. After all, Okafor has been devalued tremendously after the end of his second season with the Sixers. The Internet is jam-packed with criticism of his game or comparisons with Nerlens Noel – another big man who struggled in Philly but couldn’t really establish after he got traded.
However, unlike Noel, Okafor will be playing for a team with a coach who knows how and when to get his players involved. Kenny Atkinson will be put in very tough, yet intriguing situation. This is the moment to give credit to general manager Sean Marks for virtually saving the Nets’ franchise from the trade with Boston.
Today, Kenny Atkinson has a roster with two players selected in the top 3 of 2015 NBA draft. A lot of talent and potential in two vital positions. Therefore, it is his task to develop Jahlil Okafor and D’Angelo Russell into a formidable young core. Given that Okafor may need time and work, the head coach will have an opportunity to make amendments and integrate the big man.
At the end of the day all those things add up in favor of the former Duke center. We can all hope he reemerges on the basketball scene given the circumstances. This will put him on a path to being a decent center. (Perhaps like Brook Lopez or a lesser version of Hassan Whiteside) But what will be his future if he is unable to harness his potential?
Scenario number two: Okafor struggles and does not improve
Being sidelined for such a long period can take its toll. In this case such absence may have harsher consequences some of which irreversible.
One of the main concerns regarding Jahlil Okafor is his approach to basketball. In today’s era his style of play seems outdated and impractical – playing the post with back against the basket, always seeking a spot in the paint area and scoring with emphasize on lay-ups and hook shots. This is the reason Joel Embiid pushed Okafor away from the starting line-up and the team itself – with his unique ability to face the basket and score on defenders.
As if that was not enough, Okafor was constantly being scrutinized for his supposed apathy and slow approach. His flaws were considered huge holes in his game rather than aspects he can improve. All this lead to a tarnished reputation which adds to the pressure of expectation.
If Okafor continues to play at a weaker level and doesn’t pair well with D’Angelo Russell, he will be facing problems when free agency comes. That would be in the summer of 2018. Then Brooklyn will have to make a decision on salaries (86mill. guaranteed of $102mill cap space). In this scenario the Nets would still keep the big man but offer a substantially lower salary and a bench position. to which Okafor has to hold on to for dear life. It’s pretty obvious why. At this point you can be a bad player in just a small number of teams – Bulls, Hawks and Nets with the last one soon to drop from the list. A potential resigning for less money will at least give Okafor a chance to stay in the league and continue trying to establish a better form.
Nevertheless, if that still doesn’t help him get better. If he truly turns out to be a weak center with “good number on a bad team” first year. So bad of a scenario in which he can’t fit in Atkinson’s rotation because he is slowing the team down.
His last resolve is to aim for the Chicago Bulls or Atlanta Hawks roster after his second contract with Brooklyn expires or a buyout is through. Those two teams will tank for more than 2 season unless they draft super talents back-to-back. But throughout the tanking process they need a bench and this would be Okafor’s last chance to stay in the league. Or, because of his youth, he can try deep bench riding or enter the G-League.
It is hard to make assumptions based on a season and a half plus a ton of rumors. But a page is turned and we are looking to see what’s next for big man Jahlil.