Is Jahlil Okafor a Bust?
On October 31, 2017, the Philadelphia 76ers announced that they would not pick up Jahlil Okafor's 4th year team option making him a free agent in 2018. Shortly afterward, Okafor released a statement saying he would welcome a trade or buyout from the 76ers. It is rare for an organization to give up on a player drafted as high as Okafor. With Okafor now out of the 76ers’ rotation and searching for a path to a new team, it is fair to ask if he has proven to be a bust.
To answer this question, we must look at how his career has unraveled so far. Before the 2015 NBA draft, Okafor was in serious consideration to be taken with the first overall pick. At Duke he averaged 17.3 ppg, 8.5 rpg, 1.4 bpg and shot an incredibly efficient 66% from the field. His defensive liabilities were clear as he struggled with help defense and containing pick and rolls but with his size and length, it wasn't impossible to imagine that he wouldn't improve on these deficiencies once he entered the league. Ultimately, Kentucky’s Karl Anthony Towns was taken first overall by the Minnesota Timberwolves and, in a move that shocked many, the Lakers took D'Angelo Russell with the 2nd pick. Okafor fell to the Philadelphia 76ers at number 3.
On paper, Okafor and the 76ers didn't seem like the best match. In the two previous years, the 76ers drafted Nerlens Noel and Joel Embiid who both played the same position as Okafor. However, Embiid was still injured and unable to play in the 2015-16 season so Okafor was able to get plenty of playing time in his rookie season. Statistically, Okafor had a solid rookie year where he put up 17.5 ppg, 7 rpg, and 1.2 bpg, while shooting 50% from the field. Despite this, Okafor finished 5th in Rookie of the Year voting behind Karl Anthony Towns, Kristaps Porzingis, Nikola Jokic, and Devin Booker. Part of this was due to the fact that Okafor missed 29 games with a knee injury, but his weaknesses as a player were on clearly display. His defense remained terrible and despite putting up big numbers, his team boasted a better offensive efficiency rating when he was off the court.
In his sophomore season, injuries plagued Okafor again and he was only able to play 50 games and was often put on a minutes restriction. His numbers dropped to 11.8 ppg, 4.8 rpg, and 1 bpg on 51% from the field. The complexion of the Philadelphia 76ers changed as well because of the emergence of Embiid. After sitting out his first two years due to injury, Embiid proved to be a star in the short time he played, averaging 20.2 ppg, 7.8 rpg, and 2.5 bpg in 31 games. Unlike Okafor, Embiid played stellar defense and had a 3-point shot combined with a solid interior scoring skill set. Despite health concerns, it was clear the 76ers had found their franchise cornerstone who, unfortunately for Okafor, played center. Additionally, with both Embiid and Okafor missing a significant amount of time, Richaun Holmes was given a chance to play center and proved to be a valuable rotation player that could hit a jumper and defend as well while adding another player in the rotation Okafor would have to compete with.
All these factors contributed to Okafor's role being minimized with the 76ers. The change in playing style in the NBA has also hurt him. The three-point shot has become a vital part of NBA offenses. Centers who can both protect the rim and step out and switch on to perimeter players at the 3-point line are valuable, both of which are areas where Okafor struggles mightily.
Coming into the 2017-18 season, the 76ers finally looked like a team ready to win. With Embiid healthy, Ben Simmons making his debut, and the 76ers drafting potential franchise point guard Markelle Fultz to go along with a group of solid veterans, expectations were high for this team. The only problem was Okafor seemed to be the odd man out. He has been removed from the rotation and has only played in two games for the 76ers this season. It is unclear if he still has potential to be a star, but one thing is for sure: Okafor needs to be on a new team. The 76ers do not have the minutes available to accommodate him. Basketball fans will never know what he truly is as a player while he is sitting on the bench. His rookie year was the only time Okafor was a featured part of the offense and he did manage to put up impressive offensive numbers during that time. His defense has been undeniably terrible his entire career but if he is in a situation where he feels valued and is motivated to play this could potentially improve. As of now, Okafor's chances of being a perennial All-Star don't look great but it is entirely too early to definitively say he is a bust.