The Jahlil Okafor saga in Philadelphia seems to have light at the end of the tunnel for the former 2015 third overall pick.
On Tuesday, the Philadelphia 76ers announced that they would not pick up the fourth-year, $6.3 million team option on Okafor’s rookie deal. While the writing has been on the wall for Okafor for some time now, a declined option put an actual end date on the center’s tenure in Philadelphia.
Since the moment Okafor was drafted to Philadelphia, there were questions about his fit on the team. The likes of Nerlens Noel and Joel Embiid already occupied spots on the team’s roster. Even in the same draft as Okafor, the Sixers selected another big man in Richaun Holmes.
While Noel was jettisoned to the Dallas Mavericks last season and Embiid seems to be healthy at the moment, Okafor is still left searching for minutes. In July, Philadelphia inked veteran big man Amir Johnson to a one-year deal, and he’s been selected to serve as Embiid’s primary back up so far this season.
In a vacuum, this certainly isn’t how many top-three draft picks would expect their early years of their NBA career to go. Okafor went throughout his entire basketball life up until this point as “the guy.” He was a top prospect coming out of high school, where he won state championships. He was the focal point of Duke’s offense when they won the national title. He was lauded as a generational back-to-the-basket talent.
But for the Sixers, it just never clicked.
The reasons why the Okafor-Philadelphia marriage is ending in divorce are duly noted. The Sixers get out and run. Okafor doesn’t do that. Brett Brown, the team’s head coach, values defense. Okafor doesn’t really do that either. But for all of the things that don’t click for Okafor and the Sixers may click somewhere else, and it’s about time the 21-year-old center is awarded that opportunity.
Okafor knows that, and he’s hoping the Sixers realize it sooner, rather than later.
“I was fine with that,” Okafor said after the announcement. “I honestly didn’t want them to pick up my option. I’ve been going through a lot since I’ve been here, so the fact that I know that at the end of the season that I’ll at least have an opportunity to play elsewhere, that’s great.”
Throughout this conundrum, Okafor has been nothing short of a pro’s pro. Certainly, there is expected frustration when a player who seems wholly capable of playing can’t get on the court. But in light of all that, Okafor has done his best to not create waves.
For the Sixers front office, and president of basketball operations Bryan Colangelo especially, the Okafor situation has been the stickiest thing they’ve had to endure since Sam Hinkie left his post in Philadelphia.
Hinkie drafted Okafor on the heels of Embiid and his second foot surgery, with Noel already waiting in the wings. Colangelo has been left to deal with how to move on from Okafor, and from all accounts, he’s held back from giving up the former No. 3 pick for a discounted price.
From Brown’s perspective, having to coach Okafor and manage his mental fortitude through this situation, it’s hard to not recognize the strain on a young player from a human element.
“There’s a part of it from a human side I understand,” Brown said Wednesday. “And I look at it with a few different vision lines. When I look at Jahlil, trying to help him move forward, whether that’s here or someplace else. Trying to make sure that we give him our best effort coaching him, and getting him lifting, and getting shots and playing basketball, although I’m not playing him.”
On the court this season, Okafor has appeared just one time, going for 10 points, nine rebounds, and two blocks in 22 minutes. That, however, was on a night where Embiid was out due to back-to-back games.
In Okafor’s mind, while choosing his own destiny next summer is a nice consolation prize, basketball is still his life, and he wants to play it as often as possible, as soon as possible.
“I’m just in a position to where, how can I get on the court,” Okafor said. “That’s not happening here and I want to play. And Bryan knows that, I’ve talked with him about it. And now it’s tough because my option didn’t get pick up. Teams are not really looking to give up anything when somebody can walk out of the door at the end of the season.”
Okafor’s solution to his current problem was asking the Sixers for a contract buyout, a request the team ultimately denied. Colangelo isn’t ready to give Okafor’s services to another team for free.
While a buyout is currently off the table, should the two sides reach an agreement, Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the Boston Celtics would be the big man’s most likely landing spot.
Until then, though, the tumultuous relationship between Okafor and the Sixers will have to continue on. Brown, left in the middle of all of the noise, as the team’s head coach sees it from both angles.
“I look at Bryan,” Brown said. “He’s inherited a situation, he’s trying to do the right thing by the organization. Jahlil’s done nothing wrong since he’s been here. He’s handled himself with class, and he’s been tremendous as a teammate. So you, you’ve got this sort of slippery slope of Bryan trying to do the best for the organization in a situation that he inherited, and Jahlil wanting to play basketball.
“And somewhere out there I’m always reminded with my young guys is, what is the high road, what’s the right thing to do? What would you want somebody to tell your son? All I know is to come in with your head high and do your job, and things will work out. I truly believe that.”
For the Philadelphia 76ers, their job should be getting Okafor on the court in a city where he has the opportunity to play. Ridding the organization of a situation that has gone on far too long is the best move for everyone involved, no matter how overdue it seems.
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