The rise and fall of Jahlil Okafor leaves Sixers in a tough spot


Jahlil Okafor has sat on the bench for all 144 minutes of the last three games and it wasn’t because he was injured. The former Duke standout has fallen out of the robust rotation of big men. It’s hard to believe he’s plummeted from such stardom but it happened and it doesn’t look like things will change barring injury or trade any time soon.

As the 2015 draft approached, Karl-Anthony Towns, a big man from Kentucky was the clear top pick. There were whispers of a potential shocking selection but that didn’t come to fruition and the Minnesota Timberwolves made him the top pick. The Los Angeles Lakers had the second overall pick. At the time many pundits expected them to select the Duke big man but there were rumors in the eleventh hour that they might take another freshman stud, point guard D’Angelo Russell from Ohio State University.

When the Lakers ended up taking Russell, it forced the Sixers hand. Philly’s General Manager Sam Hinkie was an ardent believer in picking the best available talent not selecting for need, which still is at the guard position. Alas, Jahlil Okafor was the third overall selection to the Philadelphia Sixers, making him the third center in a row selected by the franchise.

At the time, the selection was incomprehensible to some considering the past two drafts. The year before, the Sixers selected Joel Embiid and in the draft prior to that, they got Nerlens Noel. It’s one thing to draft players at positions that are needs, but it’s another to consistently invest high lottery picks for players that cannot play on the court at the same time. While everyone predicted the conundrum that would ensue, the front office had time to figure out the logjam with Embiid out for a second consecutive year.

Jahlil Okafor’s rookie year was eventful both on and off the court. He was pulled over in the first month of the season on the Benjamin Franklin Bridge between Philadelphia and Camden, New Jersey for going 108 mph in a 45 mph zone. Weeks later, a video surfaced of Okafor fighting with some hecklers outside of a Boston club. Questions began to surface about how such a young team was handling the constant losing and embarrassment.

On the court though, Jahlil Okafor proved to be an offensive stud. He showed a litany of low post moves, a smooth jumper and great footwork. Okafor led the team averaging 17.5 points per game and was second on the team in rebounds per game, averaging 7. But Okafor’s defensive abilities and effort was anemic. There were constant mental lapses and errors in judgment. Jahlil Okafor’s rookie campaign concluded with being elected to the NBA All Rookie First Team. Even his seemingly successful season could not stop the media from reminding everyone they have three starting caliber centers.

 With Joel Embiid healthy and playing brilliantly, he ascended to the top of the center depth chart within days of making his professional debut. From that moment on, Okafor was relegated to, when healthy, coming off the bench. His minutes, points, assist and pretty much every other statistic is lower than last year. But the most shocking part of his descent is how his value plunged across the league.

Less than two years ago, Jahlil Okafor was playing his only year of college basketball at Duke University. He led the team to the National Championship and was picked third overall. And now, the Sixers can barely find a team willing to take him off their hands. The Denver Nuggets selected Emmanuel Mudiay from China five picks after Okafor. The Sixers were looking for a guard, and thought there was such a difference in skill level between Mudiay and Okafor that they chose the Duke star. The Suns selected Devin Booker thirteenth overall. Now, a year and half after the 2015 draft, neither the Nuggets or Suns would realistically give up the player who they selected later in the first round for Okafor.

Leading up to any NBA Draft, having the third overall pick would be viewed as an unbelievably valuable asset. Teams looking to move up in the draft would have to offer a bevy of picks and players. Now, as Sixers GM Jerry Colangelo looks for willing trade partners, teams don’t seem likely to give up a late first round pick. From being picked third overall to not being able to get a first round pick in exchange, is a tremendous drop in value and it’s amazing to see such upheaval so quickly in his career.

Jahlil Okafor’s long term NBA future is not in the City Of Brotherly Love. But the longer he sits on the bench, the less the Sixers will get in return for the former third overall pick. It’s hard to believe his value across the NBA has decreased so significantly but it’s time to give up and accept that the return will only go down the longer Colangelo waits to pull the trigger. Long live the process!