Jahlil Okafor underwent successful surgery to repair a meniscus tear in his right knee on March 22nd. At least, that was the widely-circulated story put forth by the team and echoed by reporters covering the story.
We’re now halfway through October, and Okafor has yet to suit up for the team. Nearly seven months clear of that arthroscopic procedure, the team is framing updates on his health like so (bold emphasis mine):
Continuing to rehab his right knee, Jahlil Okafor participated in Friday’s practice on a limited basis. His activities were restricted to individual load management, and some scripted on-court work.
To judge the extent of the progress that the third pick of the 2015 draft is making, Brett Brown monitors “movement.”
“It’s both north-south, and east-west,” Brown said of Okafor. “Can he slide his feet? Can he run rim-to-rim both ways, both those directions. I just look at movement, free-flowing fluid movement.”
When Okafor does ultimately return to the floor, Brown believes the big man will be well-prepared to handle the accompanying physical demands.
There is no normal timeframe that exists where it takes a professional basketball player seven months to recover from a minor meniscus procedure, where he’s still said to be doing “rehab” for his knee. But you don’t have take my word for it.
Brett Brown was positive regarding the nature of the surgery and the timeframe back in March:
In some ways (it's relief) because you get nervous. It's a 10-minute procedure, it's six weeks and we get going again. It is fair. You do sort of take a deep breath and say, 'That's not terrible. That's not bad.'
Okafor himself discussed discovery of the issue, and feeling relieved when the “minor” problem was identified:
I was worried about what was going on with my knee. I didn't know. It was super uncomfortable when I was on the treadmill. It was kind of a sigh of relief because I now know what is going on with my knee and that it was something minor. It was good to know what was finally going on.
In early June, Okafor appeared on a podcast with Duke assistant Jon Scheyer and said he hoped to be cleared over the weekend.
I’m getting anxious. I got in trouble a week and a half ago for going out there and shooting. The biggest problem is my knee feels really good. So I want to go out there and shoot.
In July, Okafor dismissed the idea of being behind schedule:
Everything is going well. I'm healthy. I'm back. I worked out with some coaches today. It was fun.
They are not withholding me from anything. I'm pretty much able to do anything they need me to do.
Everything is up to schedule. I feel fine.
Okafor would reiterate he was “100 percent” healthy on September 28th, despite the team’s stated preference to keep him out of scrimmages. This was not a case of a player speaking out of turn — the team believed he was “fully healed” by mid-July at the latest.
Liberty Ballers reached out to the Sixers this week to see if they had any updates or comments on the situation beyond what is public knowledge. A request for comment was not immediately returned.
Staying quiet isn’t exactly new for the Sixers. The team actively tried to weaponize silence under Sam Hinkie, using the public desires of other teams to hurt opponents in trade negotiations. They’ve also faced negative consequences for being overly eager regarding recovery timelines — the Andrew Bynum saga became a saga because the team kept setting expectations the big man couldn’t meet. You can understand why they would tread carefully with injury information.
There’s a difference, however, between caution and misdirection. We not only passed the initial expectations set by the organization, we’ve lapped them several times over. The updates we’ve been made privy to have been nothing but positive regarding his health, yet he hasn’t participated in a scrimmage since the first day of training camp.
There are a number of possible explanations for this. It’s possible the procedure revealed a larger issue that necessitated a different timeline. It’s possible something went wrong with surgery or in rehab, forcing the team to adjust the date of his return to action. Given Okafor’s own comments about getting in trouble with the team, he might have been a victim of his own eagerness to play.
It’s impossible to say, and I don’t want to encourage overzealous speculation about what’s going on*. In the spirit of Hanlon’s razor, I also don’t want to assign malice to the Sixers when this could be explained by misunderstanding or miscommunication. They are on a mission to sell fans on a new, “open” regime, and actively hiding theoretical issues with one of their big-name players seems to cut against that ideal.
*One exception where I’ll outright reject the premise — some people are convinced he and Noel are being held out because of possible trades. That might make sense for Noel, who is dealing with a minor issue, but holding back a player whose season was cut short by surgery only makes it appear they’re hiding something from possible suitors, a la the Jrue Holiday fiasco. It would actively damage his value to withhold him from playing if indeed he is capable of doing so.
Still, things aren’t adding up here. We’re less than two weeks from opening night, and the team has yet to trust Okafor’s knee enough to put him through full-scale tests. He may well play soon, but even that shouldn’t put to rest questions about why it took so long to get him back in the mix.
If patience and caution were trademarks for the last regime, accountability and progress have been earmarked as priorities for the new group in charge. Offering an explanation for the disconnect between their words and actions would be a good start.