Since the day he was selected with the No. 3 overall draft pick, Jahlil Okafor has been the protagonist in various trade rumors. His starring role there makes total sense; the Sixers frontcourt was crowded prior to his arrival, a problem exacerbated by his presence.
That I have to preface a blurb about keeping or kicking Okafor with this fact is telling. Through no fault of his own, Okafor's play has often taken a backseat to the idea of Okafor within the context of the Sixers future. That's a heavy mental burden to carry for a 19-year-old rookie already tasked with buoying an anemic offense.
Middle ground has been hard to find. Supporters can point to the obvious -- Okafor's post-game was to be expected -- but there were a number of nice surprises as well. His free-throw percentage jumped 17 points (51 to 68) between college and the pros, and his ability to attack defenders off-the-bounce outstripped expectations. As the season rolled along, Okafor's touch was put on on display further and further from the basket.
Detractors have an equally strong case. Okafor's defense in one-on-one situations was decent, if unspectacular, but his lack of speed mentally and physically was frequently exposed by opponents. His problems were two-fold; Okafor was often unable to keep players in front of him in space and unable to diagnose plays quick enough to make the correct rotation or decision.
Possessing both flaws makes his path to becoming a decent defender arduous. If he was a better athlete he could paper over his awareness lapses with greater ease, and sharper instincts would hide his lack of athleticism in many cases. Okafor was put in a bad spot with a variety of poor defenders on the Sixers amplifying his shortcomings, but they are legitimate weaknesses all the same.
For this writer, the concerns outweigh what I think he brings to the table.
This is not to say I think he can't be a valuable player, and in fact my preference to trade him reflects my stance that he is the most currently valuable piece on the team. Still, his very existence on a roster raises the stakes for every step of the team-building process. A lot of the focus on Okafor's odd fit is his defensive and rebounding profile, which sells the problem short.
Okafor's problem stems from a single word: activity. The methodical act of breaking down an offense from the post ticks precious seconds off the clock and guarantees the constant presence of a defender in the paint. If plays are continually being called to get a player like Okafor the ball in the post, you are taking a would-be screener out of the equation for perimeter ball-handlers and camping him directly in their path on the way to the rim. It is a stagnant way to play basketball in the same way late-quarter isos are, the difference being most teams have shifted away from the latter except in extreme circumstances.
Even if you think Okafor can become the LeBron James or Kobe Bryant of post-ups, defying the odds of inefficiency with supreme skill, his profile doesn't compare favorably with the type of post players history proved to be worth building around. Hakeem Olajuwon was a transcendent defender and quick on his feet from playing soccer. Shaquille O'Neal was a freight-train athlete. Hell, even a second banana like Pau Gasol was an elite-passing big man long capable of operating out of the high post, in addition to being a pretty good defender in his prime.
Some may believe Okafor's skills (and aforementioned quick improvement) suggest he can become more of a hybrid-style player offensively, but I don't see it. For one, slimming down to play more of a power-forward style on offense may take away one of his few legitimate strengths on the defensive end; in leveraging his girth to open up his offense, you are robbing Peter to pay Paul. If the argument is you would make him more mobile in space and perhaps make him a better rim protector, I think you are underestimating the boost in athleticism and uptick in awareness he'd need to make that a reality.
While this sounds grim, the right supporting cast could unlock the potential we've seen flashes of at Duke and in Philadelphia. Despite the appeal of acquiring the No. 3 pick (and possibly more), sending him to Boston in any exchange scares me because of the combination of players they currently have on board. Their ball-hawking guards (Marcus Smart, Avery Bradley) and flexible wings (namely Jae Crowder) would go a long way toward hiding his problem spots.
On the other hand, the Celtics (and similarly built teams) are exceptions in their ability to acquire so many good defensive and three-point threats. The premium paid for three-and-D players limits how many a team can afford to keep on any roster, particularly if you have real stars commanding max money. Okafor is not yet ready to be the player who powers a legitimately great offense -- the level he'd need to push one to in order to make his defense palatable -- and by the time he is, I fear the salary he'd command would make it cost prohibitive for a franchise to keep the amount of players you'd need to have around him to hide his defense.
In spite of this, Okafor is the most currently valuable of the Sixers big man triumvirate, if only because Embiid's value has hit its valley and Noel is due up for an extension. Some people have expressed sentiment that they would wait for Embiid's health to become clearer before dealing him, but I think that concern misses the point.
Locking yourself into a sub-optimal option if you don't truly believe he's a real answer is nonsense. If plans to buy your dream home fell through, you wouldn't use that failure to justify staying locked in on a different property built on a poor foundation. Instead, you continue to search the market for something that best suits your needs and provides peace of mind for the foreseeable future.
I think Jahlil Okafor can be a valuable NBA player, but the standards I use to judge him are higher than the other players profiled in this series. In an ideal world, I'd choose not to hitch my star to him, and while I wish him all the best for his career, I hope the Sixers don't either.