There is a toughness and a competitiveness and a demanding, non-negotiable stance that you can’t help but bring with you, it’s highly-influencing. I am a defensive coach, I see the game through defense. All coaches when it gets down—especially in big games—we’re all crying to find ways, ‘How do we score? How do we score?’ I get it, you win games putting the ball in the hole too. His defensive mentality and his accountability and his toughness has tremendously influenced me.
That quote is what Brett Brown told reporters on his very first day on the job in Philadelphia, as he sat alongside Sam Hinkie and described the impact Gregg Popovich had on him as a coach. If it wasn’t clear then, it has become clear now—a player like Jahlil Okafor was never built to thrive on a Brown-coached team.
A charitable narrator would note Okafor’s problems were not all self-inflicted. It’s unclear if we’ve seen him at full strength at any time since his meniscus surgery last March, and as you may have heard, he was the team’s third center drafted in three years. For the bulk of two seasons in Philadelphia, he has been forced into a high-burden role on defense he was never suited to play.
But that’s sort of the problem. Bigs who can’t defend pick and rolls get played off the court unless they have outlier skills in the shooting and rebounding departments. The team context is no excuse for an inconsistent (at best) motor, an insistence on playing iso-heavy basketball, and failing to even react to plays unfolding right in front of his face.
We’ve been over this. The Sixers are ready to move on, and despite saying all the right things after this year’s trade deadline, Okafor knows he’d be better off elsewhere. His team is preparing to build around another center, has found a backup center who fits the team’s style, and will be adding a nearly seven-foot point guard who will prompt the team to play a more up-tempo brand of hoops from the moment he (finally) steps on the court.
To borrow from a previous piece for a moment:
While Okafor can certainly shoulder an offensive burden, we have yet to see evidence that he can live up to the primary responsibilities of a center on a successful NBA team. Using Okafor as Embiid insurance is the equivalent of getting a stack of sconces after your house burns down.
This looks favorable to Okafor in retrospect. Not even playing alongside Joel Embiid—a defensive prospect so gifted he transformed lineups with Nik Stauskas and Ersan Ilysaova into one of the league’s stoutest combinations—could stop Okafor from being a massive negative in his second season.
The Sixers have bent over backwards to accommodate Okafor. They started Okafor alongside Nerlens Noel, pushed Noel out of position to allow him to settle in at center, played him alongside Joel Embiid, and then used Okafor as the primary backup behind Embiid until Noel’s play in a second-string role made it impossible for a coach to justify playing Okafor anymore. Amongst his strongest supporters, there has been an outcry about fans and writers, “never giving him a chance,” but the truth is he rarely capitalized on the bounty of chances he was afforded.
Being a good guy and a supportive teammate, admirable though it may be, wears out its welcome after you get caught sleeping on a backdoor cut for the 75th time. All the best to Okafor in his future endeavors; I hope his knee heals back to 100 percent, I hope he finds a place where the expectations are dialed back, and I hope he has the career a lot of people believed he could.
But in the immortal words of Cosmo Kramer:
What would you do with Jahlil Okafor?
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