Philadelphia 76ers: Wait, is Jahlil Okafor good now?

(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images) /

With Anthony Davis out for the foreseeable future, ex-Philadelphia 76ers center Jahlil Okafor has somehow become an invaluable piece in New Orleans.

Six months ago Jahlil Okafor was a basketball afterthought; with many wondering whether or not the third overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft had played his final minutes in the NBA.

And at the time, it was a fair question.

At the time, the Brooklyn Nets, his second team of the 2017-18 season opted against resigning the former Philadelphia 76ers draftee, and instead allowed the seldom-used center hit the open market; A market that was hardly robust.

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To most GM’s around the league, Okafor looks like a product of a bygone era; a throwback 90’s style big with no range, little hops, and virtually no switchability

There were rumors that someone would take a flyer on the former Dukie based on his pedigree alone, but as July turned into August Okafor remained unsigned

Some even suggested that Okafor’s best bet to return to form involved a detour to China or Europe, in an attempt to rehab his career in a lower pressure situation.

But then a call from New Orleans Pelicans general manager Dell Demps change the entire narrative.

You see, Demps had attempted to trade for Okafor a year earlier at the 2017 NBA trade deadline, a move that would have shipped Alexis Ajinca and a future first-round pick to Philadelphia. While that obviously didn’t go down, as the Pelicans instead opted to take a shot at the DeMarcus Cousins sweepstakes and flipped their own draft underachiever Buddy Hield, additional players, and two 2017 draft picks for the then-Kings center the following spring, Okafor clearly remained a player of interest within the organization.

After letting both Cousins and Rajon Rondo walk in free agency, the Demps opted to fill their vacant positions with younger, higher upside talent like Elfrid Payton, Julius Randle, and ultimately signed Okafor on August 9th to a one-year contract (with a 2019 club option).

Fast forward to late January, and Okafor may be the only one of the three players with a long-term future in New Orleans.

But not at first.

Initially, Okafor was asked to fill a very similar role to that of his stint in Brooklyn, a spot player mostly logging cleanup minutes with the reserves. Over the first 48 games of the season, Okafor averaged 5.4 minutes of action a night, including 20 DNPs with a stat line of 2.5 points and 1.6 rebounds to show for his efforts.

However, when Anthony Davis went down with a finger injury in mid-January, suddenly everything changed.

Suddenly thrust into a starting role, Okafor excelled in the low-pressure situation; averaging a 21.2 and 11 double-double over the last five games.

Sure, the sample size is small, but those numbers are impressive no matter how you slice it.

It’s like three coaches into his NBA career, somebody finally figured out how to utilize Okafor’s strengths, and mitigate his weaknesses: the Nikola Jokic model.

After spending years attempting to fit Okafor’s square peg into a round hole, Pelican’s head coach Alvin Gentry finally allowed the 6-foot-11 center to play his brand of basketball; taking the ball in the paint, winding down the shot clock, and passing the ball to an open teammate for a better look.

Though it seems crazy based on his performance in Philadelphia, Okafor was actually a pretty great big man passer in college, an element of his game that has up until recently not been explored in a professional capacity.

Without the need to park it at the three-point line, or attempt to switch off on the defensive end of the court, Okafor has been able to play to his strengths, while otherwise avoiding the typical pitfalls associated with a more advanced role.

And it’s not just on-court adjustments that have made Okafor flash his Duke brilliance at the NBA level, no, for the first time in years, Big Jah looks like he’s having a good time. Okafor’s playing loose, playing fast (for him) and seemingly scoring the ball at will.

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Now just a guy, as opposed to a draft bust who should have been Kristaps Porzingis, Okafor has become a force for the struggling Pelicans and will all but certainly serve as the team’s offensive centerpiece as they navigate the waters of an All-NBA players’ mid-season trade request. Will they lose a lot of game? Most definitely, but Jahlil Okafor is a starting center in the NBA once more; a thought that seemed almost impossible two seasons ago when he was riding the bench in Philadelphia