Philadelphia 76ers: Can Jahlil Okafor actually stick with the Hawks?

(Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
(Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images) /

Earlier this month, I asked a simple question: Can former Philadelphia 76ers third-overall draft pick Jahlil Okafor (re)find a home in Brooklyn?

As it turns out, the answer to that question was a profound no.

Less than a week after being traded to the Brooklyn Nets alongside Sekou Doumbouya for the contract of DeAndre Jordan and four second-round picks, the former member of the Detroit Pistons was unceremoniously waived to free up a roster spot to sign Paul Millsap.

Was that the right move? Oh heck yeah. Even if Okafor is 11 years younger than Millsap, he is undoubtedly a worse fit for what Steve Nash and company are looking to do and what the NBA is looking to do in general.

Still, even if his throwback style of center play hasn’t been in vogue at the NBA level since there was malice in the palace doesn’t mean the league as a whole is ready to give up on the somehow-only-25-year-old. No, after roughly a week on the open market, the Philadelphia 76ers’ former first-round pick just signed a non-guaranteed contract with Atlanta Hawks to compete for a roster spot heading into the 2021-22 NBA season.

But does Jahlil Okafor actually have a chance to stick with Nate McMillan‘s squad? That, my friends, is a question worth pondering.

Could the Philadelphia 76ers have to face off against Jahlil Okafor this fall?

As things presently stand, the Atlanta Hawks have either four or five centers on their training camp roster, depending on how you classify Onyeka Okongwu, the sixth overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft.

Starting at the five is Clint Capela, the Daryl Morey draftee who was acquired from Houston in a four-team deal that cost the Hawks Evan Turner, a first-round pick and a second-round pick. While Capela isn’t a prototypical floor-stretcher a la Karl-Anthony Towns or Joel Embiid, he’s still a very athletic screener who has developed a very nice two-man game opposite Trae Young.

Assuming Capela continues to average roughly 30 minutes of action a night in his second season in Atlanta, that would leave the Hawks with roughly 18 minutes at the five spot left to fill each night.

Could Okafor do that job? Potentially, but giving the minutes to Okongwu and 2021 free agent acquisition, Gorgui Dieng, feels a tad more likely.

Measuring in at 6-foot-8, 235 pounds, Okongwu is still a very raw offensive player, but he makes up for it with impressive athletic gifts, statistically efficient rebounding, and an ability to defend multiple positions across the court. While Okongwu did undergo right shoulder surgery back in July that could keep him out of action for the next six-ish months, he should be back in action by January with over half of the NBA season still left to play.

And as for Dieng? Well, he’s about as versatile a big man as you’ll find in the NBA today and should be able to pick up the slack while Okongwu is out of action and even play alongside him with the duo alternating between the four and the five.

Factor in the presence of Johnny Hamilton, an international journeyman that the team signed on August 11th, and Danilo Gallinari, who is big enough to play any frontcourt position in shooter-focused looks, and Okafor’s path to the 15 man roster is pretty hard to identify.

Best case scenario? Okafor ends up as the Hawks’ 15th man and plays a few minutes here and there in garbage time, just like he did for the Detroit Pistons in 2020-21.

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Was Sam Hinkie wrong to draft Jahlil Okafor third overall back in 2015? Yes. Has that decision both haunted the former Dukie’s professional career ever since and simultaneously kept him employed a whole lot longer than a lesser drafted player the Association over? Yes as well. But frankly, that doesn’t matter now. What’s done is done, and for Okafor to actually continue on with his career, he can’t continue to focus on how the Philadelphia 76ers started his career. All he can do is pick teams with openings at center and hope that his paint-scoring dominance catches the eye of a general manager. Unfortunately, that doesn’t appear to be the Atlanta Hawks, as they have a loaded frontcourt and don’t typically rely on the sort of player Okafor is at this point in his career.