“You never thought the No. 2 and No. 3 picks would be playing on the same team a few years after,” said Okafor, who dressed but did not play on Tuesday night in the Nets’ 103-98 victory against the Washington Wizards at Barclays Center. “Everything happens for a reason.”
The only explanation the Nets needed to justify this deal was that it is virtually risk-free for a draft-starved franchise. Rare is the 6-foot 11-inch center — especially one who averaged 17.5 points and 7 rebounds as a rookie — who is available in exchange for a 30-year-old journeyman forward (Trevor Booker).
The Nets also nabbed a shooting guard, Nik Stauskas, and a 2019 second-round pick, which demonstrated how badly the 76ers wanted Okafor gone.
Joel Embiid, who evicted Okafor from his low-post perch in Philadelphia, is a multiskilled force of nature. Okafor must cope with contemporary N.B.A. scripture that states that centers best known for playing with their backs to the basket and not for their defense shouldn’t be franchise centerpieces.
As president of the Knicks, Isiah Thomas once traded a trove of picks (one turned into LaMarcus Aldridge and another — irony alert — became Joakim Noah) for the young Eddy Curry. A 6-11 post player who, like Okafor, came out of Chicago, Curry’s 2006-7 numbers (19.5 points and 7 rebounds) in with the Knicks were similar to what Okafor achieved as a rookie in 2015-16. But Curry’s career deteriorated not long after that season.
With Okafor turning 22 on Friday, to suggest he is the second coming of Curry would be as unfair as it was to compare him to Tim Duncan during his one season at Duke.
Asked about Okafor in a telephone interview, Thomas, also a native of Chicago, said, “I know Jahlil. I know the dad. A good kid with talent. At Philly, whatever situation he got into, it didn’t work out. But at the end of the day, he’s got to have a coach that wants to coach big men.”
Don’t get Thomas started on the extremist thinking that he thinks has the N.B.A. too fixated on one style of play — a style he considers to be too perimeter-centric and dismissive of old-school post skills.
“It’s always had a place for all kinds of players and styles of play — that’s what made it so great,” he said of the league. “But there are times now when it looks like a 6-6-and-under league.”
Embiid, Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Davis, Kristaps Porzingis, and others would beg to differ. But Thomas’s greater point was that Kenny Atkinson, the Nets’ coach, should utilize Okafor’s strengths while simultaneously pushing him to improve his weaknesses.
Consider that much of the applause for the 7-foot-3 Porzingis’s competitive growth with the Knicks this season has been related to his increased lower body strength, allowing him to better establish position for a short turnaround jumper that is virtually impossible to defend.
Drafted one spot behind Okafor, Porzingis is also a serious perimeter threat from deep, while Okafor can comfortably shoot it from up to around 15 feet. He does know that under Atkinson last season, the 7-foot Brook Lopez became a legitimate 3-point threat.
Okafor said he’s been working on his range while admitting the time has come to repair his reputation.
At Duke, Coach Mike Krzyzewski predicted that Okafor would be “a franchise player” and “a franchise person.” Around the same time, Len Elmore, a former pro center and a television analyst who covered Okafor’s games at Duke, warned against overhyping a 19-year-old who was likely to land on a very bad team.
Without veteran leadership, the young 76ers were 10-72 during Okafor’s rookie season. He made it worse by being caught on video brawling outside a Boston nightclub and being cited for driving more than 100 miles per hour over the Ben Franklin Bridge in Philadelphia.
“When he was drafted, the Sixers bought into his college basketball program hype and did not investigate deeper, where I am sure they would have found that, like most of us, Okafor had character flaws that evidenced he was far from a perfect person or player,” Elmore said in an email. “I guess if he was the 23rd pick instead of the 3rd pick, he would be seen as a gifted offensive player in search of the right team instead of a bust.”
Elmore added: “He wasn’t/isn’t a bust. His two biggest problems seem to be the on-court incompatibility with a better talent in Embiid and his slow maturity evidenced by his off-the-court issues.”
Some young players — Embiid would appear to be one of them — can remake the mold. Most need time and the right situational fit.
“Like Victor Oladipo,” said Thomas, referring to the Indiana Pacers’ guard who is a having a breakout year in his fifth N.B.A. season after being acquired from Oklahoma City in the Paul George trade last summer.
In the case of Curry, Thomas said his career stalled just as Mike D’Antoni took over as the Knicks’ coach and brought his speedball game with him. Injuries didn’t help, nor did the common belief that Curry wasn’t willing to do the obligatory work.
It’s too soon to say how inspired Okafor will be after playing all of 25 minutes in two games for the 76ers this season. But he has been on a vegan diet, dropped 20 pounds and said, of the Nets: “I’m buying into whatever they want me to do. Full-fledge, I’m all in.”
In the low post or a few feet removed, that would be the best figurative place to start.