Murphy: The confounding stagnation of Jahlil Okafor

Murphy: The confounding stagnation of Jahlil Okafor

WITH A RESUME that features little more than three losing seasons, Brett Brown is a long way from landing a book contract. But if he ever does join the Phil Jacksons, Pat Rileys and George Karls of the publishing world, the chapter on Jahlil Okafor’s brief moment in time will make for a hell of a read.

Look at the Sixers roster, and count the number of players who have become better versions of themselves over the course of their time under Brown. T.J. McConnell, Nik Stauskus, Richaun Holmes all have improved upon or even reinvented critical aspects of their game over the last couple of seasons. Nerlens Noel might be Brown’s greatest success, having turned from a disgruntled offensive liability with an inflated opinion of his skill set to a determined and integral role player whose field goal and free throw percentages and turnover rate have showed drastic improvement in Year 3.

And then there’s Okafor.

When the Sixers selected him with the No. 3 pick in the 2015 draft out of Duke, NBA talent evaluators regarded him as one of the most technically skilled low-post scorers to come out of college in years, and everything we’ve seen in his 11/2 seasons in Philly has confirmed those evaluations. His footwork and body control rank among the best in the NBA. He works the block with hips that would make NFL scouts swoon. In 88 career games, he is averaging 15.1 points and shooting .511 from the field. Since 1980, only 21 other players have equaled or better those marks in their first two seasons in the league.

Stop me when you see a young player you wouldn’t be happy to have in your starting five: Karl-Anthony Towns (2016-17), Anthony Davis (2013-14), Blake Griffin (2011-12), Brook Lopez (2009-10), Yao Ming (2003-04), Pau Gasol (2002-03), Tim Duncan (1998-99), Chris Webber (1994-95), Shaquille O’Neal (1993-94), David Robinson (1990-91).

Yet as Okafor’s hourglass increasingly feels as if it is down to its last few grains of sand, you’d be hard-pressed to find anybody inside or outside the Sixers organization who views the wisdom of trading the big man as anything but a given. You definitely won’t find a counterargument here. As far as alternative viewpoints, the only one I might offer is that the Sixers have played the Okafor market as well as they could have, that their reluctance to trade him before now stems from the same rational understanding of market dynamics that the Phillies displayed when they held on to Cole Hamels instead of trading him at the 2014 deadline, when popular opinion suggested that to do so would be to hold on to a sunk cost whose value would only depreciate further.

What should the 76ers get in a Jahlil Okafor trade?

The Phillies’ patience paid off the following July, when the Rangers finally blinked and submitted the kind of offer few thought the Phillies would be able to get. In all likelihood, the Sixers have employed a similar logic in keeping Okafor in their portfolio rather than selling him for the best available offer. If the best available offer was one they thought would still be there at the Feb. 23 trade deadline, then why not hang on to the player and see whether time alters the calculus? The only thing worse than settling is settling too soon. Whether time has altered that calculus is one of those mysteries we might never know, though the Pelicans’ emergence as a potential suitor is certainly something new and not entirely foreseen.

Whatever happens, Okafor will remain one of the more confounding players in recent Philadelphia history. As skilled as he is at the offensive end of the court, he is difficult to watch everywhere else without screaming at your television, “Dude, don’t you want to be something more?” That, after all, was the hope when the Sixers drafted him. Everybody knew his physical limitations, but it wasn’t foolish to think that a professional amount of practice, conditioning and effort could neutralize those limitations. Much of what Okafor needed to do to become something more than the player everybody expected fell into the effort category: blocking out, attacking the ball in the air, banging like a big boy on the defensive block.

That’s not to suggest that Okafor is lazy or unmotivated or obstinate. But when a player has been as far ahead of his peers for as long as Okafor has been, he has a tendency to assume that the way he’s always done things at previous levels will again be good enough for this level. And, hey, if Okafor’s primary objective is to be good enough, he will continue to succeed. That’s how talented he is as a low-block scorer. But once a player reaches the highest level of his profession, he is surrounded by players who have been doing things their own way their entire careers, and the ones who tend to move to the forefront are the ones who do them better, longer and harder than everybody else. They are the ones who see “good enough” as the mortal enemy of “the best.”

I suspect that Brown has tried like hell to pound this message into Okafor over these last couple of years. In public, Brown has exuded his customary effervescence when talking about “Jah.” But his relegation of Okafor to back of the rotation doesn’t necessarily jibe with his public positivity.

Karl’s recent exposition on the trials and travails of coaching Carmelo Anthony offered a good look at how what we see on game nights tells us far less about the reality of a player/coach/team than what happens out of our site, behind the closed doors of practice. A peek behind those doors would be a fascinating and instructive thing.

dmurphy@phillynews.com

@ByDavidMurphy

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Published at Wed, 08 Feb 2017 04:06:17 +0000

Categories: Sixers

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