When Jahlil Okafor was languishing on the bench for the Philadelphia 76ers earlier this season, a “Free Jah” movement began in support of the young center. The idea was that Okafor’s talent was being wasted in Philly and the 2015 No. 3 pick would blossom on a new team with an enhanced opportunity.
The 76ers finally found a trade partner in early December, sending Okafor, Nik Stauskas and a 2019 second-round pick to the Brooklyn Nets for veteran Trevor Booker. It was a worthwhile gamble for Net general manager Sean Marks, despite all the warning signs about Okafor. Brooklyn has to take chances on young talent given its awful draft pick situation, and getting not only Okafor but Stauskas and a second-round pick for a veteran like Booker was a no-brainer.
Unfortunately for the Nets and to the delight of the Cleveland Cavaliers, Okafor has helped tank Brooklyn in a year when tanking doesn’t benefit them.
Okafor’s Net career got off to an ominous start when the team revealed that it was going to take some time before the big man joined the rotation because he wasn’t in shape. He picked up four straight DNPs before playing in one game and then missing the next nine. He has played in every game since Jan. 3, but the minutes have been spotty and he hasn’t played more than 25 minutes in a game yet.
Why, you might ask?
The Nets are an absolute disaster when Okafor is on the court.
Brooklyn actually won Okafor’s first game as a member of the regular rotation, a 98-97 thriller over the Minnesota Timberwolves (Okafor didn’t do much in his 11 minutes). That win moved the Nets to a semi-respectable 15-23 on the season. There was even some chatter that the presence of Okafor and the return of D’Angelo Russell could spark a playoff push.
Since that win, though, the Nets have gone 4-16 to drop to 19-39 on the year. Instead of helping a playoff push, Okafor’s presence has helped push them way down the standings to get Cavaliers fans excited about their pick (currently at No. 7 but a game out of the worst record). In his 263 minutes of action since joining the rotation, Brooklyn has been outscored by a whopping 24.5 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. The Nets have scored just 91.6 points per 100 possessions (would be the worst offensive rating in the league) and have allowed 116.1 points per 100 possessions (worst defensive rating in the league) in those minutes. Their pace also slows to a crawling rate of 96.46 possessions per 48 minutes (second-slowest pace in the league).
Compare this to when Okafor has been on the bench. Over this same stretch, the Nets have only been outscored by 2.5 points per 100 possessions in his 765 minutes on the pine. That still isn’t good, but it’s not terrible. The offensive rating jumps to 104.9 and defensive rating falls to 107.4. The pace rises to 99.25, which is more indicative of the Nets’ preferred faster pace.
The numbers are even more jarring when looking at Brooklyn’s current six-game losing streak. Okafor has played 77 minutes during the losing streak, and the Nets have been outscored by 70 points in that time (a minus-44.6 net rating). In his 221 minutes on the bench, Brooklyn has outscored its opponents by 10 points (plus-0.6 net rating).
Okafor’s problems remain the same: He’s a dinosaur in this iteration of the NBA. His scoring numbers look okay (17.2 points per 36 minutes on 54.1 percent shooting with Nets), but he slows things down too much and doesn’t stretch the floor at all. His presence can bog down an offense.
Defensively, it’s a disaster. He’s slow-footed and teams attack him relentlessly. He doesn’t force steals and doesn’t protect the rim effectively despite a mammoth 7-foot-6 wingspan. He lacks awareness.
This play pretty much sums up Okafor’s defense:
Everyone needs to watch this. How the hell did NONE of the three referees call Jahlil Okafor for three-in-the-key here? He was in the paint for 12 seconds before getting near anyone. pic.twitter.com/fUCibTmk4a
— Justin Russo (@FlyByKnite) February 13, 2018
Okafor camped in the lane forever (apparently there was no whistle because he was “guarding the pick-and-roll”), but he still got scored on and allowed an and-1 because he’s not enough of a deterrent.
Okafor isn’t totally to blame for the Nets’ downturn. He doesn’t play many minutes and injuries have hurt the team. You could also argue that Okafor still needs more time in the Nets’ system to get comfortable. It’s not totally fair to judge somebody on roughly 300 minutes on a new team.
However, these results are no different compared to what happened in Philly. The Sixers were typically far worse when he was on the floor. There was a reason why he fell out of favor with the coaching staff and didn’t play.
This doesn’t necessarily mean Okafor’s NBA career is finished. Maybe he will turn things around the rest of this season. Maybe he will get another shot next year.
But time is running out, and it’s looking like it would be a major upset if he ever became a significant contributor on a good team. At this point, becoming a positive contributor on any team would be a win.