A season removed from the “FREE JAH” shirts his father wore to 76ers games, two years after Philly fans walked by him in first class and wished him well over a potential trade that never matriculated and four years after he was the third overall pick in the 2015 NBA draft, Jahlil Okafor is still churning in purgatory.
The former McDonald’s All-American, consensus top recruit of his class, ACC Player of the Year, National Player of the Year runner-up and NCAA national champion now plays in a league where many consider his biggest strengths archaic. He grinds for an organization filled with some of his biggest supporters, yet his best chances to display his talents only came when the franchise’s pillar conjured up a storm of controversy.
In so many ways, Okafor’s NBA future and his legacy as a professional basketball player is out of his hands. It depends on the Pelicans, who hold his team option for next season, on his own finicky health and on the health and trade status of other big men on the New Orleans roster.
The 2018-19 season hasn’t played out perfectly for Okafor but could have been much, much worse — similar to the wide range of opinions of him around the league. Should the 2015 NBA draft be re-ranked in 20 years, he likely won’t end up as one of the three most successful players, but there’s a good chance the Duke alumnus outperforms the idea of a player who was essentially benched for the majority of his third year in the league.
So what's next? After a year that many saw as his make-or-break season, Okafor has yet to reach his own high standards for his NBA career, but the stats show the backup center deserves at least one more season to prove himself.
“I belong. I can really dominate in this league,” he said. “That’s something I’ve always believed, just like my rookie season. I was able to go out and play well, and parts of this season have just been a reconfirmation that I can play well in this league.”
Teammate and longtime friend Stanley Johnson believes that, too.
“It’s not like what he was doing didn’t work well,” Johnson said. “He’s just getting the opportunity to work on it here and do it to his full potential and do it the way he was brought up his whole life, and that’s ‘I’m on the block, and I get it at 12 feet, and we’ll see who can get to the basket faster.’ ”
Early in Wednesday’s game against the Hornets, Okafor proved, emphatically, that he can still do just that. After catching a pass from Elfrid Payton just inside the free-throw line, he sized up Bismack Biyombo, back to the basket. A quick dribble fake gave Okafor the edge on the baseline; he drove hard under the basket, leapt and threw down a reverse one-handed slam that brought portions of the Pelicans bench to its feet.
At that point, in less than five minutes of action, Okafor had racked up four points, four rebounds and two blocks against a team then still alive in the playoff race. The fact he’s still churning out rim-rattling dunks that resemble those on old YouTube highlight reels is a testament to the drive of a player who didn't have a guaranteed roster spot going into his fourth NBA season.
“Being a top-three pick, that’s not something you’d foresee,” said Okafor about the contract he signed in August with the Pelicans, which only guaranteed him a spot in training camp and carries a team option for 2019-2020. “But it is what it is. I just want to play the game that I love.”
He was coming off a 2017-18 season that eerily resembled each of his first two in the league, appearing in just four of the final 24 games for the Brooklyn Nets.
The early days of Okafor’s NBA career fit the bill with his status as a No. 3 pick — he appeared in 53 of Philadelphia’s first 59 games and averaged 17.5 points, 7.0 rebounds and 1.2 blocks for a historically bad team. But a late-season knee injury not only prematurely ended his rookie year; it put him behind fellow injury-plagued 76ers center Joel Embiid — who missed his first two full seasons in the league following the 2014 NBA draft. Okafor started just six of his team’s first 20 games in 2016 and averaged 11.2 points and 4.4 rebounds in about 22 minutes per game.
Soon, Okafor began racking up DNPs as the Sixers began floating his name in trade discussions. He responded to a four-game absence in January 2017 with 26 points and nine rebounds against the Wizards and later scored a season-high 28.
But in the face of the statistics, Okafor was no longer part of The Process in Philadelphia. His game represented the classic case of “It’s not me, it’s you.”
That's why the Pelicans gave him a meager contract offer, while Karl-Anthony Towns, another big man from the same draft class, signed a super-max deal of five years and $190 million a month later.
“I just think he needed to be in the right situation,” said Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry in January. “Sometimes, it takes a couple stops for guys to be that way, but he’s been really good for us, and I think he’s been really good because he’s put in the work.”
The brunt of that work came when it looked as if Okafor would hardly ever take the court. In the first 31 games, Okafor played all of 70 minutes and only appeared in 13 games, all for a team hovering around the .500 mark at 15-16.
If he couldn’t make it on an average team, would he ever?
In a way, Okafor’s rocky NBA history prepared him for that stretch.
“If you come in before practice, he’s in there putting in the work, and after practice, he’s still putting in the work,” Gentry said. “The biggest thing for me is that he went through that stretch where he had a lot of DNPs and that didn’t affect him. He came back the next day and worked that much harder.
“I told him ‘At some stage, you’ll get an opportunity. You just have to be ready.’ ”
“That meant a ton,” Okafor said of Gentry’s confidence in the young journeyman. “I didn’t want anyone to get injured, but I knew it would happen at some point. I just had to stay in my mind and make sure I was ready.”
As quickly as a superstar can sprain an index finger, Okafor, who averaged 4.4 points, 2.9 rebounds and 8.9 minutes through the first 46 games, was put to the test.
Anthony Davis’ absence started in mid-January with an injured finger and grew with his trade demand; Okafor was hastily inserted as a starter. During a nine-game stretch where he logged more than 30 minutes per game, he averaged 18.2 points, 9.8 rebounds and two blocks per game.
Seven of those nine came against likely playoff teams.
“He went through a stretch where he’s shown when he gets those consistent minutes, he’s been pretty effective doing it,” Gentry said. “It’s up to us to get him those consistent minutes.
“We can throw him the ball, and he can go get a basket. That doesn’t happen very often in this league.”
For better or worse, though, that trust came with brutal honesty. Gentry has voiced multiple times through the second half of the season that “we know what we have in (Okafor),” and that’s a center who is not as versatile as the NBA's best forwards and centers.
Against Giannis Antetokounmpo, former Pelicans big man Nikola Mirotic and the Milwaukee Bucks in mid-March, Gentry held Okafor out completely while his ankles were nearing 100 percent.
“It’s hard for him to play screen-and-roll and then get back out,” the coach said after a loss to Milwaukee.
And in two games in March against the Hawks, another team with versatile forwards and centers, Okafor played 16 minutes combined.
“They’ve got bigs that can pop and shoot 3s, and I think that’s tough for Jahlil to cover and then get back out on those guys,” Gentry said afterward. “That’s where the league is going. That’s where it’s trending.”
So if that’s the direction the NBA is headed, can a center who’s shot just three 3-pointers this season can thrive?
The numbers would suggest that, when given a chance, yes.
For the season, Okafor averages 7.6 points and 4.5 rebounds, but in the 18 games this season when he’s played at least 20 minutes, those averages are 14.3 points and 7.7 rebounds — stats only 16 forwards or centers have averaged this year. In those games, Okafor has a 62.8 field-goal percentage — it drops to 51.1 when he plays between 10 and 19 minutes and 41.7 when he plays nine or fewer minutes.
“He’s been really good when he’s gotten those consistent minutes, and we’ve got to give him a little bit of a pass because there were games where he played 30 minutes and then games where he’d only play nine,” Gentry said. “When you’re getting those inconsistent minutes, sometimes you have inconsistent play.”
If you look past the per-game averages, you’ll begin to see how much improved Okafor’s game is compared to his rookie year. Even with his rapidly fluctuating playing time, his field-goal percentage is seven points higher. His points per 36 minutes have dipped from 21 to 18, but that's not bad considering his usage rate has been dramatically reduced (27.3 percent to 19.5). His win shares have nearly doubled from his rookie season, and he’s posted career highs in his player efficiency rating (17.2) and rebounding percentage (15.5).
In all, the numbers and Gentry’s honest diagnosis of defensive weaknesses make it plain Okafor likely will never win an MVP or even make an All-Star team, but they also show he has improved with more trust and opportunities.
Should the Pelicans pick up his $1.7 million option this summer, a roster likely void of Davis could finally provide the full-season tryout Okafor has been looking for. And during his brief stint as a teammate with the franchise’s disgruntled star, Okafor said he’s learned a valuable secret from Davis, who’s seen his own minutes fluctuate wildly in the past two months of the season.
It’s a mindset that has allowed Okafor to seize his fleeting chances with a moment’s notice and prove himself as a fourth-year center who doesn't fit the league’s desired archetype but who can still dominate.
“He (Davis) is out there every day in practice and whenever he’s in games giving everything, no matter what he’s going through or what’s going on,” Okafor said. “You can’t choose when you want to be a special player or a franchise player. You have to bring that every single day.
“That’s what separates the greats from the rest of the guys in the league.”