Probably it is true that Jahlil Okafor won’t ever reclaim the promise that made him the third overall pick in the—holy shit, in the 2015 draft, it feels like it was a thousand years ago. Everyone’s been saying and writing it since then, and it’s truer now than ever: The sport as it is played in the NBA in 2017 tends to make plus-minus sinkholes out of centers with Okafor’s broad skillset, assuming they can even get on the court. He’s not much of a rim protector; he hasn’t shown the agility to switch on defense; he can’t pop out to the perimeter to shoot jumpers; he is not a particularly beastly rebounder. His game is catching the ball in the low post and scoring on his man, and that’s not really enough.
I’m happy for him anyway, now that the Sixers have unloaded him to the Nets. They had to throw in comprehensively useless wing Nik Stauskas and a second-round pick just to get back 30-year-old journeyman Trevor Booker and nothing else in return, a steep drop from when it seemed plausible they might score at least a respectable first-round pick in exchange for Okafor alone. That measures the currents in the sport, yes, and the resulting thin market for offense-only centers who can’t shoot threes, but it also measures just how badly the Sixers fucked Okafor.
For all his limitations, Okafor came to Philadelphia as an extremely large and very young blue-chip talent with at least a handful of refined pre-existing basketball skills, credible big-time college basketball success (relative to the one-and-done era), and a strong enough reputation that he wouldn’t have dropped out of the top of the draft if the Sixers had passed on him. It was not then inconceivable that, in the big young beast who’d racked up accolades and honors while leading his Duke squad to a national championship as a freshman, the Sixers had landed, at the very least, someone who could fill in some of the gaps in his game and become the center on a decent NBA team someday. Cleveland’s Tristan Thompson entered the NBA with virtually no basketball skills, spent his first couple seasons getting his shot blocked more frequently than just about any other player in history, and had to learn to shoot with his whole other hand between his first and second season; he has become an indispensable rotation player on a Cavaliers team that has played in each of the past three Finals. Large young basketball doofuses can improve, a lot, is what I am saying.
But of course in 2015 nothing could be allowed to intrude upon the Sixers organization’s first priority—failing deliberately, for years on years, the better to optimize its chances of eventually drafting players whose careers it wouldn’t poison on purpose—and so Okafor spent a lost, injury-plagued, confused rookie season stranded on what’s almost certainly the worst NBA team I’ve ever seen, a 10-72 nightmare squad with no experienced old hands around to help make sense of it for the overwhelmed rookies, one that routinely scraped the collectively bargained salary floor in its mania for intentional incompetence. By his second season he was a dead-eyed short-timer: It had become clear to everyone that the team had no use for him beyond the space he could take up until Joel Embiid got healthy and swept him away, and in the meantime he could only fill that space effectively by not playing well, lest the team win some games and lose out on the best possible odds in the next draft. His function, for the Sixers, was to be too shitty to succeed. Which, in a very depressing way, means he succeeded, sorta. For his efforts he received banishment to the very end of the bench, now that the franchise has decided it’s time to try to win basketball games again. He has played 25 minutes this season.
The good news is, his reputation is so far in the tank that the Nets didn’t have to part with any part of their meager core of young talent to pull off the trade that brings him to Brooklyn. Which means he’ll join a spunky and even kinda fun-ish team, with fellow 2015 draft disappointment D’Angelo Russell and fun weird dudes like Caris LeVert and Spencer Dinwiddie and Allen Crabbe. They are not good. But they don’t own the rights to their own first-round pick in the next draft, and in the NBA’s perverse economy, that means they have no particular incentive to lose on purpose, so they’re competing instead.
Maybe they’ll have use for a seven-foot 21-year-old with a refined scoring game around the basket. Maybe Okafor will at least get to play some basketball, for a team that at least hopes he will do it well. Maybe he will become good; more probably he will suck; in any case, maybe he will get to be an actual NBA player, and not a sad, large, man-shaped unit of cryptocurrency, for the first time, at last. That would be cool.