At the latest, it looks like Jahlil Okafor’s beleaguered tenure as a member of the Philadelphia 76ers will be over by the conclusion of the 2017-18 season. On Halloween, the deadline to pick up the option for second- and third-year players on rookie-scale contracts, Philadelphia declined an opportunity to extend their former No. 3 overall pick, according to Kyle Neubeck of Philly Voice. That will allow the former Duke star, who has fallen out of the Sixers’ rotation, to become an unrestricted free agent during the summer of 2018.
Okafor becomes the third player drafted in the top three to have his fourth-year option declined. However, unlike Anthony Bennett and Hasheem Thabeet before him, the 21-year-old Okafor might just have a future in the league.
One of the unfortunate downsides of The Process has been the callous way that lottery picks have been discarded by the 76ers. Former No. 6 overall pick Nerlens Noel was traded for Justin Anderson, a top-18 protected first round pick and the opportunity to buy out Andrew Bogut. Meanwhile, Philadelphia has either been unable to trade Okafor or unreasonable with prospective trade partners on their asking price.
When Okafor gets opportunities to see the floor, he remains a quality scorer on the block. However, beyond midrange territory, he’s useless. He’s also a plodder with slow feet, which makes him an anachronism in today’s NBA; his slothful defense definitely doesn’t fly in the 3-point era.
Okafor’s contemporaries — teammate Joel Embiid, Karl-Anthony Towns and Kristaps Porzingis — all have range that extends beyond the 3-point arc, as well as the athletic tools to be impact defenders. The 6-foot-11 Noel remains a one-dimensional rim runner offensively, but his defensive versatility has inflated his value.
According to a report from ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the 76ers were shopping Okafor before Tuesday’s extension deadline, in hopes that a team would be enticed by his potential offensive production — he averaged 17.5 points per game for the Sixers as a rookie — and the low risk of taking him on, due to the comparatively low $6.3 million in salary he’d be owed in his fourth season. Evidently, they found no takers.
The Sixers’ preemptive move to decline that fourth year guarantees that, whether they trade Okafor or continue letting him sour on the pine, they’ll still have $39 million in cap space to potentially offer veteran free agents in 2018. Unfortunately, this raises the level of difficulty involved with trading Okafor before the end of this season. As an expiring contract on a rookie deal, interested suitors can just wait the season out, rather than give up assets for a rental who can bolt in the summer.
In the meantime, Okafor becomes the Andy Dufresne of the NBA — an innocent victim subjected to undeserved captivity on the 76ers bench for far too long. A healthy Okafor has only appeared in one game this season for the 76ers while racking up DNPs. Not only are Embiid, Dario Saric, Richaun Holmes, Ben Simmons and Robert Covington ahead of Okafor in the rotation, but so is 30-year-old journeyman Amir Johnson. This season has become the half-mile of foulness between Okafor and a more hopeful NBA future.