Three years after the much-sought-after high school prospect landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated and then proceeded to lead the Duke Blue Devils to a national championship, Jahlil Okafor’s life, in the words of his head coach Brett Brown, “is up in the air.”
Okafor is aware of the situation — a “transparent” one, according to Brown.
On a revolving-door roster with infinitesimal odds of reaching the postseason, Okafor ranks ninth in minutes averaged (23.0), having played 495 fewer than T.J. McConnell, an undrafted guard. The writing is on the wall. Okafor is likely to be dealt prior to the NBA trade deadline, Feb. 23.
Three teams can best maximize his skill set and thus extract the most value from any potential trade with the Sixers. Here’s where he fits best.
New Orleans Pelicans
The most widely circulated trade rumors involving Okafor also involve New Orleans, though the Pelicans have other targets in mind as well.
New Orleans has been engaged on several fronts to land a center, including pursuit of Brooklyn's Brook Lopez, sources tell @TheVertical.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojVerticalNBA) February 6, 2017
Under Alvin Gentry, the Pelicans’ offense has atrophied this season, ranking 28th in points per possession, according to data provided by Synergy Sports. It isn’t improving, either.
Despite Anthony Davis reassuming his role as one of the most valuable players the league has to offer, New Orleans isn’t threatening opponents on the interior. The Pelicans rank 24th in points per possession on post-ups in the half court (0.874) and 25th in around-the-basket looks that exclude post-ups (1.127) — two areas where Okafor could make an immediate impact.
Okafor could certainly benefit from Davis’s gravity, considering the All-Star spends an alarming chunk of time being walled off by two defenders. This would be a welcome change for Okafor, who takes nearly 85 percent of his shots with a defender within 4 feet.
There’s value in positioning him in the paint alongside Davis, too; Okafor’s producing the 10th most points per contest on post-ups in the league (3.9), scoring more points per possession than players like LaMarcus Aldridge, Joel Embiid and Kevin Love.
Where the pairing would benefit Okafor most, however, would be defensively. The 6-foot-11 Okafor’s biggest problems stem from his deficiencies as a rim protector. This is largely why Brown has elected to play guys like Ersan Ilyasova, Embiid, Dario Saric and Nerlens Noel ahead of Okafor in the frontcourt rotation.
Davis is well on his way to becoming a historically successful defensive piece, and he could slide to either the 4 or 5, depending on where Okafor fits best. Getting more from Okafor at center and allowing Davis room to roam might be the most advantageous scenario though, seeing as The Brow ranks in the 90th percentile in points allowed per possession on jump shots (0.806) and has the length to cover plenty of ground.
Portland Trail Blazers
Damian Lillard summed up the team’s season thus far with some terse honesty Wednesday: “We’re in a tough place.”
Against an aggressive Jazz defense, Portland’s starting frontcourt — without Mason Plumlee, who was dealt to Denver earlier this week — croaked out six rebounds while Utah’s generated 18. The scoring load required of the backcourt — Lillard and C.J. McCollum — grows heavier by the possession.
Lillard and McCollum each see at least 65 touches and 4.4 minutes of ball possession per contest, according to data provided by NBA.com. It’s unlikely that Okafor will ever be more than a tertiary option in Terry Stotts’s system, but at least he’ll be a considerable threat in that role, lining up for 10-foot jumpers or rolling into the paint on pick-and-roll sets.
Okafor would likely benefit from playing in Portland’s half court-centric offense, one that spends nearly 4 percent fewer possessions in transition than Philadelphia. Transition has never been Okafor’s forte, which is perhaps why the back-to-the-basket forward ranks in the seventh percentile this season in transition points per possession (0.739).
Sure, Dallas is 25 games out of first place in the Western Conference, but the eye-wincing starting lineup of Deron Williams-Seth Curry-Wesley Matthews-Harrison Barnes-Dirk Nowitzki is only three games back of Portland for the No. 8 seed. Okafor could help put them over the top.
Andrew Bogut has spent most of his first season in Dallas on the bench due to injury. When he’s removed from the court, the team’s rebounding attack is abhorrent. In total, the Mavericks are the worst rebounding team in the league, as defined by metrics including rebounds per contest, offensive and defensive rebounds per contest, contested rebounds and rebound chances.
Okafor isn’t exactly corralling contested rebounds like a magnet, but at least he’d keep Nowitzki off the low block, where the 38-year-old gets mercilessly pounded every night. The German sharpshooter has long been one of the league’s premier marksman — he ranks between the 80th and 100th percentiles in spot-up shooting points and efficiency seemingly every year — but he ranks in the 61st percentile in post-up points per possession this season. When Dallas is in the half court, he dips into the 32nd percentile in the aforementioned metric.
It’s not just Nowitzki struggling on the interior: Dallas ranks in the bottom half of the league in effective field goal percentage on post-ups.
Sliding Okafor into the rotation might free up Nowitzki to toe the perimeter for catch-and-shoot looks, improving the team’s spacing and getting its most gifted offensive threat optimal touches.