Jahlil Okafor acquisition another shrewd step toward Nets respectability

Yahoo Sports
<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nba/players/5434/" data-ylk="slk:Jahlil Okafor">Jahlil Okafor</a> played just two games for the 76ers this season. (AP)
Jahlil Okafor played just two games for the 76ers this season. (AP)

Jahlil Okafor is a Net, and if you strictly surfed social media for reactions, you would come away thinking Brooklyn just acquired one of the NBA’s biggest busts. That’s right: A 17.5-point-per-game scorer as a rookie who cracked double figures in his second season is being largely dismissed as an afterthought.

You know who doesn’t think that? The Nets, who acquired Okafor, Nik Stauskas and a 2019 second-round pick from Philadelphia for the bargain-basement price of veteran forward Trevor Booker. Brooklyn — devoid of much in the way of low-post scoring since Brook Lopez left town — suddenly has a legitimate scorer to toss the ball into. Okafor, 21, has regressed some over the last year, drifting further from the basket, scouts say, looking to face up more than back down, but Kenny Atkinson, one of the NBA’s better player-development coaches, still has a lot to work with.

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You know who doesn’t think that? Other teams. The trade market for Okafor was barren. The Sixers’ asking price was steep — for most of last year, Philadelphia was seeking a first-round pick — and teams weren’t willing to part with an asset when they believed Okafor would eventually wriggle free. The free-agent market for Okafor? Different story. “We would have had strong interest,” said an executive from a Western Conference team. “He’s a good player. He’s probably never going to be a great player, but he will always be a very good scorer. You go get guys like that when you can.”

Brooklyn did, and the Nets have now pulled off an interesting feat: acquiring the second and third overall picks from the 2015 draft. Being opportunistic and using little more than cap space and a willingness to take on a bad contract, Nets GM Sean Marks has infused the roster with a pair of high-level talents. D’Angelo Russell — a Lonzo Ball casualty in L.A. — is averaging 20.9 points this season, and now Okafor will get his chance. The deal probably doesn’t make Brooklyn a playoff team — though don’t look now, but Thursday’s win over Oklahoma City moved the Nets to within three games of the East’s final playoff spot — but it does give the franchise a high-upside player to build around.

Think about what Marks has done in less than two years on the job: While Boston has reaped the benefits of Brooklyn’s lousy seasons, Marks has aggressively pursued first-round picks, while using the cap space he’s created to absorb big contracts from teams eager to cut salary. He’s whiffed in free agency, and he’s irritated a few rival executives with his willingness to make bloated offers to restricted free agents, but Marks has pushed the Nets to the cusp of respectability.

And the best is yet to come. Russell, 21, is on the mend following mid-November knee surgery, and Okafor is on the way. Okafor is “extremely” excited to be a Net, a source close to Okafor told Yahoo Sports, and he will likely find his way into the starting lineup quickly. Okafor played just two games for the Sixers this season, but he came to camp 20 pounds lighter than last season and should be able to play immediately. His warts will be exposed in extended minutes — to date he’s been a mediocre defender who rebounds at a guard-like level — but he will give Atkinson plenty to work with.

Okafor isn’t the star the Sixers thought they were getting when they drafted him in ’15, and Russell may not be that for the Nets either. But they are nice, cheap pieces with nothing but upside. The Nets have a long way to go to build a winner, but they are a long way from where they once were.

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