Jahlil Okafor joins the Pelicans with something to prove, and maybe one last chance to prove it

Yahoo Sports
<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nba/players/5434/" data-ylk="slk:Jahlil Okafor">Jahlil Okafor</a> will join his third team in six months, agreeing to a partially guaranteed deal with the <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nba/teams/nor" data-ylk="slk:New Orleans Pelicans">New Orleans Pelicans</a>. (Getty)
Jahlil Okafor will join his third team in six months, agreeing to a partially guaranteed deal with the New Orleans Pelicans. (Getty)

This time three summers ago, Jahlil Okafor was preparing to take his first steps toward many had long assumed would be NBA stardom for the vaunted prep prospect, First-Team All-American and national champion. Now, after a decidedly rocky start to his professional career, he’s taking a make-good deal in the dying embers of free agency, hoping that another fresh start in another new city is what he needs to finally get back on that path.

One day after Scott Kushner of the New Orleans Advocate reported that Okafor was “in discussions” with the New Orleans Pelicans on a look-see training camp pact, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported Wednesday morning that the two sides had finalized an agreement. It’s a two-year deal that includes a partial guarantee for this coming season and a team option for the 2019-20 campaign.

Why are the Pelicans bringing in Jahlil Okafor?

From the Pelicans’ perspective, it’s a classic “second draft” upside play — a virtual no-risk look at a 6-foot-11, 260-pounder who’s got enough offensive talent to have been the No. 3 pick in the draft just three years ago.

After allowing injured All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins to leave in free agency and signing power forward Julius Randle to join superstar Anthony Davis and midseason addition Nikola Mirotic up front, New Orleans still has some depth in the middle: veteran Emeka Okafor, who came back from a four-year hiatus to play some surprisingly solid rotation minutes late last season; 2016 second-rounder Cheick Diallo, who’s shown flashes as a glass-cleaning finisher; and oft-injured French giant Alexis Ajinca, who has yet to play more than 68 games or top 1,000 minutes in seven NBA seasons. But fourth and fifth big-man spots are always eligible for upgrading, and Okafor — who averaged 17.5 points per game on 50.8 percent shooting as a rookie, and who’s now 2 1/2 years removed from the meniscus tear that ended his rookie season — has the combination of size, skill and youth (he won’t turn 23 until mid-December) that makes him worth the gamble on a prove-it deal like this.

If Okafor comes into camp and tears it up, beasting on the interior while showing improved focus and activity on the defensive end, then general manager Dell Demps just scored a potential rotation piece for two years at a bargain basement price. If he doesn’t, the Pelicans cut bait, having shelled out only a small guarantee for their troubles.

For Okafor — as stunning as this might have sounded three years ago — if this isn’t his last chance to prove he’s worth a roster spot and capable of hanging onto one in today’s NBA, then it’s probably pretty close to it.

It took all of one season for things to fall apart for Okafor in Philadelphia

Three months after a triumphant end to his brief collegiate career that saw him help Duke win the 2015 NCAA championship, Okafor was in the mix for the No. 1 overall pick in June’s NBA draft. He wound up going third, though, to a 76ers team had also used lottery selections in the previous two drafts on centers — Kentucky’s Nerlens Noel in 2013, and Kansas’ Joel Embiid in 2014 — which immediately set the table for what figured to be an awkward fit in Philadelphia’s frontcourt.

A second straight summertime surgery for Embiid eased that concern for Okafor’s rookie year, allowing him to step into the lineup as the Sixers’ starting center and immediately start putting up numbers. Any individual production, though, came in the context of crushing team failure, as the imbalanced and talent-poor 76ers embarked on a historically horrendous and dispiriting start to 2015-16 in which they lost their their first 18 games of the season and sat at 1-30 on Christmas.

With the mounting on-court frustration came off-court troubles, as the 19-year-old Okafor found himself in the middle of multiple dangerous incidents away from the gym that resulted in him receiving a two-game suspension in early December. Okafor’s extracurricular activities abated after his return as he resumed putting up points and pulling down rebounds for the woeful Sixers, but a March meniscus tear in his right knee ended a disappointing rookie season that reportedly included at least one attempt to ship Okafor out.

How a glut in the middle left Okafor on the outside looking in

Trade rumors would become a running theme throughout Okafor’s time in Philadelphia. By the time the 2016-17 season rolled around, all three big men were healthy and ready to take the floor, creating a logjam in the middle that hung over the Sixers like the sword of Damocles. Embiid’s emergence pushed Noel, who had shown flashes of being a legitimately useful defensive center and dive-man in the pick-and-roll, to the periphery; after a benching and some griping, he was eventually moved to Dallas. (Things didn’t go so hot there.)

Okafor stuck around … but his opportunities dwindled. A healthy Embiid, a better player in every respect, soaked up minutes, touches and oxygen. The specific flaws in Okafor’s game — his lack of shooting on offense, which made him a big roadblock clogging up driving or passing lanes for Philly’s playmakers, and more importantly the slow awareness and slower feet that made him a liability in pick-and-roll defense, guarding stretch big men in space, or trying to protect the rim inside — became magnified. Suddenly, coach Brett Brown was calling for Amir Johnson and Richaun Holmes ahead of Okafor off the bench, leaving a player expected to be a linchpin feeling like an afterthought. After averaging 30 minutes per game in his rookie season, Okafor saw just under 23 minutes of floor time in 50 appearances as a sophomore, and logged just 22 total minutes in Philly’s first five games last season.

Officially excised from both Brown’s rotation and Philly’s future plans, after the Sixers declined the fourth-year option on his rookie contract — something we’d never seen happen before to a third overall pick — Okafor began openly looking for an exit and an opportunity to prove he really could play at the NBA level. As then-general manager Bryan Colangelo continued to try to extract anything of value for his decidedly distressed asset, Okafor remained stuck … until the Brooklyn Nets came calling.

Okafor’s fresh start turned into a false start

Colangelo traded Okafor to Brooklyn along with fellow former lottery pick Nik Stauskas and a 2019 second-round pick in exchange for veteran forward Trevor Booker, viewed as a better fit for a team with playoff aspirations. As it turned out, Booker made just 33 appearances in Philly before being released and catching on with the Indiana Pacers … which actually wound up representing more of an impact than Okafor made in Brooklyn.

At first blush, the chance to link up with a player-development-focused head coach like Kenny Atkinson on a team in need of offensive punch seemed like a golden opportunity for Okafor. Weeks after his arrival, though, he was still deemed to not be in good enough shape to take the court, even for the scuffling Nets.

When Okafor did finally get on the court in early January after a “personal training camp,” he largely underwhelmed, rarely offering enugh scoring spark to counteract his struggles on the other end. Okafor averaged 6.0 points and 2.9 rebounds in 12.5 minutes per game in 21 appearances in Brooklyn in January and February, then once again found himself out of the rotation for most of the rest of the season, getting into just four games after the All-Star break and sitting behind the likes of Dante Cunningham, Quincy Acy and Timofey Mozgov.

This is Okafor’s chance to prove himself … and it might be his last

Both Brown and Atkinson spoke well of Okafor as a person, commending his ability to handle adversity and continue to show up and put in work behind the scenes. But neither one of them played him. During the 2016-17 season, his last full year in Philadelphia, the Sixers were outscored by 2.3 points per 100 possessions with Okafor sitting … and by 14.5 points-per-100 when he played, according to NBA.com’s stat tool, with Philly taking significant hits on both ends of the floor in his minutes. And after his arrival in Brooklyn, the Nets were outscored by 2.5 points per 100 possessions with Okafor on the bench … and by 23.5 points-per-100 when he was on the court, with even starker drop-offs in offensive and defensive efficiency.

Maybe Okafor’s plummet from top prospect to the fringes of the NBA has come as the result of a lack of opportunity in a pair of landing spots where he was never quite the right fit. Maybe it’s come because, in an era where a big man’s gifts in the low post matter less than his ability to work in the pick-and-roll, hold up on the perimeter and protect the rim, there isn’t a right fit for Okafor. After a long summer in which the prospect of a move to China creeped onto the table, a training-camp tryout with a Pelicans team that’s got a spot for him if he can earn it seems like the best — and maybe last — chance Okafor will have to show that it’s the former, rather than the latter.

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Dan Devine is a writer and editor for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at devine@yahoosports.com or follow him on Twitter!

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