The NBA-worst Philadelphia 76ers lost their leading scorer and rebounder to injury Friday when it was announced that rookie center Jahlil Okafor will miss the remainder of the season to undergo surgery to repair a small meniscus tear in his right knee. The news does not greatly affect an organization that would love to finish with the highest odds of winning the No. 1 pick at the draft lottery. However, it does serve as an occasion to reflect on Okafor's very up-and-down first NBA season and what the future could hold for him and his club.
Let's start with the injury. An article from Brian Seltzer of Sixers.com explains how it was discovered and what Okafor can expect from here:
“Jahlil started to experience discomfort in his right knee, which we immediately investigated,” said Hinkie in a statement released by the Sixers. “After a comprehensive series of tests and additional evaluation by our medical team, it was revealed that he has a small tear of the meniscus.”
Okafor, who missed two games in late December because of right knee soreness, will “undergo a minor arthroscopic procedure” at a still-to-be-determined date. Hinkie, however, did say, “Our medical team will continually monitor and evaluate Jahlil’s progress, and we anticipate he will resume full basketball activities in approximately six weeks.” [...]
“I think it’s one of the more common [injuries], when you really study what’s going on, it’s going to be a 10 minute procedure,” said Brown before the Sixers’ home game against the Brooklyn Nets on Friday. “It’s going to restrict him from playing for six weeks. Because of the timing, it sounds probably more dramatic than it should that we’re not going to see him again. I get all that. As far as the history of has [the injury] happened? All the time. The impact that it has on somebody moving forward is negligible. It’s something that you can continue to strengthen and rehab. I think it’s very common amongst NBA players.”
Meniscus tears have derailed or stalled careers before, but that typically only happens when a player opts to play through the pain instead of opting for surgery. Okafor's decision is a no-brainer given the low stakes of this Sixers season, his age, and his potential moving forward.
On the other hand, the events of this season and the Sixers' organizational philosophy make it rather unclear how Okafor projects with the team over the long term. However, the Sixers.com article includes an internal appraisal of his rookie year that could provide some guidance:
Okafor had been playing particularly well on the heels of the NBA All-Star break. In the Sixers’ first six games back, Okafor averaged 20.3 points in just 26.6 minutes per game Over the course of this span, his offensive rating was 115.0, while he converted 63.4 percent of his field goal attempts.
“The young man scores,” Brown said, reflecting on Okafor’s efforts. “He has nimble feet, he’s got soft hands, he’s got an extraordinary offensive feel to the game. I think growing him on getting deeper catches, growing him on recognizing crowds offensively immediately comes to my mind. I think he’s been excellent. Look at his body. His skin fold is fantastic. His weight is down. I think that extracting his quickness and speed up and down the floor because of the fittest he’s ever been is a credit to our sports science department and him. Those are all positives.”
Brown continued, “His zoomed in focal point, my zoomed in focal point for him, will be defensively related. It will be pick-and-roll specific on guarding pick and rolls, but you step back and say, ‘He had a heck of an NBA season.’ He really did. His mood is great, he understands. He’s disappointed obviously. He must take stock and take pride in the fact that he did have a good NBA year, coming in at 19 and 20 [years old] and navigating through the things that we’re all going to remember to be Jahlil’s first NBA season. I’m proud of him. He ticks well. He’s a good person and he cares. I think his season will be remembered like that.”
The article quite glaringly does not discuss the early-season controversies that led the Sixers to suspend Okafor for two games, which would seem to be a major event of his rookie season. On the other hand, Okafor did seem to be a more dependable player after these high-profile issues, so perhaps it's better to consider them as failures to be transcended and not outright warning signs.
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That's not to say that the Sixers should be sure of Okafor's fit. The Sixers.com piece notes his high ranking among rookies in traditional big-man categories such as points per game and field-goal percentage, but he did not accomplish those numbers in a vacuum. Okafor was a popular preseason Rookie of the Year selection because it was clear the Sixers would give him every opportunity to serve as the focal point of the offense. The stats he put up this season were mostly impressive but also largely expected.
At the same time, many of the concerns about Okafor proved to be correct. His defense needs lots of work, to the point where he essentially needs to be played with a power forward who can guard bigger players effectively. Yet such players typically need to occupy the same offensive zones as Okafor, which budding defensive ace Nerlens Noel learned the hard way this season. The 2015-16 Sixers' two highest-potential players cannot play together with much success, and it's hard to see how many players in the league could pair with Okafor effectively. Anthony Davis and Serge Ibaka are rare talents for a reason.
None of this is really Okafor's fault, but it's now conventional wisdom that any team who employs him will have to work around his weaknesses with keen awareness. The Sixers picked the player most people thought was the best available at No. 3 last June (even if it turned out Kristaps Porzingis would have made much more sense) and have seen him play well enough to inspire confidence. Unfortunately, he's not any closer to carving out a clear role with the team. With Croatian forward Dario Saric, a maybe-sorta healthy Joel Embiid, and potentially one more high-value frontcourt rookie (top prospects Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram are forwards) set to join the club next season, it's possible that even more players will have to work around Okafor.
Trade deadline rumors surrounding his future provide some basis for an increasingly reasonable conclusion — that the Sixers and Okafor could be better off with a trade. His value isn't clear, but it could be best if he ends up with a team more willing and able to work around his flaws. For better and worse, the Sixers appear too focused on accumulating talent to trouble themselves with the specific needs of any one player.
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