Why the Sixers should keep Jahlil Okafor

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The following is a guest post by Kyle Krajewski

By now you’ve heard the latest scoop: The Sixers are rumored to be in talks with Atlanta in a deal that would essentially swap 22-year-old up-and-coming center Nerlens Noel with 28-year-old “pretty good” point guard Jeff Teague and presumably (hopefully) a pick or two.

And by now, we also know, thanks to Gonzo, that nothing is close to happening.

Let me be perfectly clear: I’m not the biggest proponent of this rumored trade. I don’t hate it, but I don’t love it either. Given the three years of losing, the overwhelming number of assets this team has at its expense, the forced outing of the guy that brought in those assets, and the fact that this is the year it’s all supposed to start taking shape, I’d better love it. You should feel the same.

The rumor, however, has done one positive thing for me and that’s force me to begin to consider which “asset” should really be the one made available in return for an appropriately fitting piece of the Sixers' puzzle. It’s evident that one of Noel, Okafor or Embiid (LOL, OK definitely not Embiid) are going to be shipped off because of the glaring logjam at the center position.

The good majority of speculation has circulated around the idea of trading Jahlil Okafor to one of the three teams that consecutively follow them in the draft to put them in position to pick up future talents such as Kris Dunn, Jamal Murray or even potentially Brandon Ingram (given they draft Simmons at one, which they likely will). This speculation makes a lot of sense considering the fact that Okafor currently holds the highest trade value for the team.

But after thinking about it a bit more, I’ve realized that it may not make the most sense to trade Jahlil. The piece the Sixers should ship off is Nerlens Noel. 

Recently you may have read the Level’s 5 Reasons the Sixers Should Trade Jahlil Okafor.  Here are a few reasons why they shouldn’t:

Upside

Jahlil offers the Sixers its greatest trade value for a reason. Yes, it’s partially because Joel Embiid, the Crown Jewel of The Process, hasn’t stepped foot on an NBA court and his particular injury, for a big man, scares teams away. It’s also because Jahlil’s upside is legitimately through the roof.

The dude can score. Before the injury that ended his rookie season, that much was clear. Jahlil was off to a surprisingly great start from the gate, being the first center to chalk up three 20-plus point games in his first four NBA starts since Shaq. His offensive prowess proved consistent, leading all rookies in points per game until the end of February, when we watched his eye-opening 31-point eruption against Dallas. Soon after, his season would prematurely end due to injury. Unfortunately, at a time he was playing at a historic rate. From Marc Whittington of Liberty Ballers on March 1:

“The big man set a career high for points against the helpless Mavericks with 31, and then followed that up with 21 and 26 point outings in the last week. Even better, each of these performances has been efficient, as he has shot 60% or better from the field in each of his last 6 games. In the process, he has pulled his overall season field goal percentage north of 50% and seen his true shooting percentage climb all the way to 53.8%. In fact, since the calendar flipped to 2016, Okafor has an incredible true shooting percentage of 59.9%, which would be in the Top 5 of any rookie campaign ever…

“The most impressive part of Okafor's production is in the way that he has manufactured his points, too. He has had to shoulder the weight of almost unrealistic offensive expectations in Philadelphia, where no one else has shown the ability to effectively create shots for himself or his teammates. Even after the addition of Ish Smith lessened Okafor's load a little, he has scored an astounding 60% of his baskets on unassisted shots.”

So essentially at his best this year he was averaging 20-plus points per game over certain stretches and at his worst was either struggling on defense or sitting out because of injury or suspension. Imagine what he may be capable of with an actually competent offense surrounding him. There were ups and downs for sure, but when you’re a 19-year-old kid who draws comparisons to guys like Tim Duncan, I’ll take my chances on working to pair you as a power forward with Joel Embiid at center over a guy like Nerlens, who is an undeniable defensive force yet feared to never become much more than a serviceable offensive talent at best.

Risk & Reward

Let’s consider some of the rumors and speculation floating around the past couple of days. Most of such involving Jahlil have him headed to one of the teams with the third or fourth picks, Boston and Phoenix, respectively. This could result in the drafting of Kris Dunn or Jamal Murray. Both great college players who come along with doubts about what they’ll amount to in The League.

Nerlens rumors typically float around established veterans carrying contracts like Teague. Sure, he’s not Russell Westbrook, but he’s a recent All-Star who could offer off-court veteran leadership and on-court stability for a team otherwise composed of guys mostly 23 and under.

Of course it’s worth noting the point guard position as more of an expendable one around the league generally, let alone with a guy like Simmons potentially coming along with an ability to play point-forward. But you look at a guy like Teague and you see a guy who will be 30 in two years and probably on the tail end of his career by the time the Sixers are actually contending. Now it obviously doesn’t make sense in that light considering the Sixers aren’t trying to win this year, but in the same vein, this year is the year that this thing is supposed to begin to take shape. Shouldn’t it be one where the young talent begins to learn by playing with an established, competent point guard running the offense? Not saying Teague is the guy, but it’s a type of scenario worth considering.

And again, given his upside, I’m not sure the reward would equal the risk of dealing and watching Jahlil potentially develop into an elite or even, dare I say, transcendent-level offensive talent while the Sixers are busy trying to develop a player they took a third/fourth-pick flier on in a two player draft.

Destination

Perhaps the trade scenario involving Jahlil that makes the most sense (aside from the fact that he gets into street brawls with their fans) would be to send him off to Boston for the third pick (via Brooklyn).

An Atlantic Division rival already playing at a playoff level and you want to send them one of the best young talents in the league? Sure, that won’t come back to haunt you. You’re better off sending Nerlens to the perpetually good-but-not-great Hawks any day.

Fit

You can look at this one of two ways. One being that if you move a guy now, you’re banking on a full recovery for JoJo. That’s best case scenario, obviously.  Last I heard, he was running full court 3v3s in practice and hitting the gym just about every day, so it’s looking bright.  However, worst case scenario (knock on wood) he busts. In that case, Okafor’s your best fit in about any situation as starting center beside Simmons, Saric, whoever they get for Noel, and draft in the next year or so.

The second way to look at this being the paring of the bigs. Some say Jahlil and JoJo won’t be able to play side by side given their similar styles of play. But if you go back to the Tim Duncan comparisons, of which Duncan’s co-champion David Robinson made himself, a fan must have faith in Brett Brown, a man who coached Duncan for over a decade, to accentuate those qualities. Pair Embiid playing at his highest potential alongside Brett’s project in Jah, echoing the historic Robinson-Duncan duo which brought two titles to San Antonio, it’s hard not to get excited.

A guy can dream, at least.

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