Would a Jahlil Okafor trade make sense for the San Antonio Spurs?
As was first reported by Marc Stein of The New York Times earlier this month, Jahlil Okafor wants out of Philadelphia via buyout or trade. The 21-year-old center was the 3rd overall pick in the 2015 draft by the 76ers, but his time with the team seems to be coming to an end. This was made clear when the 76ers decided to exercise team options on Ben Simmons and Dario Saric, signed Joel Embiid to a 5-year extension, and declined his 2018-2019 team option. According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the 76ers will not agree to a buyout and will seek to trade Okafor, likely seeking picks and expiring contracts in return.
Sources: 76ers aren't budging on Jahlil Okafor's bid for contract buyout talks. Team plans to continue trade discussions. Interest exists.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) November 1, 2017
Several teams have been rumored to have interest in Okafor. The Spurs have not been named as one of these teams, but a trade for Okafor is something that they should consider. There are many critics of Okafor’s game, but I think that his weak points could be addressed in San Antonio and he could reach the lofty ceilings that were projected for him when he came out of Duke.
One of the most glaring issues in Okafor’s game has been his poor defensive play. His effort and defensive ability have been routinely questioned since he came into the league. Possessions like this are exactly why.
If he was traded to the Spurs it’s reasonable to predict that his defensive play would improve. Look at LaMarcus Aldridge, he was never known as a great defender in Portland but upon arriving in San Antonio he has steadily improved and has recorded career highs in Defensive Win Shares and Defensive Box Plus/Minus while playing for the Spurs. The Spurs also have two of the best defenders in the league with Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, and an emerging defensive-minded guard in Dejounte Murray. These three can run opposing players off the 3-point line and funnel them inside where Okafor, at 6’11 with a 7’0 wingspan, could meet them at the rim. If he increased his effort and took direction from Gregg Popovich and the rest of the coaching staff, it’s hard to imagine Okafor not improving on defense. He would also have the opportunity to learn from Tim Duncan, an all-time great big man who continues to be a regular at Spurs practices.
Where Okafor shines is in the post. His footwork and touch around the rim are really impressive.
Funnily enough, thanks to his skill down low, Okafor was compared to both Aldridge and Duncan while he was at Duke and leading up to the 2015 Draft. Unfortunately for Okafor, the NBA has changed and his style of play is no longer something that most teams covet. In order to adapt to the modern game, he will have to show that he is willing and able to make shots from mid-range and from the corners. We look again to Aldridge as an example.
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While in Portland, Aldridge did not take many three-pointers. Not until his final year with the Blazers did he ever attempt more than 30 three’s over the course of a season. Last year he shot 41% from behind the arc and took 41% of his 56 three-point attempts from the corners. Under the watchful eye of shooting guru and Spurs Assistant Coach Chip Engelland, the guy who helped Kawhi develop from a 29% three-point shooter in college into the sharpshooter he is now, I would predict that Okafor could similarly extend his range and improve his three-point shooting. He shot 38% from 10-16 feet last season along with 67% from the free-throw line, and his shot doesn’t look bad. It’s definitely something that he can and likely would improve upon if he were to be traded to San Antonio.
Finally, the Spurs should trade for Okafor because it’s an opportunity to get a former 3rd overall pick at a very low price. It’s almost a certainty that the Sixers will deal Okafor before the trade deadline, it’s just a question of to whom and for what. The deal they made with Dallas for Nerlens Noel offers a good picture of what a deal for Okafor could look like. In that trade, Philadelphia received two players and a protected first-round pick that ended up becoming two second-rounders. It’s been rumored that they would give up Okafor for less than that. Let’s say, a player and a second-round pick. That would be a cheap price to pay for a player with Okafor’s potential and something that the Spurs should consider.
Jahlil Okafor has been a victim of circumstance in Philadelphia. There was a logjam of talent in the front-court and he ended up as the odd man out. He’s still a good young talent with a lot of potential, he just needs a fresh start and an opportunity to play. San Antonio offers a place where he could have exactly that.