Jahlil Okafor questions his role in Philadelphia 76ers' rebuilding efforts

NBA.com staff reports

As a rookie in 2015-16, Philadelphia 76ers center Jahlil Okafor put up promising stats (17.5 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 1.2 bpg) en route to All-Rookie first team honors. However, a sophomore season in which both his role and stats declined — all while rookie center Joel Embiid was rising — played a part in Okafor being in the midst of frequent trade rumors.

While team officials recently promised him “every opportunity” to play in 2017-18, Okafor’s role and place in a Sixers future built around Embiid, Dario Saric, Robert Covington and rookies Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz is hardly guaranteed.

In an interview with SBNation.com’s Jordan Brenner, Okafor openly questioned his place in the Sixers’ rebuilding process:

This past summer, he sank deeper into anonymity. When Joel Embiid christened the 76ers’ young core as the “FEDS,” (Markelle Fultz, Embiid, Dario Saric, Ben Simmons), Okafor’s name was conspicuously absent, despite the fact that he was the third pick in the NBA draft just two years ago. While his teammates posted group photos on Instagram, Okafor swore off social media. As trade rumors swirled — and continue to do so — he stayed mum.

But silence should never be mistaken for apathy or acquiescence. The past two seasons affected Okafor deeply. He addressed his physical issues this summer, adopting a vegan diet that left him 20 pounds lighter and free of the chronic knee swelling that hampered him last season. But the offseason was about emotional growth as well, as Okafor finally arrived at a place where he is ready to open up about all that has transpired and where he goes from here.

“I’m unsure if I’m still on the team,” Okafor says now. “Am I really a part of this process? Am I really a part of this culture? That’s why the guys have been out there on social media, but I’ve just kind of been in the dark. I’ll go to a Sixers event, smile, take pictures with the kids and stuff like that, but I’m still thinking, ‘am I a part of this team?’”

Things changed last season. After missing two years due to injury, Embiid finally took the court. Along with Okafor and Nerlens Noel, that gave the Sixers three centers who were recent lottery picks. When all three were active, there weren’t enough minutes to go around. But the trio was also frequently injured, giving coach Brett Brown little opportunity to see how they fit together. Okafor and Embiid played just 80 minutes as a tandem; the Sixers were outscored by 34 points during that time.

Okafor’s playing time fluctuated and some nights he didn’t dress at all. His frustration reached a peak in January, when Brown called him into the coach’s office, took out a calendar, and informed Okafor that he would sit out the next four games. “That whole week I was just pissed off,” Okafor says.

In February, negotiations over an Okafor deal intensified to the point where the 76ers told him to stay home while the team traveled to Charlotte. But the deal fell apart and the next day Okafor boarded an American Airlines flight to rejoin the team in Boston. An uncomfortable situation grew worse.

“It was awkward,” Okafor said. “I’m at home, watching my team play on TV, not a part of that team, but not a part of any other team. I was anxious. Eager to figure out where I was going to be. Kind of excited to have an opportunity to be with a new team and have a fresh start. Sad that I was leaving my teammates that I’d gotten really close with. And then I ended up playing the next night. I can’t really put into words how difficult it was.”

This past spring, as Okafor’s knee pain persisted, he read that dairy products can cause swelling. On a whim, he cut it out of his diet entirely. A week later, he visited the team’s trainers and they were amazed: The fluid in his knee was gone. So next he cut out chicken, then steak, then all animal-based products. And so it was that Okafor found himself shooting a spot for PETA at a vegan restaurant in Philadelphia last month.

Now 20 pounds lighter and pain free, Okafor is noticeably quicker. And in Okafor’s mind, if his body wasn’t a finished product before this summer, neither was his game. “I would hear somebody else get criticized, like ‘oh, this person is not good at that, but oh, he’s going into his second year,’” Okafor says. “But when it’s me, it’s ‘well, he’s not good at that, he’ll never be good at it.’ I never got the ‘oh, he’s going into his second year.’”

Two years of criticism, of loss after loss, of fans turning against him, have taken their toll. If Embiid has come to represent the fruits of The Process — to the point where he has adopted that moniker as his own — Okafor has become a discarded byproduct overshadowed by his young teammates.

“I definitely feel like I’m the scapegoat for a lot of The Process issues,” Okafor says. “Something I learned is that when you lose, people find a reason why you’re losing and I think that’s where the defense thing really blew up — ‘oh, he can’t play defense, that’s why they only won 10 games.’ But there were a lot of other reasons why we only won 10 games that season.

“And then the second year rolls around. It’s JoJo’s first year playing NBA basketball, so he doesn’t get the blame. And it’s Dario’s first year, so he doesn’t get the blame. Nerlens just had surgery and Ben wasn’t on the court either, so I felt like it was me again as the scapegoat.”

Against that backdrop, he begins his third season in Philly. Pierce raves about Okafor’s attitude and professionalism; if he’s unhappy, he hasn’t shown it. But internally, frustration continues to mount. “I was kind of already thinking that I’m not really a part of this future,” he says of his teammates’ photos and tweets. “So it wasn’t like ‘oh my goodness, they left me out.’ I kind of left myself out.”

So is it time to move on? Okafor pauses. He wants to make it clear that he respects the organization. That he loves his teammates. That he has no complaints about how he has been treated. But, he confesses, “Sometimes I do think it would be great to get a fresh start, be on a new team, new surroundings, new teammates. I think about that often and I think that’s something that could benefit me.”