Moving To The Pelicans Could Rejuvenate Jahlil Okafor's Career

And it might help out Anthony Davis, too.

by John Hugar
Feb 8 2017, 9:04pm

© Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Earlier this week, NBA Twitter was abuzz with the news that Jahlil Okafor, who has emerged as the third wheel in Philadelphia's three-part big man rotation, might finally be getting traded. With Joel Embiid entrenched as the Sixers starting center for the forseeable future and Nerlens Noel emerging as one of the game's most efficient supporting bigs, Okafor has become an afterthought; in his last seven games, Okafor has picked up three DNP-CDs. It's a strange thing to say about a player who was on the All-Rookie First Team just last season, but Okafor's career has seemed to be in dire need of a reboot for some time. With the New Orleans Pelicans reported to be quite interested in obtaining his services, that reboot might be coming soon—and it might be good news for both Okafor and the Pelicans.

If this trade does become finalized, the Pelicans would be getting a front court of Anthony Davis and Okafor, which could be quite dynamic. Remember, Okafor's biggest flaws (as of now) are his lack of a perimeter game and his defense. As it happens, Davis is brilliant at both of those things, which would make Okafor's weaknesses look a lot less glaring. And with Davis getting double-teamed on a regular basis, Okafor could use his post skills—his one absolutely unassailable strength—to dominate down low while opposing defenses focus on Davis. The chance to play with someone like Davis could also go a long way in developing Okafor's game, if only by providing the sort of veteran example that Okafor has sorely lacked while playing for the Sixers. Davis is fairly young himself at just 23, but he knows what he's doing; it's hard to imagine a more worthwhile model for a young big man to emulate.

In this case, the benefits would be reciprocal, as playing with Okafor could open new opportunities for the already dominant Davis. In his first three years in New Orleans, Davis primarily played power forward. For the last two, however, he's largely switched to center, mostly because of the Pelicans roster is so thin at that position; Omer Asik and Alexis Ajinca, both of whom have struggled to stay healthy, haven't contributed much in the pivot even when they are available. Essentially, Davis has been moved to the five out of pure necessity.

He's done good work there, too, because he's Anthony Davis, but it's worth noting that his best season as a pro was 2014-15, the last time he predominantly played power forward. According to Basketball-Reference, he played there 64 percent of the time that year, and put up a league-leading 30.8 PER along with .274 Win Shares Per 48 Minutes. This season, Davis has played 73 percent of his minutes at center, and his numbers have dropped to a 27.7 PER and .193 WS/48. Of course, these are still great numbers, but it seems telling that his last transcendent year came the last time he played the position he was originally drafted to play. Davis is good enough to thrive at either position, but teaming him up with Okafor would allow him to get back to where he belongs.

Playing with Okafor could also allow Davis to become an even more efficient scorer. As of now, the Pelicans don't really have any other big men who are serious scoring threats, which gives teams license to focus all their energy on Davis. Okafor isn't as adept or versatile a scorer as Davis is, but he's a very advanced post player and defenses would have to at least acknowledge his existence. Davis doesn't need that much help to get his, and Okafor should be able to provide just enough.

Or, of course, this could all be nothing. Plenty of NBA trades stall out because the teams can't make the details work, and this may prove to be another one of those cases. Still, the thought of Okafor as Davis' sidekick is certainly exciting to think about. Okafor's NBA career has been disappointing so far, but a trade to New Orleans could give him the chance to realize the potential he showed at Duke, and maybe even become the star it seemed like he could have been two years ago. At the very least, a change of scenery could do him and the Pelicans some good.