From be­gin­ning to end, Okafor was a lost cause

The Trentonian (Trenton, NJ) - - SPORTS - Jack McCaf­fery Colum­nist

PHILADEL­PHIA » The 20142015 76ers lost their first game, their sec­ond, and the next 15 af­ter that, stum­bling around at both ends of the court, rarely look­ing pro­fes­sional.

They had one pur­pose in mind.

They wanted Jahlil Okafor, the big fresh­man from Duke, the scor­ing sa­vant, the next NBA su­per­star. And if los­ing could make that hap­pen, who were they to worry that en­tire rows of Wells Fargo Cen­ter seats were go­ing for a buck in the sec­ondary mar­ket?

Los­ing games for Okafor? Deal. Los­ing dig­nity for Okafor? Deal. Los­ing fans for Okafor? Sign right here. The Six­ers wanted Jahlil Okafor more than they wanted any­one or any­thing else. And with Sam Hinkie pro­ject­ing a know-itall smirk with ev­ery turnover, flubbed freethrow or im­ported minor-league tal­ent, they wouldn’t just roll into the lot­tery, they would do so with leg­endary pre­ci­sion.

Their last 10? They lost ‘em all.

“To coach gyp­sies, to have to coach a re­volv­ing door,” Brett Brown would say, as the mis­ery sub­sided, “that’s not what I’m look­ing for.”

By then, their process was rolling. They’d al­ready ac­quired Ner­lens Noel, once pro­jected as a No. 1 pick in a draft, and Joel Em­biid, once pro­jected as a No. 1 pick in a draft. And all their los­ing would yield the NBA’s third-lousi­est record and a good chance at land­ing the next No. 1 pick.

As lot­tery re­sults would un­fold, they would wind up with Pick No. 3. That was fine with Hinkie, who would in­sist that, con­ve­niently enough, there were at least three play­ers able to ra­tio­nal­ize all that los­ing. By then, the con­sen­sus had be­gun to shift, with the draft-a-razzi de­cid­ing that Karl-An­thony Towns should be the No. 1 pick. Teams in­ter­ested in guards, and the Six­ers were at least cu­ri­ous, were fa­vor­ing D’An­gelo Rus­sell. But no mat­ter how it would un­fold, Okafor would be in the tri­fecta box. The Six­ers didn’t mind. All along, he was their tar­get. And when they drafted him, they all but spilled open the bags of party hats.

Okafor was not the player he seemed while daz­zling at Duke, where he’d show his many splen­did in­side moves, demon­strat­ing a mys­ti­cal abil­ity, as they say in the in­dus­try, to put the ball in the bas­ket. A knee in­jury didn’t help. But it was more. He couldn’t de­fend at the NBA level. And be­cause of that, he would be un­able to play any­where but cen­ter. But with Em­biid in that spot, any­way, Okafor was doomed to a depth-chart plunge, from All-Rookie team, to backup, to lit­tle-used deep sub to, in re­cent days, a player not even wor­thy of be­ing in uni­form on game nights.

By Thurs­day, in some­thing of a re­lief for all in­volved, the plunge ended, and there was Okafor, on his way to Brook­lyn with Nik Stauskas and a sec­ond-round pick for Trevor Booker, a 30-year-old man on an ex­pir­ing con­tract. And, no, there was no in­stant value in that salary ex­change. “A wash,” pres­i­dent Bryan Colan­gelo said. Ba­si­cally, then, the Six­ers gave away Okafor for a player Brown said be­fore a game against the Lak­ers Thurs­day would be un­likely to play his way into the Six­ers’ nine-man ro­ta­tion.

“I wouldn’t say there are re­grets,” Brown said. “I’d say there was hu­man dis­ap­point­ment. You’d wished it did (work out bet­ter), be­cause he is fan­tas­tic peo­ple. And we all went through a lot to­gether when he was here. And so, when you re­move my coach­ing hat and just put your ‘hu­man’ hat on, we care about what goes on in his life and his fu­ture. So from that side, you’re dis­ap­pointed you are not able to still coach him. From a re­al­ity stand­point, I’m the coach, I made the de­ci­sions that I made. And I wish him well.”

Draft mis­takes hap­pen. That one hap­pened, in some mea­sure, be­cause when Okafor was drafted the Six­ers still were un­sure if the in­jured Em­biid would be a durable pro. For that, they were will­ing, if not ob­li­gated, to over­stock cen­ters.

Mov­ing Okafor for Booker, a power for­ward, eases that five-spot jam. It should make the Six­ers bet­ter suited for the play­offs, should they be in­volved. But it doesn’t give them what a No. 3 over­all, 2015 pick promised: Depth of su­per­stars. Al­ready Noel, a No. 6 over­all pick, is gone, as is Okafor, as is Stauskas, a No. 8 over­all pick, a player Hinkie al­ways cov­eted. For all of that, the Six­ers es­sen­tially have Booker and Justin An­der­son, a cou­ple of sub­sti­tute for­wards.

“There was a de­clin­ing value over time,” Colan­gelo said. “We were cog­nizant of that. We ad­justed our dis­cus­sions with teams ac­cord­ing to that de­clin­ing value. We were al­ways re­al­is­tic. It’s not easy to take a player who was taken third in the draft, af­ter all the pain and strife that this or­ga­ni­za­tion and the fan base went through and just move away. At this point, this was the moment that a deal was avail­able that made sense.

“And we are go­ing to move for­ward with it.”

They’ll try to for­get about all that los­ing, the los­ing of games, the los­ing of pro­fes­sion­al­ism, all to ac­quire Jahlil Okafor.

They shouldn’t be al­lowed to for­get.

To con­tact Jack McCaf­fery, email him at jm­c­caf­fery@21stcen­tu­ry­media.com; fol­low him on Twit­ter @Jack­McCaf­fery

MICHAEL PEREZ — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Former 76ers Ner­lens Noel, left, and Jahil Okafor are seen on the bench dur­ing a game against Cleve­land in Novem­ber 2015. It was a slow, hu­mil­i­at­ing process, but Okafor has fi­nally been traded to join Noel on the or­ga­ni­za­tional outs list.

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