According to at least one source, the Boston Celtics are reportedly the most likely destination for Sixers center Jahlil Okafor if Philadelphia buys him out. The Sixers did not pick up Okafor’s fourth-year option, making him an unrestricted free agent at the end of this season. Okafor requested a buyout from the team, but Philadelphia has maintained their stance of not giving up the third-year big man for free.
Boston has two open roster spots and a disabled player exception of $8.4 million following Gordon Hayward’s ankle injury on opening night. It all depends on what Philadelphia decides to do with him, but Okafor’s fit with Boston is interesting.
The 21-year-old center is a former third overall pick from the 2015 NBA Draft, but has had a turbulent start to his professional career. Okafor is known for his polished offensive game in the low post. He has great footwork and can effectively finish under the rim. Okafor has a rare skill in creating his own shot in the post, but his struggles have come due to deficiencies in important aspects of the modern NBA game. (There have also been some issues off the court.)
There is a noticeable trade off when looking at Okafor’s fit with the Celtics. Is his unique scoring ability worth the challenges that come with his shortcomings in defense and floor spacing?
Okafor’s biggest strength —arguably his only one— comes from his ability to create his own shot down low. He lost 20 pounds coming into this season, but still uses his near 260 pound frame to gain position in the post. His lateral quickness is pretty good as well, and Okafor’s footwork is polished for any NBA big, let alone a 21-year-old.
Jason Smith is a big body down low, and Okafor is able to keep his body controlled driving down the baseline. If you notice the ball control he has, which you can credit to skill but also due to his gigantic hands, helps him finish without having to put any spin on the ball off the glass.
Okafor’s confidence in his ball handling is unorthodox for bigs his size. He doesn’t have a consistent mid-range shot, as he took 78.2% of his shots within 10 feet last season. But Okafor can still manage to get into a post-up situation by dribbling into the paint with confidence. This could negate his lack of floor spacing in some settings if teams know he can get to the rim with ease if given some space. It’s something we’ve seen Ben Simmons and Giannis Antetokounmpo do this season, and Okafor is dealing with slower defenders.
Okafor placed in the 43rd percentile in post-ups with the seventh highest frequency last season. That certainly doesn’t scream efficiency, but the Celtics would likely help him become a more effective contributor on the offensive end. Brad Stevens always uses players in situations that cater to their strengths. The way Boston spreads the floor with shooters, Okafor would have a lot of opportunities to post up one defender without much worry of help defense.
The Celtics were eighth in the NBA in points per possession on post-ups last season, and are on a similar trend sitting in fourth this season. Especially in match ups that favor Okafor, Stevens could unleash his post scoring within lineups that feature shooting and defensive versatility. In this case, Stevens could hide Okafor’s weaknesses on the defensive end and offensive perimeter, while utilizing his greatest strength in the perfect setting.
Against elite teams that like to go small, Stevens could match up to them easily with his main rotation, but could use Okafor in spurts to gain a unique advantage. Think about all the success Greg Monroe had against the Celtics before Aron Baynes showed up. If Okafor gets more attention down low, he’ll have to make kick out passes to those open shooters. That is a reasonable concern, and he ranked 30th among centers last season in potential assists.
Okafor’s defense is justifiably suspect. He doesn’t move very well, and lacks the versatility that a Stevens-led team demands. It also doesn’t help that he has had effort issues in the past.
In his defense, Okafor has never really had a defined role in Philadelphia. The inconsistent playing time points to that. When a player isn’t in a situation that is great for their development, it’s understandable for effort to become questionable, especially on a team in the Sixers that have won a total of 38 games in his first two seasons.
With the Celtics there’s a good chance that the effort goes up, and with mentors like Al Horford and Aron Baynes, Okafor would have a hard time finding a better situation to grow as a defender and player. Okafor has a 7’6” wingspan, and has shown flashes as a shot blocker that could help him earn more minutes on a contender.
Okafor’s shortcomings on defense and floor spacing are evident in his body of work to this point, which raise plenty of doubt to whether he would fit on this Celtics team. However, Stevens and the Celtics can utilize his rare post scoring skill in short spurts that create match up problems for teams that lack good post defenders.
We’ll see if the Sixers budge on a buyout or decide to trade Okafor for a reasonable price, but the third year big man would pose as a low risk, high reward scenario for a Celtics team in need of front court depth and unique scoring punch off the bench. As a 21-year-old center, there is plenty of potential remaining in Okafor’s development.