It was a seemingly innocuous move. At least that’s what he thought.
Way back on June 28, 2015, Jahlil Okafor was introduced in Philadelphia after being drafted with the No. 3 overall pick. When the press conference was over, Okafor quickly dropped his jersey onto the stage and turned to walk away.
The reaction to the optics was way worse than the scene in reality. But in the end, the moment served as a precursor to Okafor’s time in the city: from the excitement of oozing potential to simply being discarded.
Okafor came to the Sixers with great fanfare. While he was the latest center to be selected in the lottery by the team, he brought certain elements that Joel Embiid and Nerlens Noel did not.
First, Okafor had the polish. Noel, and especially Embiid, offered their own offensive gifts entering the league, but the 6-foot-11, 275-pounder was different. He was the old-school big man with the huge hands, swift feet and soft touch in the paint.
“Someone that can draw a double-team, and we don’t see those a lot in our league right now. We don’t see a lot … someone that can draw a double-team is enormously useful. Enormously useful,” former Sixers exec Sam Hinkie said of Okafor in June 2015. “That’s one of the things he can do. Someone that has hands that are as good as his, that can catch every ball thrown his way, that can do all sorts of things in the post, that can be a pick-and-roll player like that. That’s hard to find. That’s really hard to find, which is why you’ll hear people that have coached him and you’ll hear people that have been around him rave about him. We feel very excited to be able to take him.”
Then there was the pedigree. Okafor was an absolute winner. From city and state titles as a star at Whitney Young High School in his native Chicago to the 2015 national championship at Duke, Okafor reached the mountaintop at every level of basketball.
“Winning has always been my main focus,” Okafor said prior to his rookie season. “I have always hated losing. I am a sore loser. I do not take losing well. I have always been about winning because I have been winning my entire life.”
Perhaps the best thing Okafor had going for him was health. With Embiid and Noel missing seasons because of injuries, Okafor was ready to suit up from Day 1.
And things were good for the big man at the start — well, besides that whole wanting to win thing. Okafor recorded 17.5 points on 50.8 percent shooting, 7.0 rebounds, 1.2 assists and 1.2 blocks per game during his first professional season en route to being named first-team All-Rookie.
While those numbers are all well and good, this is Philadelphia. Even low-post players that aren't centers learn to play with a certain oomph. The big man is simply held to a higher standard in the home of Center City.
After all, this is where Dolph Schayes pounded the glass. It’s where Wilt Chamberlain took steps toward becoming the GOAT. It’s where Bobby Jones hustled his way into fans’ hearts and Billy Cunningham leaped to one rebound after another.
This is the city where Caldwell Jones terrorized opponents, Moses Malone intimidated foes in the paint and Darryl Dawkins hammered rims into oblivion.
It’s where an undersized power forward named Charles Barkley made people realize why he was called “The Round Mound of Rebound.” This is the town where Rick Mahorn and Derrick Coleman played with that beloved nastiness. This is the town where Theo Ratliff swatted shots out of the sky and Dikembe Mutombo followed suit with that signature finger wag.
So while Okafor caught the locals’ attention with all of the pretty spin moves and drop steps for buckets, it was always going to be the grit, or lack thereof, that let Philadelphia know who he really was on the floor.
A deeper look revealed everything you needed to see. Okafor capped that rookie season with an average of 7.0 boards a night, but 17 times in 53 games that year he ended with five rebounds or less.
Then there’s the defense. Forget not being good enough on the defensive end of the floor, Okafor couldn’t even be bothered. I mean, remember this:
He has a defensive rating of 110.0 per 100 possessions for his career. In other words, teams score 110 points for every 100 possessions Okafor is on the court.
“I have to make him holistic and point out defensive flaws,” Brown said in January 2016. “That’s my job, especially when you beat your chest and carry a flag about playing defense in this city. You can’t hide from anything.”
Okafor couldn’t hide anymore. Not from attacking opponents, fans’ criticism or even his own doubt about his skill set.
Throw in the off-court issues from that rookie season, including a Boston street fight and speeding across the Ben Franklin Bridge, and the writing was on the wall for Okafor.
Then came the long-awaited and sensational play of fellow center Embiid last season and the writing was all over every single wall Okafor was forced to look at inside the Wells Fargo Center and the Sixers’ training complex.
Sure, the Sixers bungled the ending. They sent him home last season when they thought a trade was imminent only to be forced to bring him back into the fold when the deal fell apart. Then the organization had Okafor go through yet another offseason with the squad only to decline to pick up the fourth-year option on his contract.
“Honestly, I didn't want them to pick up my option,” Okafor said last month. “I’ve been going through a lot since I've been here. So the fact that I know that at the end of the season I would at least have an opportunity to play elsewhere, that's great. Now I'm just in a position to where, how can I get on the court? That's not happening here. I want to play.”
It’s all water under the bridge now — more specifically the Brooklyn Bridge — after the Sixers dealt Okafor, Nik Stauskas and a second-round pick to the Nets for Trevor Booker.
Now Okafor gets a second chance to prove he was worth all of the buzz entering the NBA. Hopefully, for him, he doesn’t get quickly discarded yet again like that jersey from his introductory press conference.