By Steve Lichtenstein
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It's been quite some time since the Nets had half a day as fruitful as the 12 hours that culminated with an impressive 100-95 victory over Oklahoma City in Mexico City late Thursday night.
While the positive vibes from Brooklyn's performance in the high altitude, highlighted by the outstanding two-way effort by sophomore guard Caris LeVert, could be short-lived if it isn't followed up with a successful encore against Miami on Saturday, the Nets made a move earlier in the day that could have a long-lasting impact.
Brooklyn general manager Sean Marks acquired big man Jahlil Okafor, as well as wing Nik Stauskas and a 2019 second-round draft pick (originating from the Knicks), from the Sixers in exchange for high-energy reserve power forward Trevor Booker.
Buried on Philadelphia's bench for most of the last two seasons, Okafor, the No. 3 overall selection in the 2015 NBA Draft, now has his get-out-of-jail-free card. He will get his 20-24 minutes per game just like almost everyone else here.
After dealing Brook Lopez last summer as the centerpiece in the trade for D'Angelo Russell (the No. 2 overall pick in that same 2015 draft), Brooklyn has been pretty much barren in the middle this season. I mean, Tyler Zeller is now the starting center, having beaten out the human statue Timofey Mozgov. Rookie Jarrett Allen, who is all of 19, is at this point a lobs-and-blocks project and both Quincy Acy and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson are too small to bang in the interior for more than token stretches.
The Nets publicly view this trade as just another part of their talent acquisition-and-development strategy, but what seems different this time is that they targeted a player to fit a specific need.
Nets coach Kenny Atkinson has a special place in his heart for Al Horford, the Celtics center who worked with Atkinson during the four seasons they shared in Atlanta. Atkinson at the time was largely responsible for player development as an assistant.
When Boston invaded Barclays Center last month, Atkinson raved about how the 31-year-old Horford has "embraced the new big man's role" in the NBA, where the more 3-point shooters you can put on the floor, the better.
Horford, once a high/low-post traditional center, has evolved to the point where he often handles, passes, and shoots the ball effectively from behind the 3-point arc.
I'm just guessing here, but the Nets may be taking a bet that Atkinson and his staff can develop Okafor into a similar all-court threat.
I'm not saying Okafor, who will turn 22 next week, will be another Horford, but there are some parallels.
Both were No. 3 draft picks, though Horford was nearly a year-and-a-half older. When you check their rookie stats on NBA.com, you'll notice some similarities in their shot distributions and shooting percentages. Horford was six percentage points more efficient on six more mid-range shot attempts than Okafor and there was only a half-point difference between the two players in shooting percentage at the rim. And for all the talk about Okafor's defensive issues, the Sixers were two points per 100 possessions worse defensively with Okafor on the court versus off, while the Hawks were one point worse during Horford's rookie appearances.
While neither players' assist totals dazzled anyone when they were young, it should be noted that Okafor was an excellent passer out of the post at Duke, which bodes well for playing in Atkinson's motion system that is a spinoff from what the Hawks ran.
Atkinson will challenge Okafor to improve his defense and, since he has already given green lights to Mozgov, Zeller, and Allen to take open shots from 3-point distance, it's not a stretch to expect Okafor to begin the process of expanding his range in the coming years.
If he sticks around.
The only downside of acquiring Okafor now is that he will be an unrestricted free agent after this season. Since the Sixers did not exercise their fourth-year option, the most Brooklyn can bid to keep Okafor is the option value of $6.3 million.
The NBA may be headed for a summer of belt-tightening after a couple of wild, post-TV windfall offseasons, but, as the Nets know well, all it takes is one overly generous offer to create a headache.
Still, it's hard to argue that Marks could have done better had he waited on suitors for Booker, a player with limited means on an expiring $9 million contract. When the eight-year vet concentrates on the few things he does well, he can be fairly valuable off the bench. Unfortunately, he too often tried to move outside his comfort zone (possibly with encouragement from the Nets' coaching staff). Those possessions typically did not end well.
Heck, I didn't expect the Nets to get back anything more than a one-dimensional shooter like Stauskas and a second-rounder for Booker.
But they were also able to take an educated flyer on Okafor, a player chosen for a reason with the pick before the Knicks took Kristaps Porzingis.
Like with Russell and many of the Nets, "potential" just means you haven't done anything yet. Okafor has obvious talent, but a lot of NBA failures did as well. Forget about replicating Horford's career, at this point Okafor has to avoid becoming the next Anthony Bennett.
In Brooklyn, Okafor couldn't have asked for a better opportunity.
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