Former No. 3 overall pick Jahlil Okafor is getting another chance. Okafor signed a two-year contract with the Pelicans on Wednesday that’s partially guaranteed in his first season and has a team option in his second season, making New Orleans his third stop in six months after he was traded to the Nets from the Philadelphia 76ers midway through last season. 

On paper, Okafor doesn’t fit with the Pelicans at all — especially a Pelicans team that signed Julius Randle earlier this offseason. However, his total clash of styles with the Pelicans could be what it takes for the 22-year-old center to get on track.

Simply put, Okafor doesn’t fit because he doesn’t run the floor often, but the Pelicans needed someone that can set the floor on their roster.

The Pelicans’ big men that they’ll certainly be keeping in rotation next season now include Anthony Davis, Julius Randle and Nikola Mirotic. Last season, each of those three players averaged over 12 percent of their points on the fast break. For Davis, it was 12.7 percent. For Mirotic, 14.6 percent. And for newcomer Randle, 16.8 percent with the Lakers. The Pelicans as a whole led the league in pace last season, according to NBA Stats, and their pace only increased after DeMarcus Cousins went down just before the All-Star Break. After Cousins’ injury, they led the NBA in percentage of points scored in transition at 17.7 percent. 

In stark contrast, Okafor scored 3.4 percent of his points in transition last season.

However, it’s that complete counter-intuition that might allow Okafor to not only get minutes in New Orleans, but thrive there as a counterweight. Running more than any team in basketball takes its toll. Guys like Randle and Davis can’t run the floor forever, and Mirotic is a liability inside. He’s the quintessential stretch player. Over half of his attempted field goals were beyond the arc last season. So when Randle and Davis are gassed, someone needs fill the void in the paint.

Enter Okafor. Okafor is the type of player that can allow the Pelicans to slow down their game and get into some halfcourt sets when players are resting. The Pelicans will live and die by Davis (and, to a lesser extent, Jrue Holiday), so when Davis is off the floor the Pelicans can bide their time with Okafor until he returns. When Davis is on the floor with Okafor, he can play in the high-post or on the perimeter. 

This tells us two things. First, the recruitment of Randle by Davis makes a lot of sense. He fits the identity that the Pelicans want to establish, and the recruitment itself makes sense because Randle’s interior presence will allow Davis to stretch the floor more than he was able to last season, particularly after Cousins’ injury. Even with Cousins playing, Cousins facilitated the floor from the center position more than Davis did, so Davis still found himself playing inside. 

Second, the addition of Okafor doesn’t make any sense at all strictly from an identity standpoint, but it does make sense in terms of balance. He plays a slow style of basketball that requires setting the floor and letting him work the post, a rarity in today’s NBA and something the Pelicans don’t have at all outside of Davis, who again has the capacity to stretch the floor if he’s able. Who knows, maybe one of these signings can even cut into Davis’ 36.4 minutes per game last season.

All of that, and Okafor himself has a better chance to make the Pelicans’ roster than arguably any team in the NBA. CBS Sports’ James Herbert said it best:

Emeka is 35 years old on a non-guaranteed 2018 contract, which means that Jahlil has every opportunity to make the Pelican roster. Cheick Diallo hasn’t played many quality minutes with the team, so Okafor’s signing could put him on the trade block.

Okafor isn’t going to come into New Orleans and become a 30-35 minute player. However, this could be the first step towards rehabbing his career. If he comes in and spells an already talented Pelicans frontcourt effectively, he has the potential to add another dimension to the Pelicans’ offense, even with Davis on the bench. Okafor isn’t far removed from being the 17.5 points and seven rebounds per game player he was as a rookie in 2015. He’s still young enough that if he’s been working, he can be a presence in the paint.

It’s a low-risk signing for the Pelicans, but the reward for Okafor could end up being huge if he performs. First, however, he has to perform in a system that is designed to make him uncomfortable.


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