NEW YORK — In the weeks leading up to the NBA Draft, the expectation was that Karl-Anthony Towns would go number one overall to the Timberwolves, and that Jahlil Okafor was too talented for the Lakers to pass up at two.
But even if Okafor does eventually evolve into the once in a generation post player that some project, L.A. is in the business of attempting to win now. And with its eyes on landing someone like LaMarcus Aldridge or Kevin Love in free agency, or a disgruntled talent like DeMarcus Cousins in trade from a dysfunctional organization, that bevy of big man options was enough to send the Lakers looking in another direction.
D’Angelo Russell got the call, a 6’5″ point guard who can shoot the three and has as good a chance as anyone in this class of becoming a real star. And once he did, that threw a fairly large wrench into the plans of the Sixers at three, and the domino effect could have been strong enough to remove some very real options the Knicks may have had at four.
“I didn’t know at all, man,” Russell said, when asked if he had any advance notice that he’d be heading to Los Angeles. “I’m still in shock.”
That might be too strong a word to describe the feeling in the war room of the Philadelphia 76ers, but they had to at least be a little bit surprised. Having Okafor still on the board made the choice for Sam Hinkie and company easy, because taking the best available player, regardless of need, is the team’s currently prevailing philosophy.
But the rebuilding Sixers now have a logjam of talented frontcourt players, all of whom would seem to need a healthy dose of minutes in order to speed their development. Nerlens Noel averaged 30.8 minutes per game last season, and Okafor would like to see in the neighborhood of the same. But there’s Joel Embiid to consider, provided the setback he’s experienced with his foot injury doesn’t force him to miss some or all of a second consecutive season.
“Joel Embiid texted me last night and said, ‘See you in Philly,'” Okafor said. “He kind of jinxed me.”
Okafor has said all along that he wasn’t concerned with whether or not he might fall from one of the top two spots on draft night, and reiterated that stance after his fate became known.
“I wasn’t shocked,” Okafor said of ending up with the Sixers. “I knew I was going to be going to the NBA tonight. I was going to be a top-five pick no matter what happened, so I wasn’t shocked.”
Philadelphia needed to grab a guard here, after dealing a reigning Rookie of the Year in Michael Carter-Williams in part because he simply couldn’t shoot. With a seemingly sure thing in Russell now gone, however, and with Emmanuel Mudiay perhaps feeling like too big of a risk, the Sixers are now forced to try to make it work with three potentially franchise-changing big men, perhaps all at the same time.
“It’s not my job to figure it out,” Okafor said. “I’ll just go there and work as hard as I can.”
Similar words were spoken by Kristaps Porzingis, the international seven-footer with the sweet shooting stroke who was mercilessly booed after being selected by the Knicks.
“I mean, a lot of fans weren’t happy that they drafted me, but I have to do everything that’s in my hands to turn those booing fans into clapping fans,” Porzingis said. “For me it’s an honor to be a part of this organization, and I just can’t wait to let the season start and just get to work.”
Porzingis may vey well have ended up in New York because of L.A.’s unexpected choice. Phil Jackson told reporters that he had offers from other teams, but they were all contingent on how the first three picks played out. Had Okafor been gone as had been projected, the Sixers may very well have gone with Porzingis at three if they believed he was the best player left on the board — a possibility which had been previously reported, and one which could have unlocked all kinds of attractive offers for the Knicks.
The result, instead, is chaos in Philadelphia, and uncertainty in New York — all thanks to D’Angelo Russell landing in Los Angeles with the Lakers.