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NBA Free Agency: Jahlil Okafor signs with New Orleans Pelicans, but can he crack 15-man roster?

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Jah has officially signed a partially guaranteed contract, but just how good are his chances of landing a spot on the regular season roster?

New York Knicks v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

The New Orleans Pelicans and Jahlil Okafor officially came to terms on a partially guaranteed two-year contract today, in an anticipated move that fans can trace back to the 2017 trade deadline.

The ‘other’ Okafor remains an intriguing name around the league considering his 22 years of age and being just four years removed from the third overall selection in the 2015 NBA Draft. If things work out swimmingly, he would add to the Pelicans’ youth movement this summer joining Elfrid Payton, 24, and Julius Randle, 23, on the sidelines.

Following a rookie season that included averages of 17.5 points and seven rebounds per game, Okafor was primed to carve out a long career in Philadelphia, but things quickly went downhill instead. In addition to missing lots of time due to injury, competition at his position grew wildly as Joel Embiid and Nerlens Noel started soaking up minutes, leaving Okafor on the outside looking in. Even mystery clouded Okafor’s absence from the 76ers — remember when he stayed behind in Philly when the team flew to Boston? — which eventually forced a deal with Brooklyn at the last deadline.

His time at Duke University wasn’t free of such setbacks either as ankle issues would keep him from performing at 100%. Okafor has been notorious for appearing at camp out of shape, and some question if the lingering injuries may be tied to the 6’11, now 258 pound big man’s lack of fitness?

Following a minor meniscus repair in the 2016 offseason, Okafor missed seven months with an injury that can take as few as six weeks.

Continuing to rehab his right knee, Jahlil Okafor participated in Friday’s practice on a limited basis. His activities were restricted to individual load management, and some scripted on-court work.

To judge the extent of the progress that the third pick of the 2015 draft is making, Brett Brown monitors “movement.”

“It’s both north-south, and east-west,” Brown said of Okafor. “Can he slide his feet? Can he run rim-to-rim both ways, both those directions. I just look at movement, free-flowing fluid movement.”

When Okafor does ultimately return to the floor, Brown believes the big man will be well-prepared to handle the accompanying physical demands.

During the Ringer’s famed directional attack of Bryan Colangelo’s ‘burner accounts,’ it was revealed a deal was put in place between the Pelicans and 76ers before a failed physical prevented the transaction.

After meager averages of around six points and three rebounds a game last season with the 76ers and Nets, Okafor could quickly find himself on the outskirts of the NBA community, but if his offseason progress is any indication, Okafor isn’t going down without a fight.

After changing his nutrional habits and becoming a Vegan, Okafor tackled this offseason with equal ferocity, hiring renowned trainers in David Alexander and Idan Ravin. According to reports, Okafor has lost near 20 pounds. Alexander is well known for getting Victor Oladipo into fantastic playing shape last summer and spending time with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade over the years in preparation for regular seasons.

Okafor will have every opportunity to earn a place on the regular season roster. While it’s unlikely the Pelicans will deal away third year man Cheick Diallo, or trade fodder Alexis Ajinca right now, Jahlil has a realistic chance of unseating the elder Okafor, Emeka, before the games start to count.

The reason for this is simple; New Orleans would be wise Ajinca until the trade deadline. At $5.3 million guaranteed, he makes for an interesting trade piece, say to a team like the Orlando Magic who might seek to deal Jonathan Simmons for matching salary and protected picks.

Diallo seems equally unlikely to be moved now because he lacks a market and the Pelicans invested two second round picks in his development. Plus at a comfortable $1.5 million on the books for this year, the Pelicans would be wise to give him one last look. Remember, Diallo has only been playing competitve basketball for five years.

And that’s where Emeka comes in. The elder Okafor was brilliant in his limited time with the Pelicans, but during the stretch run and playoffs, the Alvin Gentry chose to sit him, giving the third big minutes to the younger Diallo in favor of maintaining a fast pace.

With only $100k paid out of his $2.45 million contract, Emeka will have to prove his worth to ward off his younger counterpart. With over 13 years difference in age, it makes every bit of sense for the Pelicans to give Jahlil the opportunity. Emeka could be the better fit and overall better player right now, but after missing four years of NBA basketball, there is no guarantee he can perform at a consistent level for 82 games, either.

Regardless of the outcome, the Pelicans made the smart move in taking a flyer on Jahlil Okafor’s potential, and with light guarantees, the Pelicans have earned another highly motivated young player desperate to compete in next month’s training camp.