Sixers draft target: G/F James Young

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Sixers draft target: G/F James Young

In this installment of our series before June 26’s draft, we look at a swingman who can shoot:

James Young
Position: Guard/Forward
Height/Weight: 6-6/210
School: Kentucky

Another one of John Calipari's "one-and-done" prospects who is entering the NBA after just one season at Kentucky. Young was often overshadowed by Julius Randle and Andrew and Aaron Harrison at Kentucky, but he finished last season as the Wildcats' second-leading scorer at 14.3 points per game. As a freshman, he shot 40 percent from the field and 35 percent from three-point range.

Young bolstered his draft stock significantly with his performance in the national championship game. He was far and away Kentucky's best player in a six-point loss to UConn, scoring 20 points on 5 of 13 shooting from the field and grabbing seven rebounds. Young's driving dunk in the first half was the highlight of the game and left no doubt that he has the athleticism and explosiveness to succeed in the NBA.

Young has ideal size for an NBA swingman. He will play either the shooting guard or small forward position at the pro level. This year's draft is brimming with prospects at each of those positions. How Young stacks up with the rest of that crop remains to be seen.

Strengths
Young has extraordinary athleticism and a polished offensive skill set for a player who has yet to turn 19 years old. He also doesn't shy away from big moments. Young averaged just under 17 points in Kentucky's final three games of the season, which happened to be the Elite Eight, Final Four and national championship. Young is capable of taking over a game with his ability to score the ball. In addition to having an effective (though sometimes inconsistent) outside stroke, Young can put the ball on the floor and get to the basket.
 
There is no doubt that the scrutiny that accompanies playing at Kentucky prepares you for life in the NBA. Young never seemed to have a problem dealing with that.

Weaknesses
His biggest issue in college was consistency. Young had eight games last season with 20 or more points. He also had eight games with fewer than 10 points. Some of this was due to Kentucky's deep roster and vast supply of scorers. But there is no denying Young has the tendency to disappear for prolonged stretches of games.

There are also questions surrounding his defensive abilities. Young has the foot speed to be a solid perimeter defender, but never seemed invested on the defensive end during his one season at Kentucky. This is a common trait among NBA players, but Young could separate himself by working to become more of a two-way player.

Young wasn't exactly a willing passer in college. In over 32 minutes per game, he averaged just 1.7 assists. That's actually difficult to do for a player who has the ball in his hands as often as he did.

How he'd fit with the Sixers
Young is exactly the type of raw athlete that Sixers GM Sam Hinkie seems to covet. But Hinkie also prefers players who can play defense, and Young is a long way from earning that label. At just 18 years of age, Young's game and body are still rounding into form. His potential is enticing and the fact he's still two or three years away from his best basketball meshes well with the Sixers' long-range rebuilding plan.

But if the Sixers hold onto the 3rd and 10th picks, they're very unlikely to call Young's name on draft night. If they really like him, they could trade down to the middle of first round to take him.        

NBA comparison
Arron Afflalo, who was more advanced coming out of UCLA than Young is entering the league. But they have very similar body types and offensive skills. Afflalo has made himself into an elite outside shooter. He shot 43 percent from three-point territory last season, upping his career average to 39 percent. Those percentages aren't out of the question for Young, who may be a better athlete than Afflalo.

Draft projection
Mid-first round (13th to 20th pick). 

Jahlil Okafor's Duke network helping him through up-and-down season

Jahlil Okafor's Duke network helping him through up-and-down season

Jahlil Okafor’s second season in the NBA has been one of learning, marked by injuries, trade talks and DNPs. Throughout these shifting uncertainties, he's had a constant foundation: his fellow Duke players.

“It’s a brotherhood,” Okafor said. “We’re all friends, we’re all a family.”

From those who burst onto the scene to those who struggled to veterans who have seen it all, Okafor has a network of players who already have been through the ups and downs of the league. Even though Okafor competed for only one year at the college level, he got to know many of them while he was coming up the ranks in high school. He formed a stronger bond once he got to the pros.

“He always knows I’m one phone call away no matter what,” Kyrie Irving said. 

Okafor began his second year dealing with a knee injury that held him out most of preseason action. When he got back into the mix, the Sixers looked to determine his place in a logjammed frontcourt.

Minutes were more available at the five-spot when Nerlens Noel was sidelined for the first 23 games of the season. Once all four centers (including Richaun Holmes) were healthy, it was Noel who found himself the odd man out of the rotation. Then the Sixers tried experimenting with a “twin towers” starting lineup of Embiid and Okafor. That pairing didn’t pan out and roles changed.

The Sixers narrowed their roster to a 10-man rotation with Noel as the defensive leader in the second unit. Okafor, for the most part, got the start when Embiid did not play because of back-to-backs or injuries, and was a DNP otherwise.

That situation changed again when the Sixers sat Okafor recently for two games as he was involved in trade discussions. Okafor did not travel with the Sixers for their Feb. 13 contest in Charlotte and rejoined them in Boston for their Feb. 15 game when a deal did not transpire. 

Okafor has a long list of players he can ask about these trying scenarios.

“I get help from all those guys,” Okafor said. “I can look to any one of [them] for advice.”

Former Blue Devil Austin Rivers has been in Okafor’s situation when it comes to decreased playing time. The 2012 10th overall pick had troubles carving out a role early on with the Pelicans. He dealt with injuries and was hit with DNPs when the team added more guards to the mix. Now in his fifth season, he has established a spot on the Clippers. 

“It’s a good thing,” Rivers said of the challenges. “If you’re truly a good player and a competitor, it’ll breed maturity and a level of respect and hard work. It’s a humbling experience. It’s the best thing for you; it’s the best thing that happened to me. I went through struggles to come back a better player and person. I think it’s the same thing he’s doing now. He’ll appreciate it.”

Irving, formerly the first overall pick, didn’t struggle with his role with the Cavaliers. He was a focal point from the start and had become a three-time All-Star and NBA champion by the end of his fifth season. Because of this, Okafor looks to Irving for his knowledge of managing the spotlight.

“Guys have to go through what they go through just to build character, build whatever they need, that armor, to deal with what this NBA life entails. It comes with a lot,” Irving said. “It’s just patience. Despite what's going on in the outside world, you’ve got to remain calm and give everything you have to this game of basketball.”

Last season, Okafor established a mentor relationship with Elton Brand when the 17-year veteran signed with the Sixers in January of Okafor’s rookie year. Okafor still speaks with Brand, who became a player development consultant for the Sixers, on a weekly basis for guidance.

This season, he has another veteran Duke player in the locker room. Gerald Henderson got to know Okafor before they played together on the Sixers. Henderson was on campus completing his degree when Okafor was there ahead of his freshman season. The two spent time together then, and Henderson continues to look out for him now as a teammate.

“I was around him a lot, working out with the team, seeing how good of a kid he was,” Henderson said, also adding, “It’s a man’s league. It’s not like you’ve got to hold somebody’s hand through something. Jah’s a man in himself. But at the same time, I’m always checking on him, seeing how he’s doing, make sure he’s not down, make sure he’s still getting his work in and focusing on the right things.”

The trade deadline is two days away.

Whether Okafor remains in a Sixers jersey or puts on a new uniform, the one he wore in college always will be a part of his journey through the NBA.

“It’s bigger than basketball,” Okafor said. 

Reports: Pacers the latest team pursuing Jahlil Okafor

Reports: Pacers the latest team pursuing Jahlil Okafor

Another team has emerged in Jahlil Okafor trade talks: the Indiana Pacers.

The Pacers are pursuing Okafor in an attempt to add help for Paul George, according to ESPN's Ramona Shelburne, Jeff Goodman and Chris Haynes.

Indiana would make some sense for Okafor because of their style of play. The Pacers rank 25th in the NBA in fastbreak points per game. They're 25th in speed/distance traveled on offense. (The Sixers are first.) 

And Indiana is also in the top-third of the league in post touches and paint touches per game. 

Al Jefferson, a plodding post player Okafor is often compared to, averages 8.5 points for the Pacers this season and has played in every game.

What might the Pacers be willing to part with?

Thaddeus Young would be a solid return, but it's hard to see the Pacers doing that because it wouldn't make them a better team.

C.J. Miles? Probably not. The guy's an elite three-point shooter.

Forget about Myles Turner, one of the best young bigs in the NBA. 

A trade that might make sense for both teams would be Monta Ellis and a 2017 first-round pick for Okafor. (Before you continue reading, just know I'm not advocating for such a deal, just bringing up the possibility.)

Ellis has fallen out of favor in Indiana, playing six fewer minutes per game than he did the last two years. And as a 31-year-old, undersized two-guard who's long struggled from three-point range, he's not the most efficient player. He's also owed $23 million the next two seasons.

The Sixers could use additional scoring, but could do better than Ellis in free agency. This theoretical trade would really be about the first-round pick.

If the season ended today, the Pacers (29-28) would get the 18th overall pick. In that regard, the pick coming back wouldn't be much different than what they could have received from New Orleans before the DeMarcus Cousins trade.

The Sixers seemed unwilling to take on the contracts of Omer Asik or Alexis Ajinca in a trade with New Orleans because, even though they have salary cap flexibility, they don't want to limit their payroll for multiple future seasons. The same would likely be true with Ellis, even though he'd fill more of a need.

Okafor for Miles would be a good trade for the Sixers. So would Okafor for Young. But again, neither deal would make Indiana better in the short term, so it's probably a pipe dream.

The trade deadline is Thursday at 3 p.m.