MEXICO CITY — Nets general manager Sean Marks has been praised widely for his improvisational chops in turning the bad hand he was dealt when he took over 22 months ago into a roster that is showing signs of becoming competitive. He burnished those credentials again on Thursday by obtaining Jahlil Okafor, Nik Stauskas and a second-round pick from the 76ers for Trevor Booker and his expiring contract.
On paper, it looks like a steal. But based on the underachieving performance of Okafor and Stauskas in Philadelphia, the level of risk is undeniable.
Lacking control of the Nets’ first-round draft picks from 2016-18, Marks has become a miner in search of raw talent that other organizations failed to refine. He did that when he acquired D’Angelo Russell, the No. 2 overall pick from the 2015 draft, from the Lakers last summer, and he did it again with the latest deal for Okafor (No. 3 in 2015) and Stauskas (No. 8 in 2014).
“In any trade or acquisition, you’re going to bet on your staff,” Marks said. “We’re not just going to do every risky scenario that comes along. It will be the ones that we feel fit our timeline moving forward.
“If it means other teams need to move off particular players because it doesn’t suit where they’re at, I think Philadelphia and Bryan [Colangelo, the team president] have been quite vocal in saying, ‘This is the trajectory we’re going in.’ Notably, Jahlil doesn’t fit for them, but he fits for us maybe.
“I think he’s hungry to show people that he wants to play, and we’re expecting good things from him.”
Marks’ latest move comes with minimal risk. Okafor is a free agent at the end of this season, and so is Stauskas if the Nets don’t make a qualifying offer. Still, Okafor, the centerpiece of the deal, is regarded as a major question mark because of his one-dimensional game as a low-post scorer who has been a poor defender and whose conditioning and work ethic have been questioned.
Coach Kenny Atkinson emphasized the opportunity Okafor and Stauskas have to leave their baggage behind when they arrive for their first Nets practice Monday in Brooklyn. “Never having coached [Okafor], like with any player we bring into our program, we don’t pre-judge him,” Atkinson said. “We’re going to welcome both of those players with open arms.
“Any misconceptions or ideas people have about these two guys, whether it’s their work ethic or character, we judge them on our terms. I think they’re coming into a strong locker room and into a program with a staff that really cares, a front office that is top-notch. I’m really excited about this.”
From the moment Marks arrived, he worked to build a strong, player-oriented culture, and that’s not just lip service. Speaking of Okafor, Marks said, “When we get him in our system, get him around our group of guys, I think our players will be the ones saying, ‘Hey, look, this is how things are done here.’ The goal will be to have a player-led culture. Kenny, myself, the coaching staff, the rest of the front office, we’re just trying to facilitate that.”
Like Atkinson, Marks said he’s not going to question Okafor’s past motivation or performance. “I’m going to bet on the person and I’m going to bet on the environment here to facilitate that,” Marks said. “The conversation with Jahlil was great and the same with Nik. Both guys are eager to get here and get started in a different environment.”
That environment consists of a core of eight young players with a chance for long-term development, including 19-year-old Jarrett Allen, Russell (21), Okafor (22 on Thursday), Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (22), Caris LeVert (23), Spencer Dinwiddie (24), Stauskas (24) and Allen Crabbe (25).
For Okafor and Stauskas to secure a position in that group, they must improve to meet the standard set by Atkinson and his coaching staff.
“Obviously, they are two very talented offensive players,” Atkinson said. “We need to defend the basketball. We need those guys to be two-way players. That’s going to be the challenge for them. We’re going to demand it as we do of everybody that comes into our program. But they’re two talented guys and it’s our job to get them to fit into our system.”