Jahlil Okafor came into the NBA as the centerpiece of a national champion and one of the more polished low-post prospects in recent memory. But while that natural scoring ability has been on display for the Philadelphia 76ers, the flaws in his game and an awkward fit with frontcourt mate Nerlens Noel leave his future as an elite difference-maker in doubt.
On the surface, it looks like Okafor is having an excellent individual rookie season, outside of some off-the-court issues that he's seemingly put behind him. He's averaging 17.5 points and seven rebounds on the year while shooting nearly 51 percent from the field, which puts him among the league leaders for rookies.
But dig deeper and Okafor's rookie portrait isn't quite as flattering. The Sixers have been outscored by nearly 17 points per 100 possessions with the 20-year-old on the floor this season, per NBA.com. That's the worst mark on the team. Furthermore, Okafor is part of the six worst two-man duos that have played at least 500 minutes. These issues can't all be pinned on the talented youngster, but it's troubling just how bad things have gone.
The good news is Okafor is a 20-year-old rookie who already boasts sweet low-post moves. The bad news is that the concerns about his long-term viability as a centerpiece on a title-contending team are valid thanks in part to his shortcomings on the defensive end. As Jonathan Tjarks recently wrote on his "The Pattern of Basketball " blog:
There's nowhere you can hide a [center] who can't defend. The whole point of playing a 5 in the modern NBA is because of the value they bring as a rim protector and a second line of defense. It's a defensive position before it's an offensive position.
A good way to look at it is that the center in basketball is like the catcher in baseball - the position has so mgany defensive requirements that it almost doesn't matter how good they are on offense as long as they can stay out of the way. The temptation to play an offensive-minded player at that position is super high because it's such a value add in comparison to the rest of the league, but the problem is that sacrificing defense at that position for a big bat can really hamstring a team in a lot of subtle ways.
Okafor certainly can improve. He may lack elite lateral quickness and that innate basketball IQ on defense, but he has a massive 7'6 wingspan and can learn to position himself better with good coaching. Put the right players around him and perhaps an Okafor-anchored defense can still be good enough.
The question is, who are the right kind of players to put around Okafor? We can learn some lessons from the success of Okafor's college team and a couple other recent similar NBA squads in Boston and Charlotte, both of whom were able to mask the defensive deficiencies of more traditional low-post players like Al Jefferson and Jared Sullinger.
A good point guard
College basketball is a different game than the NBA, but we can still use Okafor's Duke team as a possible blueprint for how to cobble together an effective defense around Okafor while also boasting a high-level offense that features his dominant low-post play.
Step 1 is good point guard play, and Duke had two strong players at that position in Tyus Jones and Quinn Cook. Having two guards who could space the floor around Okafor and facilitate him in the low post was a plus. Cook's improvement as a defender over the course of the year also helped eliminate some of Duke's issues with guarding dribble penetration.
Using the Hornets and Celtics as an example, starting point guards Kemba Walker and Isaiah Thomas may not be defensive stoppers, but they're superb offensive players and at least passable on the defensive end. Boston also has the luxury of having Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart to defend point guards.
To maximize Okafor, the ideal point guard would be an outside threat, have the ability to get him the ball in his preferred spots and be strong enough defensively to limit dribble penetration.
Versatile wing players
Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski changed his starting lineup toward the end of last season, inserting the 6'5 Matt Jones alongside fellow lottery pick Justise Winslow while taking out the 6'9 Amile Jefferson. That changed Duke into a small unit that effectively featured four perimeter players alongside Okafor in the middle.
Jones and Winslow were not only able to guard wings, but they were also strong enough to play up a position as smaller power forwards. Winslow in particular thrived once he slid up a position. All four of Tyus Jones, Matt Jones, Cook and Winslow were capable three-point shooters as well, providing Okafor the necessary floor spacing to operate down low.
The Hornets and Celtics also have a surplus of quality wings who can play a variety of positions. Nicolas Batum is one of the more versatile wings in the league, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, when healthy, is one of the best wing defenders in the league. Boston has Jae Crowder as its do-it-all defensive maestro, plus that hellacious Bradley-Smart duo and Evan Turner.
Again, it'd be nice if these players were good perimeter shooters. But it's far more important to have strong wing defenders who can keep their men in front of them and limit Okafor's help responsibilities.
A non-traditional frontcourt partner
Related to the above point, having another traditional big that's more comfortable in the paint on both ends of the floor isn't an ideal match for Okafor. The mismatched Okafor-Noel pairing drives this home. The 76ers have been outscored by a whopping 20 points per 100 possessions in the nearly 700 minutes the duo has shared the court, per NBA.com.
It's clear why this happens. Offensively, neither player spaces the floor, which clogs up the paint and makes it more difficult for them to play their games. On the other end, Okafor can't guard the perimeter and Noel's rim-protecting talents are wasted if he's chasing players outside.
So playing small, or at least with a shooting power forward who can ably defend, is the way the 76ers should play if they want to get the most out of Okafor.
Are the 76ers following these steps?
As bad as Okafor and Noel have been together, the issue is accentuated by a dearth of talent across the roster. Ish Smith, T.J. McConnell and Isaiah Canaan are back-end rotation players at best, but they've all spent time as the starting point guard this year. Nik Stauskas and Hollis Thompson are borderline NBA talents getting big minutes on the wing. Robert Covington and Jerami Grant have value, but top out as role players on a really good team.
The Sixers will have cap space and more high draft picks to add to this mostly barren cupboard, plus the tantalizing mysteries that are Joel Embiid and Dario Saric. But even if Philadelphia adds elite talent at point guard and the wing, it's no guarantee the Okafor-Noel duo will ever work thanks to the inherent problems in place.
The problem only grows more complicated if Embiid ever does play and Saric pans out. Does Okafor fit ideally with any of those players? Saric seems like the best bet given his skill set, but that's just a guess at this point, and that still leaves the question of what would happen to the other two.
In any scenario, Philadelphia is going to have to make some tough decisions with some of its talented youngsters. We're often too quick to dismiss the struggles of young players, so it'd be wrong to write off Okafor as a potential building block of a title contender just because of his situation.
However, the flaws in his game must be carefully hidden. Any team, whether it's the Sixers or someone else, must construct its roster in a specific way to maximize Okafor's strengths and cover for his weaknesses.
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