It's rare for NBA Draft prospects to be truly elite in a single category, but Jahlil Okafor enters the NBA as a center who projects to be a transcendent post scorer. With tremendous footwork, vision, touch, instincts and strength, the 19-year-old will cause havoc in the paint for many years to come.
And yet, it is impossible to ignore Okafor's weaknesses as the NBA shifts away from an emphasis on the low post game. It's crucial for centers to defend at a high level nowadays, and Okafor didn't prove he could do it in his one season at Duke. It's also becoming increasingly important for big men to shoot from the perimeter, and Okafor hasn't proven he can do that, either. For as polished of a post threat he is, his shortcomings require serious consideration before any team selects him in the top five.
It's all part of what makes Okafor perhaps the draft's safest bet to succeed as an individual, but also one of the riskiest for an organization to build around.
Okafor could be the NBA's next great on the low post
For longtime NBA fans, Okafor is a blast from the past with footwork that is truly a sight to behold and a spin move as graceful as a ballerina's pirouette. He has counter attacks for anything an opposing defense throws at him. It looks like he's gripping a baseball, not a basketball, when he holds out the ball with his enormous hands as he scans the defense with Zen-like patience. Okafor remains calm in the face of double teams and delivers accurate passes that led to open shots all season for Duke.
If it sounds like he's the second coming of Tim Duncan or Karl Malone, that's because he could be. It's not blasphemy to feel that way. Young big men that can score and pass from the post at this level are an extinct species. Okafor playing in the NBA is the basketball equivalent to the resurrection of the dinosaurs.
Okafor is equally threatening from both blocks, which is unusual for a player his age.
Here he sets up Tarheels defender Justin Jackson by taking two dribbles to feel how he's being played. He is shaded up the middle, so he spins baseline and wisely plants his left foot behind Jackson, which causes him to take a seat in the paint.
And here on the other block, Okafor receives the ball at a crucial point of Duke's national championship victory over Wisconsin. He backs Frank Kaminsky down with ease and spins into an and-one layup with perfect balance.
In both of these clips Okafor "looks middle" before going into his shot. This simple action allows him to read the entire floor and locate helpers while seeing his own man. More importantly, he can see the hard double teams coming, which opponents used frequently throughout the season.
This is what separates him from many of the league's black hole post scorers that get tunnel vision anytime they receive the ball. He averaged less than two assists per 40 minutes, but that doesn't tell the whole story, since he deserves credit for so many secondary assists or hockey assists as a result of his vision.
According to Vantage Sports, Okafor had a 23.9 Indirect Pass Rate, which is defined as the percentage of Assist+ that are crucial passes leading to assists or missed open shots. He leads all big men prospects in this Vantage stat because of plays like this:
The Timberwolves or Lakers should feel comfortable facilitating offense through him on the low post. He's not prone to turnovers, he makes the simple play and he delivers extremely accurate passes to the perimeter and to cutters in the lane.
As Okafor develops his body -- which he already has by shredding 12 pounds of baby fat -- and as he adds more post moves to his already impressive arsenal, he'll command even more double teams, which will open up his teammates.
But Okafor's pitfalls make him hard to build around
For the sake of discussion, let's assume Minnesota selects Karl-Anthony Towns with the first pick. That means, in all likelihood, the Lakers will feel obliged to choose Okafor.
His issues begin to come into play when assessing his fit in L.A. Julius Randle is likely their power forward of the future, but he has similar problems to Okafor. Offensively, Randle has yet to prove he can stretch the floor beyond mid-range, which could create spacing problems for a team already starving for shooting from the perimeter.
The Grizzlies have had success for years with Marc Gasol, a similarly deft post scorer and passer like Okafor, and Zach Randolph, a similarly hard-nosed scorer like Randle. Still, Memphis has only reached the conference finals once largely because of the team's inability to space the floor. Both Gasol and Randolph can hit mid-range jumpers, but neither shoot threes, and the rest of the team lacks any sharpshooting threats.
The best teams in the NBA can all shoot threes -- the final four in the playoffs were all top five in three-point makes per game and top seven in attempts. And if your team isn't spreading the floor and launching threes, they better defend at a high level.
Of the five teams that made the fewest threes per game, three have top-10 picks (Minnesota, Sacramento, Charlotte). The other two, Memphis and Washington ranked fourth and fifth, respectively, in defensive rating.
Of course, the Grizzlies made a midseason trade to add a stretch forward in Jeff Green, and the Wizards used Paul Pierce at power forward for most of the playoffs. Despite originally being constructed to play a bruising style of basketball, both teams understood it's essential to spread the floor.
For the Lakers, the other problem is that neither Randle or Okafor can protect the rim. So, if they draft Okafor, not only will they be unable to spread the floor, but they won't be able to defend at a high level either. Unless Okafor magically develops in either of these categories, then there are very few bigs that he can successfully be paired with. How many power forwards can really protect the rim and spread the floor? There's Anthony Davis, Serge Ibaka ... and the guy being drafted ahead of him: Towns.
Okafor has an immaculate feel for the game on the offensive end, but he often looks lacking on defense. He's slow to react to penetration and he tends to stand around in no man's land with his arms ziptied to his sides when he has to make a decision. With a massive 7'5 wingspan and such quick feet, you'd think he'd be a stud defender, but he looks like he's moving through sludge.
You'll notice a trend in all three of the clips above: Okafor is fastened to the floor like Velcro and is unable to elevate to alter the shot. It goes without saying that this is troubling as he projects to the NBA.
He merely watches the opponent score, making little effort to even contest the shot. In the one play he does contest, he goes pushed back, which was a typical sight this season. Despite weighing 272 pounds as a freshman, he got tossed around when defending penetration, rendering his strength useless.
Okafor has poor perimeter defense technique, which is apparent here. But it's difficult to tell if he's just not good at it, if he's never been taught or a combination of both. As Kaminsky catches the kickout pass, Okafor is caught completely off balance, which is what allows the Wisconsin center to penetrate and then spin into an uncontested layup.
Kaminsky, a senior, was the best scoring big man in college basketball last season, so it's understandable for a freshman like Okafor to get burned badly. But he's going to face players as good or better than Kaminsky on a more consistent basis in the NBA. And besides, it wasn't just players at Kaminsky's level shredding him.
Rakeem Christmas is a second-round pick and was able to blow by the flat-footed Okafor. He uses his hands too much instead of sliding his feet to stay in front of the ball handler. And it's not like he wasn't moving them, he's just not that quick laterally.
If players like Christmas, who aren't threats to shoot the ball, can scoot by Okafor, then what happens when he's defending the league's floor-stretching bigs on a near nightly basis?
Okafor jogs down the floor and consistently gets beat in transition, he ball watches, he doesn't box out frequently, he fails to recognize penetration, he doesn't communicate pick-and-rolls and he clearly lacks the agility to move like a big man defender needs to. Just about his only positive on defensive is defending the block, since he's strong and can use his length to bother shots. But teams aren't going to the post as frequently as they used to, which minimizes the importance of his strength in that area.
There's always a chance Okafor learns how to play defense and gains the desire to defend as he matures, but many players just have it or don't. Okafor has too many negatives working against him on that end to give much confidence that he will be able to develop those vast abilities. The key for him will be to elevate his defense to a passable level so he's not a liability once he enters his prime.
Still, despite the negatives, let's not forget about the positives: Jahlil Okafor is a supreme low post scorer. There is a strong possibility he becomes one of the NBA's biggest scoring threats and if the right pieces are put around him, it will only enhance his dominance.
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