Jahlil Okafor came on to the national radar before he even stepped foot on a high school court.
During the winter of 2010, Okafor’s eighth grade year, the University of DePaul came under fire as then-head coach Tracy Webster give a verbal offer to the 14-year-old prospect. While that situation ended up coming to nothing, it was the first of many signs that Jahlil Okafor was a big deal.
Playing high school ball at Whitney M. Young High School in Chicago, Okafor’s reputation would continue to steadily grow as he progressed as a player. That continued progression grew as he matched up against future NBA studs Jabari Parker and Anthony Davis. Yet despite playing against players that were two or three years older than him, Okafor was a consistent mismatch as a 6’9 stud because of his improving post-up game.
As his high school career went on, Okafor hung on to the status of not only being one of the best players in the class of 2014, but as one of the top players in the world who wasn’t in the NBA. As a junior, Okafor reportedly played in a scrimmage game against Enes Kanter and dominated him.
As well as this, Okafor was a part of the 2013 FIBA Under-19 Tournament, where he played alongside Aaron Gordon, Marcus Smart and Montrezl Harrell, all a year or two older than Okafor. Despite that, though, Okafor dominated in the tournament, averaging 10.8 points (77% from the field) in just 18 minutes per game.
That performance, combined with his continued success as a high school stud, pushed scouts to push Okafor as being the top pick in the 2015 NBA Draft before he ever stepped foot in Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium. Was he able to maintain that status after playing for Coach K and the Duke Blue Devils?
Let’s find out.
Undoubtedly the biggest strength of Okafor’s overall game is his sheer dominance as a post-up weapon. Slowly crafting that skill during his storied high school career, Okafor had no trouble bringing it to the college game; per Synergy Sports, he averaged .933 points per possession (on 57% field goal shooting) from post-ups during his time at Duke.
The basis for a lot of that post-up success rests on two things:
- Using his large 272 pound frame to bully opponents.
- Having some of the best footwork seen in recent memory.
After using that post-up ability to dominate high school competition for four straight years, Okafor has seemingly developed his work in the low post into a sweet science. You get the sense that he knows what he’s going to do before he even catches the ball. The reason behind that thought is because of how seamless and quick Okafor’s low post game is.
In the split seconds after receiving the post-entry pass, Okafor recognizes his position on the court and immediately goes into attack mode. After he gets in position, Okafor does an excellent job of keeping his opponent off-balance thanks in large part to incredible footwork. That singular trait allows Okafor to get an immediate advantage over his opponent, as he can use drop steps, spins or up-and-unders to work around his opponent. Okafor has seemingly perfected each of those moves, which is insane for a 19-year-old player.
After making these moves, Okafor is able to be a huge threat in the low post based on his silky smooth touch from around the rim. While posting up, Okafor can either utilize a pretty hook shot from both sides of the low block, or break away from the post-up to hit a little 12-foot jumper
Alongside that threat as a post-up player, Okafor can create offense through other means. While he wasn’t asked to do this a lot, Okafor worked as an excellent roll man for Tyus Jones in pick-and-roll action. Based solely on his physical makeup – long wingspan, big body, mobility and huge hands – Okafor is a solid off-ball cutter as he can finish plays with massive slams. Additionally, he’s shown a solid ball-handling ability for a center, which will probably be showcased more when he transitions to the NBA.
To the surprise of nobody, Okafor also stood as one of the nation’s elite offensive rebounders. Averaging 4.7 offensive rebounds per 40 minutes, Okafor finished second among NBA Draft prospects in this department behind only Arkansas forward Bobby Portis. Okafor was able to be so effective here because of the combination of his sheer size and an incredible nose for the ball. He also worked harder than a lot of his opponents, which made it impossible for opposing bigs to stop him on the glass.
All of those traits led Okafor to shoot 76% from around the rim (layups, putbacks, dunks, etc), the highest mark in the NCAA.
Another big part of Okafor’s offensive excellence revolves around his work as a passer. As I previously mentioned, Okafor does an amazing job at quickly recognizing his position on the floor. That trait leads directly into his work as a post-up facilitator, as the big man is able to scope out the floor and find teammates to dish the ball off to. Whether it be to cutters or open perimeter teammates, Okafor did a terrific job of just making his surrounding talent a lot better.
While his work on the defensive end would be his biggest weakness, as discussed below, he does still show some potential from that end of the floor. Okafor has the size, length and sheer strength to be a solid defender. That ability is most evident from his work as a post defender, as he’s exhibited a knack for using his size to keep the opposing big from acquiring good position from inside the paint at times. However, as we’re about to find out, those great defensive moments were thoroughly overshadowed.[newsbox style=”nb1″ display=”category” cat=”539″ title=”More Player Breakdowns” number_of_posts=”2″ show_more=”no” nb_excerpt=”0″]
At least during his time with Duke, Okafor was not a good defensive player. A lot of those struggles could be linked to Coach K reportedly trying to limit the foul trouble that the young big got into. If true, this worked; Okafor only averaged 2.8 fouls per 40 minutes, one of the lowest totals among NBA Draft eligible bigs. In comparison, projected first overall pick Karl-Anthony Towns averaged 5.6 fouls per 40 minutes.
Even looking away from the fact that Okafor would avoid foul trouble, however, the young big man had a bevy of issues as a defensive player. Although Okafor did show some moments of being able to contain the opposing big, there was a lot more evidence of him of just looking weak. He showcased a certain cautious approach at times while defending the post-up, which ultimately led to some smaller bigs from taking advantage of him. Perhaps the biggest example of this would be during Duke’s Sweet 16 matchup against Duke, where Jakob Poeltl kept on getting deep post position against Poeltl. That’s worrisome; the 235 pound Poeltl is 30 pounds lighter than Okafor.
Another area of the game where Okafor struggled was as a pick-and-roll defender. While he showed himself to be a quick, nimble player on the offensive end, that ability took a complete 180 degree turn on the other end. Okafor demonstrated on a consistent basis that he doesn’t know how to defend the pick-and-roll against ball-handlers. Defending against the penetration, he wasn’t able to use his length to contain the opposing guards, as they were able to get some easy looks against him. Those struggles led Okafor to sagging off and working closer to the paint, which allowed the opponent to get some clean mid-range looks.
Alongside that lack of quickness to contain guards, Okafor struggled to stop cutters when he was stuck in the paint. Whether it would be due to a lack of awareness or not wanting to draw an easy foul, that’s another huge issue that Okafor will need to have fixed at the NBA level.
Those flaws in his defensive awareness led Okafor to only averaging 1.9 blocks per 40 minutes. That average is the lowest among realistic NBA draft candidate centers this year; the second-lowest total belongs to Kentucky’s Dakari Johnson, who had 2.4 blocks per 40.
On the offensive end, another weakness revolves around his work as an all-around shooter. The tipping point of that concern revolves around Okafor’s work from the free-throw line. From the charity stripe, he shot 55% on seven attempts per 40 minutes. Not improving from that area could lead him to being a target for “Hack-An-Oak”, and as an extension of that, Okafor also has his struggles as a mid-range shooter. While he wasn’t asked to shoot many jumpshots – partly because of the lack of floor spacing in the college game in general, and partly because of how dominating of an inside presence he was – those struggles could be taken advantage of at the NBA game. Per shot-analytics, Okafor shot only 33% from 12 feet or further.
It may be evident by those below-average numbers, but on the tape, Okafor definitely has a huge flaw in his jumper. As apparent from film taken from his workout with the Lakers, Okafor has a notable hitch in his jumper. While it may not look like much, those split-seconds may mean the difference between him getting an open look to being guarded by a closing-out defender.
As of the time of this piece, Okafor has been only linked to two teams; the Minnesota Timberwolves (CBSSports’ Gary Parrish) and the L.A. Lakers (everybody else). And even Parrish has changed his mind.[newsbox style=”nb1″ display=”tag” tag=”2015-NBA-Draft” title=”More 2015 NBA Draft articles” number_of_posts=”2″ show_more=”no” nb_excerpt=”0″]
Minnesota Timberwolves (first overall pick)
While the Timberwolves have all but stated that they intend on using their first overall pick on Karl Anthony-Towns, it still wouldn’t come as a huge surprise if they ended up taking Okafor. The combination of Okafor and Andrew Wiggins could be an interesting pairing, especially on the offensive end, with Wiggins working as the de-facto point forward. The duo could be a menace simply from straight pick-and-rolls, as defenses wouldn’t know about whether to deal with Wiggins’s explosiveness or having to contend against Okafor’ low-post expertise.
Okafor will undoubtedly require a lot of doubles in the post when he reaches the NBA. Those double-teams could allow shooters like Chase Budinger and Kevin Martin to get more open perimeter looks. Also, those Okafor double-teams would allow youngster Zach Lavine to continue to progress as a perimeter weapon, as he shot 38% from beyond the arc after the All-Star break.
However, the sheer versatility that Kentucky stud Towns brings to the game would give him the advantage over Okafor. Towns working alongside good defenders like Wiggins, Ricky Rubio or Gorgui Dieng creating an elite defensive unit likely outweighs the offensive skills that Okafor would bring to the table.
Los Angeles Lakers (second overall pick)
Despite the growing buzz surrounding D’Angelo Russell and Kristaps Porzingis, it seems like a foregone conclusion that the Lakers will take Jahlil Okafor with the second overall pick, should he be there. That selection, however, would be more a case of the team taking the best player available rather than the team taking the player that would be a perfect fit with them.
The main reason behind Okafor not being a great fit for the Lakers would be the lack of players that would be able to space the floor. There are only three players on the current roster and that have a contract for next year (Jabari Brown, Nick Young and Ryan Kelly) who shot better than 31% from beyond the arc last year.
While he’s talented enough to be able to score through double-teams, Okafor won’t be able to be truly effective until he’s surrounded by perimeter weapons. Having a perimeter threat or two surrounding Okafor would prevent the team from doubling up on the big because of the risk of the perimeter weapon hitting an open jumper. Furthermore, Okafor’s pristine post-up passing skill could quickly hurt the defense because of how he can easily work it to cutters or perimeter threats.
But although the Lakers would have to find perimeter players to surround Okafor, the way that Byron Scott has set up their offense is kind of perfect for how the big man likes to play. The Lakers offense is a slower, more half-court based set. That slower tempo would allow Okafor to get a lot of pick-and-roll and post-up looks.
The biggest concern about Okafor’s fit with the team pertains to the defensive pairing between him and former Kentucky forward Julius Randle. At least during their time in college, neither players were a plus defender. However, Randle has at least exhibited traits of being a solid defender. Randle is a big, strong and mobile big that has at least shown that he’s comfortable with going out to the perimeter and defending against the pick-and-roll. That ability would allow Okafor to remain inside the paint, where he could succeed at thanks to NBA refs being more lenient towards the defense when it comes to the verticality rule.
Best Fit: Los Angeles Lakers
Although there are some issues (i.e. the team’s general lack of perimeter shooting) that the Lakers need to address with the team around Okafor, he still would be a solid fit. With Byron Scott setting up an offense to be based primarily in the half-court, Okafor will likely be looked at to be the anchor of how that team is run. Whether it would be working the ball inside for easy buckets or to help set up off-ball cuts from the likes of Clarkson or Julius Randle, Okafor has the pre-requisite skills offensively. And if he has to develop some fire and instincts defensively still…well, so do most freshmen.