Jahlil Okafor is a flawed prospect.
That’s the easy thing to say. Basketball enthsuiasts, and more specifically NBA draft analysts, have dissected the 6’11’’ big man from Duke during the 2015 pre-draft process, including a lengthy look by BBALLBREAKDOWN colleague Dakota Schmidt.
Concerns about the defense of the NCAA Player of the Year runner-up have existed since soon after he stepped on the court for the first time in the Blue Devils uniform. There was video evidence all season of a young player trying to find his way on the defensive end. Getting lost in the pick-and-roll. Not being physical enough in the post. Moving slow laterally. It’s all there on tape.
But focusing on Okafor’s flaws is not the right thing to be doing. Not because it’s wrong to criticize a player for what he needs to work on, but because what 19-year old potential NBA superstar isn’t flawed?
Instead, the focus should be on this: Jahlil Okafor might be the most offensively advanced big man to come into the league since Tim Duncan.
The first thing out of people’s mouths when discussing Okafor, whether it be coaches, general managers, scouts, fans or the media, should be, “This guy is exactly what we need right now!”
But it’s not. It’s the flaws. And it’s even gotten to the point where what Okafor does well, score the basketball, is being looked at differently.
In an era when traditional post players are collecting dust on NBA benches (see Andrew Bogut and Timofey Mozgov in the NBA Finals) in favor of smaller, quicker players with more positional flexibility, Okafor seems to be out of place. He’s a throwback to an era of more “traditional” basketball, when offense flowed through a post presence with nimble footwork like Hakeem Olajuwon or brute force like Shaquille O’Neal. In the 1998 Draft, he would be viewed as a shiny trophy to place on the mantel instead of a rusty relic that belongs in a box in the attic.
The Golden State Warriors just won a championship without playing a true center for the majority of the NBA Finals. This wasn’t because they have an inherent disregard for the concept of the center position as an offensive threat. It’s because they didn’t have anyone of the offensive skill level necessary to make their offense flow through the post, and few NBA teams nowadays do.
Centers are no longer coming into the league with refined post moves, as wide open play and the shifting focus to outside shooting and guard play at the lower levels of basketball have made the offensive big man a relative thing of the past. In fact, during the last ten years, including this one and while assuming both Okafor and Karl-Anthony Towns are selected high, there have been just nine centers drafted in the top five picks. That’s a decline from the previous ten drafts from 1996-2005 when there were 14 centers selected.
Of those centers, only a handful have come in to the NBA ready to contribute immediately on the offensive end, resulting in a scarcity of a commodity that was once the key to winning an NBA title. Only Oden, Cousins and now Okafor and Towns amongst the players on the list exhibited the requisite skills coming in, and even so, Okafor is more-refined offensively than all of them.
Oden was dominant defensively, but still had work to do on offense outside of catching and slamming. Cousins was clearly advanced beyond his years offensively, but maturity and motor issues limited his minutes at Kentucky. Towns’s minutes were limited by the fact he was playing with a horde of McDonald’s All-Americans; by the end of the season, Towns had found his way to the forefront of the Kentucky attack but even he had some ups and downs during the season.
Meanwhile, Okafor was consistently better offensively over the course of the season then all of them. All were freshman when they declared, so while it may not tell the whole story, comparing their raw statistics gives some insight into their performance and skill.
It’s ironic amidst all of the trade rumors circling prior to the draft about DeMarcus Cousins that he may be the closest recent comparison to Okafor. There were doubts about Cousins’s defensive prowess and athleticism as well, but he has thrived as a dominant presence and can score on anyone when not double-teamed.
It also magnifies the need for players like Cousins and Okafor. When looking at the league as a whole, the lack of high-usage post threats is evident. Last season, there were only two power forwards or centers (Cousins and Anthony Davis) with a usage percentage of 27% or higher (Okafor’s usage percentage was 27.6% in 2014-15) and at least 20 minutes played per game. Over the course of time, that number has dwindled.
Contrary to popular belief, the NBA today isn’t simply about spreading the floor and letting fly from three point range. The NBA is about creating mismatches. The pick-and-roll is a staple in every NBA offense now more than ever because it creates mismatches if a team doesn’t defend it correctly. A player like LeBron James whose dominance forces traps from opponents as he crosses the half-court stripe tries to take advantage of drawing two defenders by passing to open teammates. In that same way, a player that is able to catch the ball in the post and score so efficiently and consistently he eventually draws double teams, creates mismatches. A player that can score in the post and draw double-teams absolutely has a place in today’s NBA, even if there are not many of them currently active.
That’s what make Okafor so unique. He checks all the boxes for a center that should thrive in present day NBA offenses.
His footwork is not just good, it’s exquisite. Every time I watch, I can’t help but think of The Big Fundamental Tim Duncan going to work down low for the San Antonio Spurs. There is no one of recent vintage that comes close. Okafor’s long arms and big hands coupled with his tall frame allow him to securely catch the pass, survey the entire court from the low post, recognize any defensive counter attacks and quickly decide his next move whether it be drop step, spin move, hook, or kick out to an open shooter. His scoring ability draws extra attention that leads to the most desired thing in basketball today, spacing. And his ancillary skills like vision and passing ability allow him to take full advantage. Having a menu of options to go to should not be a desired trait in post players. It should be a prerequisite.
It’s not just basketball intelligence in Okafor, however. It’s self-awareness in a player that is rare in someone of his age. He knows exactly what he is and what he is not. As Tom Izzo said about him, “He’s a center that wants to be a center.” He is confident in his ability going to the basket, but is not naive to think he can score in every situation. He trusts his teammates and he’s good at finding them. Some may take this as a passive approach for a player of his offensive skill level and capability of dominance, but he knows not to force things that aren’t there, especially when the opportunity cost if doing so means not finding an open shooter that can knock down a three.
More importantly, this self-awareness carries over to what Okafor knows he needs to get better at. In an interview with Alex Kennedy of Basketball Insiders, Okafor said:
I know I’m going to get better. I can get better at everything I do, and I always improve. I don’t think my defense was as bad as people made it out to be. We did win a national championship and all of my coaches were extremely happy with the way that I played on both ends of the floor. Also, I couldn’t get into foul trouble and with the way our defense was set up, I wasn’t really in rim-protecting situations. Honestly, that is one of my flaws that I can improve on, but I can also improve on the offensive end. Luckily, I’m 19 years old and I think I have a lot of time to improve my game.
I’m certainly not saying his poor defense should be ignored, but there is something to be said about Duke wanting to preserve Okafor on offense and avoid getting him in foul trouble. The only players on the depleted Duke roster that could spell Okafor by the end of the season were Amile Jefferson and Marshall Plumlee, neither of whom could come close Okafor’s production, making him arguably the most indispensable player in the nation. Despite playing just over 30 minutes per game, Okafor only averaged 2.1 personal fouls per game and didn’t foul out all season. By contract, Towns played just over 21 minutes per game, but averaged 2.9 fouls per game. I’m also willing to bet that a 19-year old kid with a 7’5’’wingspan and impeccable footwork can carry some of that to the defensive end of the court.
All of this praise for Okafor comes with a caveat: I have him ranked #2 on my own draft board behind Karl-Anthony Towns. It’s not because of my doubts about Okafor, but instead because I believe wholeheartedly that both of them will become stars. In fact, it’s probably more accurate to label them 1 and 1A, because I would draft either of them depending on the situation. All of the talk about D’Angelo Russell or Emmanuel Mudiay or anyone else leapfrogging Okafor is complete insanity. To provide some perspective as to how I view them as prospects, I went back to the last 10 NBA Drafts and listed my Top 20 Prospects combined, as they stood prior to each draft:
NBA prospects, especially 19-year olds, should not be viewed as finished products with easily identifiable flaws that create barriers to their own greatness. They should also not just be viewed as a bundle of potential with no track record of success. They should be viewed within the context of what they are and what they have the potential of being.
And in an NBA where the offensively-skilled center is a dying breed and teams value defensive and positional flexibility, Jahlil Okafor has a chance to lead the post revival.
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