Sixers Draftland: Does Joel Embiid’s Setback Change Sixers’ Draft Plans?

What news about the injured big man's rehabilitation means, why Jahlil Okafor is truly unique, and who worked out for who.

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Basketball writer Derek Bodner is covering the NBA draft for Philadelphia magazine at Sixers Draftland

Saturday night’s news, which was first reported by Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports and almost immediately followed up by an official statement from Sixers general manager Sam Hinkie, that Joel Embiid was experiencing “less healing than anticipated” brings up an interesting question about strategy in the NBA draft: Does fit matter at all?

The conventional wisdom, and one that I typically ascribe to, is that talent trumps all. This is especially true at the top of the draft, where teams are typically in dire need of franchise players and grabbing a prospect that you think has the chance to become one is almost never the wrong decision.

The Sixers are in a bit of a different position than most. Joel Embiid, by most accounts, has the potential to be a franchise player. At just 21 years of age he’s the type that you can hopefully build around for a long time to come. Wasting a top pick on a player who cannot fit in well would be, in theory, a waste of resources.

That puts the Sixers in a tough situation. As this weekend reinforced, Embiid’s future is not yet something the Sixers can fully count on. That would be true of just about any prospect only a year into his career, but especially one with the lingering, and substantial, health questions that Embiid has.

Luckily for the Sixers, it’s largely a question that they won’t have to answer. Kentucky’s Karl-Anthony Towns and Kristaps Porzingis, the 7-foot-1-inch Latvian big man with the sweet shooting touch, might be frontcourt players, but their skills also mesh well with a healthy Embiid. There might be a logjam years down the line if Nerlens Noel, Joel Embiid, Dario Saric, and the 2015 pick all become superstars, but that would be the definition of putting the cart before the horse. The Sixers ending up with too much frontcourt talent is a problem that pales in comparison to taking a lesser prospect because he fits, especially if Embiid’s health precludes him from becoming the player we hope he can become.

Similarly, two of the perimeter prospects that the Sixers could be selecting from are great theoretical fits with Embiid, while also having high-enough talent levels to merit selection in their own right.

Ohio State’s D’Angelo Russell has legitimate NBA three-point range, a hairpin trigger that allows him to get his shot off incredibly quickly, and the creative passing to operate a two-man game off the pick and roll with Embiid. He’s also talented enough to be considered worthy of the No. 3 overall pick and a legitimate building block even without Embiid’s presence.

Mario Hezonja, the 6-foot-8-inch Croatian shooting guard currently playing in Spain, is a similarly good fit. His game is built around his deep shooting range, connecting on 38% of his three-point attempts while possessing the size and incredible athleticism to open up potential down the line. Like Russell, that shooting allows him to fit into an offense centered around Embiid while also having the potential to warrant consideration on his own.

The question comes down to two prospects: Emmanuel Mudiay and Jahlil Okafor.

At 6-feet-5-inches and with a strong upper body, Mudiay has all the physical characteristics you could want in a modern NBA point guard. He’s very quick with the basketball in his hands and can get into the lane at will, and he uses that ability to create scoring opportunities for his teammates.

The question, and it’s a big one, has always been his jump shot. Mudiay connected on just 34% of his three-point attempts in China and just 57% of his free throws. His struggles shooting — from a catch and shoot, off the dribble, at the line — could limit an offense centered around Embiid’s post scoring.

Apr 6, 2015 Duke Blue Devils center Jahlil Okafor (15) drives to the basket against Wisconsin on April 6, 2015 during the NCAA Men's Division I Championship game. | Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

Apr 6, 2015 Duke Blue Devils center Jahlil Okafor (15) drives to the basket against Wisconsin on April 6, 2015 during the NCAA Men’s Division I Championship game. | Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

The most interesting question — especially if the rumors that the Lakers might take Russell at No. 2 prove to be true — is what happens if Okafor falls to the Sixers at No. 3.

Okafor’s post scoring is virtually unparalleled for a freshman. Post scoring is, by some accounts, a dying art in the NBA, having been replaced by pick and rolls and face-up big men long ago. During the 2005-’06 season, 20 teams posted up on at least 12% of their half-court possessions. A decade later, only 6 teams did so.

There’s a little bit of chicken-and-egg going on here: Is post scoring as a skill is being devalued or are there just not many post scorers entering the NBA? The perimeter rule changes, which give advantages to quick perimeter players to create off the dribble, certainly plays a part in this. Big men have become more of supporting pieces over the years, needing the ability to play off the pick-and-roll and to shoot from the perimeter, both skills which give defenses something else to key in on and creates opportunities for said guards.

But the one-and-done era that we live in could also play a part in this, as post scorers don’t have the time they used to have in college to hone their game, and learning how to operate in the post at the NBA level is a tough proposition. Some theorize that kids simply do not prioritize developing post skills when they’re young, instead preferring to imitate Chris Bosh‘s face-up game or Dirk Nowitzki‘s perimeter shooting. Neither of those would prevent a successful offense from being derived from post scoring.

What separates Okafor from other post scorers, outside of having the footwork and counter moves to respond to virtually any double-team imaginable, is his passing out of the post. There is no skill more wasted in the NBA than the ability to command a double team, when paired with the inability to make the correct read and pass out of it.

Okafor’s passing is truly unique, something that may be hidden by his relatively pedestrian output of 1.3 assists per game. He has an ability to run an offense from the post, sensing the help coming from defenders and reading the defense in much the same way you would describe a point guard seeing plays before they develop.

We’re living in a day and age where analytics values shots at the rim and three-point shots above anything else. His ability to command a double team, then pass out of the post, frequently results in baskets for cutters to the rim or the beginning of a “hockey assist” which frequently finds open shooters in the corners, one of the most coveted shots in basketball. 91.2% of Duke’s made three point shots this past season came off of assists, in large part because of the attention Okafor received down low and his ability to make the most out of that attention.

Team3ptm% assisted
Duke28391.2%
Louisville19891.9%
Notre Dame30281.7%
Wisconsin28883.7%
* Percentage of made three pointers that were the result of an assist. Data from the 2014-15 NCAA season, courtesy of Hoop-Math.com

The question, however, becomes whether Okafor can fit in with the Sixers current nucleus. It’s not just his fit with Embiid, but also his fit with Noel. Seventy percent of Okafor’s field goal attempts came within 5 feet of the basket, where he shot a staggering 75%. That effectiveness dropped precipitously beyond that, as Okafor shot just 43% on shots beyond 5 feet and just 37% on shots beyond 10 feet.

PlayerFG% beyond 10'
Jahlil Okafor37%
Nerlens Noel31%
Joel Embiid32%
* Field goal percentage on shots more than 10' from the basket (Data from the 2014-15 season, except for Joel Embiid, who did not play. For Embiid, the data is from his 2013-14 season at Kansas).

That lack of spacing could cause problems for an offense, especially one where both Embiid and Okafor would look to score in the post. There’s a ray of light with Embiid’s shooting, as his form looked good in practice and he appears to be making progress, even if we have yet to see the results in a game. With Okafor and Noel, however, becoming a respectable shooter away from the basket is a legitimate concern.

That may not be the biggest impediment, though. With Embiid’s expected improvement from the perimeter he should be able to space the floor just enough to allow Okafor room to operate. That’s a slight waste of resources, as having Embiid drift 15 to 17 feet away from the hoop would limit his own scoring opportunities in the post, but when you’re replacing that with another elite post scorer it’s a tradeoff you can live with.

The biggest question comes with Okafor on the defensive side of the court, a problem that looks to be present regardless of whether he’s paired with Embiid or Noel. Okafor, at least the version that played at Duke, simply didn’t have the lateral foot speed to defend the perimeter 4s or pick and rolls that he’ll face in the NBA, a problem that would be exacerbated if he were asked to defend away from the hoop so the Sixers could keep Embiid or Noel near the paint to protect the rim. Okafor has looked like he’s in better condition since Duke’s season ended, and perhaps that lost weight can make him more nimble and fleet of foot, but it’s a considerable concern.

It’s not unfathomable that if you were to select Jahlil Okafor, and both Embiid and Okafor prove to be dominant players capable of leading a franchise, that the Sixers would have to decide on one or the other down the line. That may be a disappointing outcome to some fans who are looking at this draft as the chance to get the 2nd core piece of a potentially great team. But the outcome of the worst case scenario, which would be that Embiid’s injury struggles continue and they miss on this draft pick, is far worse.

This draft — and the Okafor scenario specifically — will test the old axiom of taking the best player available, since the potential of Okafor is so unique, but the fit with Embiid and Noel so much in question.

My guess, however, is that this weekend’s news doesn’t change the Sixers draft plans, which I’ve always believed would be to take the best player available, however they have them rated. If they get into a situation down the line where they have too much talent, that’s a problem that’s much easier to navigate than the problem not having a transcendent player is.

If anything, the troubling news released this weekend — whatever that news ultimately turns out to be — just reinforces why the Sixers draft strategy is the way it is.

Workout updates:

  • Kristaps Porzingis worked out for executives last Friday in Las Vegas, a workout that Sixers general manager Sam Hinkie was in attendance for.
  • Per Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer, D’Angelo Russell had a workout scheduled with the Sixers, but had to cancel after falling under the weather. It’s still possible that Russell and the Sixers look to reschedule the workout before the June 25th draft, although the Sixers did interview Russell when they were out at May’s NBA combine, and would likely draft him even if they do not get to meet him again before the draft.
  • Adam Zagoria is reporting that the Sixers will meet with Emmanuel Mudiay today and work out the point guard tomorrow.

Derek Bodner is covering the NBA Draft at Philadelphia magazine’s Sixers Draftland. Read his previous coverage here. Follow him on Twitter at @DerekBodnerNBA