Jahlil Okafor: One of the Best Low-Post Scorers We’ve Seen

But the Duke big man is also loaded with question marks.

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

We continue our series profiling the Sixers potential draft picks, this time shifting our attention to Duke’s Jahlil Okafor.

Previous profiles:

Key information:

Age: 19 years old

Measurements: 272 pounds, 6-foot-10.75-inches (in shoes), 7-foot-5-inch wingspan, 9-foot-2.5-inch standing reach (measured at the 2014 Nike Hoop Summit).

Stats: 17.3 points, 8.5 rebounds, 1.4 blocks, and 1.3 assists per game in 30.1 minutes per night. Shot 66.4% from the field and 51% from the free throw line.

Advanced stats: 10.9 Boxscore plus/minus, (6.8 offensive, 4.1 defensive), 6.7 win shares (4.5 offensive, 2.2 defensive), 0.235 win shares/40 minutes, 46.2% free throw rate, 64.1% true shooting percentage.

(Quick glossary: Boxscore plus/minus is an estimate of the points a player adds to his team per 100 possessions above the league average. Win shares is an estimate on the number of wins a player added to his team. Win shares/40 minutes is win shares for every 40 minutes of play, with the average being ~0.100/40 minutes. Free throw rate is the number of free throw attempts per field goal attempt, and true shooting percentage is an attempt to “fix” field goal percentage, factoring in the additional value of the three-point shot and a player’s ability to get to the free throw line to paint a more accurate picture of a player’s efficiency).

Chance of being available at No. 3: Low. Okafor seems to be the frontrunner to be selected by the Lakers with the second overall pick, although both D’Angelo Russell and Kristaps Porzingis have emerged as possibilities for Los Angeles over the past week.

Why should you be interested?

Jahlil Okafor is, quite simply, one of the best low-post scoring big men we’ve seen enter the NBA in the last 15-20 years.

There are some post scorers who get by because they’re bigger and stronger than the competition, and there are some who succeed because of their high skill level. Okafor has both.

One of the concerns with Okafor is whether his post scoring will translate against NBA defenses, something which came up in the NCAA tournament when he struggled against Utah and Gonzaga. But post scoring frequently isn’t about athleticism, as some of the major post scorers in the NBA (Al Jefferson, Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph, etc.) are hardly what you would call athletic. Post scoring is much more about strength, a diverse set of moves to counter how your defender is playing you, and an ability to use your body to gain leverage and create space.

Weighing in at 272 pounds and with incredibly long arms, Okafor has a good physical profile to get his shots off in the post in the NBA. He also has an incredibly diverse set of moves, with impeccable footwork, which allows him to counter virtually any defensive scheme or strategy, and he plays angles exceptionally well, which allows him to seal off his defender and create just enough space necessary to get a good look at the basket.

What really sets Okafor apart from guys like, say, Al Jefferson, is his passing out of the post. He kicks the ball out to shooters when it’s available (or when he can get better positioning by re-posting), finds cutters as well as anybody in basketball, and rarely gets trapped into making mistakes. He really does see plays develop steps ahead like how you would describe a point guard, almost always ready for what a defense is throwing at him. That ability to make the right call when a defense double-teams him in the post is an absolutely huge advantage in his favor.

The NBA has turned into a league where shots at the rim from beyond the three point line are almost universally prioritized. Okafor’s ability to command double teams down low, and his exceptional passing, should fit in extremely well in a 4-out offense where Okafor is surrounded by 4 perimeter shooters. He’s also a dominant offensive rebounder, collecting 14.8% of the offensive rebounding opportunities available to Duke when he was on the floor, and has incredibly soft hands and an ability to catch virtually anything thrown his way, which allows him to be a threat off the ball when paired with a pick and roll or dribble-drive point guard.

Why shouldn’t you be interested?

While Okafor is as unique an offensive player as you’ll find coming into the NBA, his concerns are almost equally as pronounced.

Those concerns are, primarily:

  • Lack of shot blocking
  • No range on his jump shot
  • Poor defensive rebounding

The lack of rim protection, and his overall lack of defensive awareness, is by far the most troubling. Okafor’s block rate saw him block 4.5% of the 2-point field goal attempts opponents took while he was on the court, which fell to 3.8% against Duke’s conference play. Those numbers are incredibly low for an elite big man prospect.

Player (season)Block %
Karl-Anthony Towns (2014-15)11.5%
Nerlens Noel (2012-13)13.2%
Alex Len (2012-13)8%
Anthony Bennett (2012-13)4.6%
Jahlil Okafor (2014-15)4.5%
Thomas Robinson (2011-12)2.9%

There may be some hope in this regard, as Okafor has claimed to have lost 10-15 pounds since the end of the season, and a more nimble Okafor who is quicker off of his feet could help. Okafor’s 7-foot-5-inch wingspan and 9-foot-2-inch+ standing reach give him some physical characteristics that could help him down the line if the weight loss does make him a little bit more explosive off his feet.

Okafor’s biggest problems, however, seemed to be from a lack of defensive awareness and from being a second slow making his defensive reads. Okafor claims he was told to prioritize avoiding foul trouble and to save his energy for offense. Okafor certainly left a lot of defensive plays on the court last season, and whether or not you believe this can be substantially improved upon is going to be a key factor in how much interest you have in him as a prospect, as rim protection has become a vitally important component for NBA centers.

Okafor also struggled to move his feet laterally, which is going to come into play much more in the NBA, as the pick and roll game is huge in the league today. Okafor was slow to change directions on the perimeter, and because of that he would give an incredible amount of room to ball handlers coming off of picks. Especially on the Sixers, where he’d be playing next to an elite rim protector, and thus asked to be on the perimeter more, that could become a big factor.

Okafor compounds these defensive issues with poor rebounding on the defensive side of the court, collecting only 18.2% of the defensive rebounds available to Duke while he was on the court. Okafor needs to do a better job of establishing position, and improving upon this part of his game — especially if he’s not going to challenge a lot of shots at the rim — is key for him going forward.

The final major weakness in Okafor’s game is his perimeter shooting, struggles which were showcased by his 51% free throw shooting and by his struggles, and reluctance, when shooting outside of the paint (37% field goal percentage beyond 10′, 33% beyond 12′). The Sixers have repeatedly said that shooting is a teachable skill, so you would expect that this wouldn’t be the biggest deterrent in drafting Okafor, but having to rely on both Okafor and Nerlens Noel to make drastic improvements in their perimeter game in order to work would be a little bit risky.

Fit with the Sixers

On the one hand, Okafor’s fit with the Sixers is borderline terrible. Okafor doesn’t have the lateral foot speed to play next to either Noel or Joel Embiid defensively, he doesn’t have the perimeter shot to complement either offensively, and his post-up game is going to make the paint crowded for the similarly low-post-scoring Embiid or the non-shooting Noel, and he doesn’t have the elite-level rim protection that general manager Sam Hinkie has shown to value in his big men.

On the other hand, if you’re of the opinion that the Sixers’ main priority is not to round out their roster, but instead taking any and every road to make sure that they have a franchise-level player on their roster in three years, Okafor might be a worthwhile investment.

The problem with drafting Okafor is twofold: First, you have to hope that you can mold him into a better defender. Not necessarily an elite-level defender, as Okafor has enough offensive skills to be an incredibly valuable player without reaching Nerlens Noel levels of defense, but building your team around a center who is a liability on defense is extremely tough. If you believe that you can improve his defensive instincts, that you can improve his defensive awareness, and that his improved conditioning will lead to Okafor closing out more plays defensively, then there’s something to work with.

The second problem with the Sixers drafting Okafor is his fit with Embiid and Noel. Offensively, Okafor’s entire value is derived from his ability to dominate near the basket and make his teammates better when defenses rotate to help. Embiid looks like he’s on his way to developing enough of a perimeter game that you could let Okafor camp out in the paint, but that would be wasting another potentially dominant post player in Embiid, and it would also require Noel’s jump shot, which he did show signs of improving this past year, to improve rather dramatically for his fit with Okafor to work as well.

On the defensive side of the court, Okafor’s struggles defending out in space on the perimeter and slowing down guards off the pick-and-roll would be a huge problem. Again, there might be some hope that improving Okafor’s conditioning (and keeping it at that level throughout his career) would help, but he has a long way to go before he’s even passable in this regard.

Draft the best player. That’s almost always the right call for teams at the top of the draft, and the uncertainty surrounding Embiid would seem to drive home that point. Okafor will challenge that notion as much as anybody, however, as it’s difficult to envision him being a good fit next to either Embiid or Noel.

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

Previously in Sixers Draftland:

• D’Angelo Russell to Work Out for the Sixers After All
• Karl-Anthony Towns: The Big Man the Sixers Probably Want — and Likely Can’t Get
• Does Joel Embiid’s Setback Change Sixers’ Draft Plans?
• Welcome to Sixers Draftland