Likes and Dislikes: Integrating Jahlil Okafor’s Post Game

Some early observations about how successful the Sixers have been at working Jahlil Okafor's back-to-the-basket game into their offense.

Integrating Jahlil Okafor's back to the basket offensive game is one of Brett Brown's key focal points | Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Integrating Jahlil Okafor’s back to the basket offensive game is one of Brett Brown’s key focal points | Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Throughout the season I’m going to run regular columns on observations I’ve made about this Sixers team, listing out aspects of the team that I both like and dislike.

And, despite the Sixers starting off 0-7, with a real chance to start the season with a double-digit losing streak for the second consecutive season, I do think there are positives to take away from how the team season has unfolded.

This week we’ll focus on Jahlil Okafor and integrating his post-up game into the Sixers offense, and the modern NBA in general. Much is made about whether post-up basketball can be viable in today’s analytics-driven NBA, so it’s a topic worth devoting significant attention towards as the season progresses.

Like: Jahlil Okafor’s Patience In The Post

After committing 8 turnovers in the season opener against Boston, Jahlil Okafor has been remarkably protective of the basketball.

Since the Boston game, Okafor has committed just 11 turnovers in the past 6 games, a pretty incredible accomplishment considering how heavily utilized Okafor is in the post and how few ball handlers the Sixers. In fact, since the Boston game Okafor has turned the ball over on just 8.2% of his offensive possessions.

To put that in perspective, there have been only 7 big men since the start of the 1980-81 season who, at 20 years or younger, have used at least 23% of their team’s offensive possessions (usage rate) while they were on the court: DeMarcus Cousins (2010-11), Eddy Curry (2002-03), Shaq (1992-93), Chris Webber (1993-94), Jahil Okafor (2015-16), Karl-Anthony Towns (2015-16), and Anthony Davis (2013-14).

(First, it’s worth pointing out, minus Eddy Curry, how incredible that list is. Okafor’s ability to handle that much of the offense, and do so with any degree of efficiency, is a rare, rare gift).

That 8.2% turnover rate would be the lowest figure among that group, just edging out Anthony Davis’ 8.3%. Even if you went with Okafor’s season average (12.4%), it would be the third fewest among those seven players.

This is something that big men typically struggle with in the early part of their careers. DeMarcus Cousins went from an 18.5% turnover rate his rookie season to just 13.7% last year. Shaq went from 15.9% his rookie season down to a career average of 11.9%.

It’s also a problem Okafor experienced last year, where he turned the ball over on 15.6% of his possessions at Duke.

Keeping turnovers down is a huge prerequisite for running an efficient post offense. For Okafor to be making these kind of strides is incredibly important to the viability the offensive game you’d have to build around him. He’s recognizing double teams earlier and making correct passes to stationed shooters behind the three point line more regularly, and that’s even with the perimeter players, in my opinion, not yet fully realizing how to play off of Okafor and what rotations to make. Let’s hope this continues.

Below’s an example. There’s a few things I like about this play. First, it’s that they swung the ball around the perimeter before entering the ball into the post. Besides making the entry pass easier for Isaiah Canaan, this allows Okafor to establish better position. Defender’s naturally become more engaged when an entry pass is imminent. Second, Canaan’s ready to step into the shot, with his feet set and has his hands in the shooting pocket ready to receive the pass from Okafor. It’s a simple thing, but something that mediocre or inconsistent shooters tend to miss far more often than they should. Third, the extra pass. Love the extra pass. Not only the fact that it was made, but how quickly Canaan swung the ball, and how on-target the pass was. Finally, I love Nerlens Noel recognizing what’s going on and setting a screen for Nik Stauskas when Canaan receives the ball. This didn’t look like a designed play, so for Nerlens to pick that up on the fly is pretty big in his development.


Dislike: Lack Of Movement When Okafor Has Ball

Now, while I love Okafor’s ability to recognize the double team and pass out of it, and you’re seeing bits and pieces of the team being able to capitalize on that, it’s still too few and far between. The main benefit of having a post presence isn’t his individual post scoring, but his ability to generate open looks for his teammates. Last year Duke’s offense ran at peak efficiency when Okafor was passing out of the post.

Recall back to the above video where Okafor forced the double team, kicked it out to a ready Canaan, who then swung it over to Stauskas, who was freed up by a screen from Noel. Now juxtapose that with the below video. Noel does his part by setting a screen to free up Stauskas. And I think Jerami Grant, in theory, realizes he should be sprinting to the corner, which would allow T.J. McConnell to come up to the elbow-extended area and hopefully swing the pass to the corner. But there’s no sense of urgency. Stauskas is casually walking over to give Okafor an outlet pass, doesn’t have his feet ready to step into his shot and has his hands down by his side. Grant looks like he’s running at half speed, which causes T.J. to be late getting to his spot.

Okafor receives the ball with 14 seconds left on the shot clock, which is plenty of time to run a play and get a good look. And you can tell that Okafor is initially surveying the court to see what options he has to pass out of the double team that he knows is coming. With his team completely out of position, he instead faces up and drives baseline. He ended up getting a good look out of it anyway, but there were other options available that the team simply didn’t execute well enough to take advantage of.

This pattern: a lack of movement, shooters not in position, and not always ready to step into the shot when they are, happens with too much regularity. I give them somewhat of a pass, as nowadays many young players have never played with a legitimate back to the basket post player capable of commanding double teams. If anything, it shows that this offense has some untapped potential, especially when Robert Covington returns to action.

The Sixers also don’t run very many cutters off of Okafor’s post-ups, but that’s likely largely to be personnel related, as they just don’t have very many players capable of finishing around the hoop. You’ll occasionally see a kickout from Okafor to McConnell, who can then find the weak point in the defensive rotations and locate the cutter, but it’s few and far between. It will be interesting to watch this when Wroten returns.

Like: Early Season Lottery Ball Tracking

This like/dislike column was intended to be mostly focused on integrating Okafor’s post-up game into the Sixers offense, but I would be remiss to not mention how well the Sixers future draft assets have “performed” so far this season.

Currently, the Sixers are tied with the Brooklyn Nets for the worst record in the league at 0-7. The Sacramento Kings, who the Sixers have the right to swap first round draft picks with, have the third worst record in the league at 1-7, are already holding players only meetings, and their offense has been an abject failure with new point guard Rajon Rondo on the court.

Many look at the pick swap as pointless because the Sixers are poised to finish with a worse record than the Kings. That may happen. But the decision to swap picks with the Kings comes *after* the lottery is held, a key distinction, so the pick swap rights hold value even if the Kings finish with a better record than the Sixers. It’s essentially free lottery balls.

To illustrate this, let’s look at how the pick swap impacts the Sixers odds if the season finished today. Without the pick swap, the Sixers would have ~22.5% chance at landing the #1 pick in the lottery. With Sacramento finishing with the 3rd worst record that jumps all the way up to a 38.1% chance at getting the top pick. If the Sixers finished the season with the worst record in the league, they would have a 64.3% chance at getting a top-3 pick. If the Kings finish with the 3rd worst record, however, that jumps up to an 84.8% chance.

Beyond the Kings pick, the Lakers, who the Sixers own the first round pick of as long as it doesn’t land in the top-3, are tied with the 4th worst record in the league at 1-6. Their #2 overall pick has no idea why he’s not playing in the fourth quarter. They have the second worst defense in the league despite having played the 4th easiest strength of schedule. The Sixers also own a top-10 protected pick from Miami (currently tied for 21st), and a top-15 protected pick from Oklahoma City (also tied with Miami for 21st).

Obviously, things won’t remain this way. However, as we’re just about 10% of the way through the NBA season, the important things for the Sixers are happening: Okafor is looking like he can command a double team in the post, Noel continues to develop as a game-changing defensive player, and the Sixers are as well-positioned for the 2016 draft as they could have hoped for in this early stage of the season.

Derek Bodner covers the 76ers for Philadelphia magazine’s new Sixers Post. Follow @DerekBodnerNBA on Twitter.