76ers Likes and Dislikes: Jahlil Okafor’s Dominance

Jahlil Okafor has been dominating opponents when Nerlens Noel has been out of the game. Can the two work together long-term?

Jahlil Okafor's been a dominant offensive player so far during his rookie season. Can he co-exist with Nerlens Noel? | Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Jahlil Okafor’s been a dominant offensive player so far during his rookie season. Can he coexist with Nerlens Noel? | Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Each week we’ll dive into a couple of observations about the Philadelphia 76ers. You can view previous installments in the Likes and Dislikes series here.

This week we’ll once again focus on Jahlil Okafor‘s offensive brilliance, and whether or not Nerlens Noel is holding him back on that end of the court. No discussion about Okafor would be complete without mentioning the defensive side of the court, however, so we’ll touch on that as well.

Like: Okafor’s Dominant Offense (with Noel off the court)

Jahlil Okafor has put up some impressive numbers during the first 15 games of his rookie season.

Those good numbers turn into absolutely incredible numbers when you adjust for one factor: taking Nerlens Noel off the court.

Okafor has played 244 minutes with Noel on the bench, and he’s averaged 23.0 points and 10.3 rebounds per 36 minutes during that time, while shooting 51.9% from the field and with a true shooting percentage of 53.1%.

Those numbers are downright historic.

In fact, since the start of the 2000-01 NBA season, no rookie has averaged 23 points per 36 minutes on the season. You have to go back to David Robinson in 1989-90 to find a rookie put up at least 23 points per 36 minutes while playing starters minutes, and Robinson finished his rookie season at 24 years of age.

Player (Rookie Season)SeasonPoints/36 minTrue Shooting %
Jahlil Okafor*2015-1623.053.1%
Ben Gordon2004-0522.252.6%
Kyrie Irving2011-1221.856.6%
Blake Griffin2010-1121.354.9%
Kevin Durant2007-0821.151.9%
Carmelo Anthony2003-0420.750.9%

*Okafor's points per 36 minutes, without Nerlens Noel on the court, compared with the most prolific rookie scorers of the last 15 years.
Data as of Wednesday, November 25th, courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.

The success that Okafor could have with a true 4-out offensive scheme has always been fascinating to think about, and you’re starting to see that play out over time.

okafor-4-out

This is about as good of floor spacing as Okafor’s going to get in this current Sixers team, with Isaiah Canaan, Hollis Thompson, and Robert Covington being legitimate shooters stationed on the perimeter, and Jerami Grant over in the far corner where even if his man leaves him, he’s going to struggle to contest Okafor’s shot.

The defense still reacts, but the combination of how spread out they were initially, a slight hesitation on doubling that may not have been present with lesser shooting threats, and no real shot blockers outside of his own man gives Okafor an incredible amount of driving lanes.

One other quick aside: one thing I found interesting is that the Sixers are averaging a pace of 100.8 possessions per 48 minutes when Okafor has played without Noel on the court. That’s actually higher than the Sixers pace last season (98.3 possessions). It doesn’t seem to be Okafor’s presence that slows down the Sixers pace, but the combination of both big men together.

Dislike: Noel and Okafor struggling to play together

The problem is, those driving lanes are harder to come by with Noel on the court.

Compare the above image with the following, another Okafor drive to the basket. Okafor gets by his initial defender off the dribble, but he now has Nerlens Noel diving to the hoop and Grant now stationed on Okafor’s strong side.

okafor-noel-grant

Okafor once again beats his man off the dribble, something which he does with surprising regularity, and something that we’ll probably see used more and more down the line. But he’s now met at the rim by two defenders, as neither Grant or Noel’s man has any hesitation providing weakside help.

There is, perhaps, a lob to Noel available here, but that would be a risky pass with the amount of length Miami has on the court, and isn’t the easiest split-second read to make. As the two play together more frequently, perhaps Okafor will anticipate that and make the play. He could also kick the ball out out to Grant for the corner 3, but let’s be honest here for a second: Grant is shooting 17.9% from three point range on the season.

Power forward, center. The positional designations have never been important. But the necessity for Noel to improve his perimeter jump shot has been a key ingredient in giving Okafor the space necessary to make use of his potentially dominant skill, and right now Noel’s lack of a jump shot (Noel’s shooting 19% on shots more than 5′ from the hoop on the season) seems to be hurting Okafor’s offense.

You can see a negative impact on all of Okafor’s offensive stats, both his individual stats and the 76ers stats as a team.

Jahlil OkaforWith NoelWithout Noel
Minutes255244
Pts/36 Min16.923.0
Reb/36 Min7.110.3
FG%43.6%51.9%
Free Throw Rate19.7%27.5%
FG% (in Restricted Area)56.9%66.2%
% of fgm assisted35.3%44.1%
Team Turnover %22.1%18.7%
Team Pts/100 Possessions81.194.3
(Jahlil Okafor's offensive Statistics with and without Nerlens Noel on the court. All numbers are for Okafor's individual offense, unless specifically labeled as "Team". Data as of November 25th, 2015, and courtesy of nba.com/stats)

Pretty much everything a post player has to do in order to be efficient in the modern NBA, Okafor does at a much higher level with Noel on the bench. He gets more shots in the restricted area with Noel on the bench, is much more effective finishing at the rim, gets to the free throw line significantly more, and the team turns the ball over less.

The problem, like it always is when talking about Jahlil Okafor, is the defensive trade-off that comes with it. Noel has been absolutely vital to keeping this team competitive defensively. In fact, they’re virtually elite when Noel is playing without Okafor on the court.

LineupDefensive RatingLeague Rank
With Okafor, no Noel110.730th
Noel + Okafor107.028th
With Noel, no Okafor93.31st
The 76ers defensive rating with various lineup combinations, and what their league-wide ranking would be. Defensive Rating is defined as points allowed per 100 possessions. All data as of November 25th, 2015 and courtesy of nba.com/stats)

So the question becomes: do you greatly limit the effectiveness of a potentially historic offensive player, or do you maximize your team defense, which could be borderline elite?

It’s a question that Sixers fans are going to be wrestling with all year. It’s also, fortunately, not one that has to be answered yet. Giving Okafor and Noel time to improve their deficiencies — both Okafor improving his team defense and Noel improving his perimeter shooting and skill level — are both in the cards.

What Sixers head coach Brett Brown would be best served to do, however, is stagger his two big men as much as possible to allow each to operate in their more natural role, and allow the team to get as much data to evaluate their potential impact. That doesn’t mean benching either Okafor or Noel: they can start the game (and 3rd quarter) playing together and still be able to find 15-20 minutes where each can play without the other. In fact, that seems to already be happening.

Here are Okafor’s minutes, by game, with and without Nerlens Noel on the court. I’ve removed the two games that Noel missed, and the one where he was ejected, so as to not skew the data.

okafor-minutes-noel

Or, presented another way, here’s the percentage of Okafor’s minutes on the court that came with Nerlens Noel, comparing the first five games of the season with the most recent five games the Sixers have played.

% of Okafor's MinutesWith Noel
First 5 Games69.2%
Last 5 Games52.2%
(What percentage of Jahlil Okafor's minutes have come with Nerlens Noel on the court. Data as of November 25th, 2015, and courtesy of nba.com/stats)

This is a trade-off we, as Sixers fans, are likely to be debating the merits of all year. It’s a tough one to have, since each of Noel and Okafor are so dominant in what they do, while also having clear deficiencies that greatly impact the team.

While we’re likely to try to rush to judgement, there should be enough minutes available at the center position to be able to evaluate how each of them perform separately, while also playing them for short stints together to watch their skill sets develop and evaluate whether there’s any chance that the pairing can work down the line.

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