76ers Likes and Dislikes: Setting Up Jahlil Okafor

With Ish Smith in the fold, rookie big man Jahlil Okafor has had to create less of his own offense, and in turn has been far more efficient.

Sixers big men Nerlens Noel (4) and Jahlil Okafor (8) have been playing better together of late | Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Sixers big men Nerlens Noel (4) and Jahlil Okafor (8) have been playing better together of late | Bill Streicher-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 talk about the impact Ish Smith has had on the Sixers other big man, rookie Jahlil Okafor. As Okafor has been asked to create less of his own offense, his efficiency has skyrocketed. We’ll also take a look at Richaun Holmes’ inconsistent playing time of late.

Like: Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel playing well together

Much has been made of the improvement Nerlens Noel has shown since the addition of point guard Ish Smith, and for good reason. Smith and Noel, who had been struggling for much of the season, have picked up where they left off last season, with Smith’s pick and roll play and ability to collapse a defense opening up scoring opportunities for the at times offensively-challenged Noel.

With Okafor missing the first two games of the Ish Smith experience (2.0), Noel’s return to form took center stage for Sixers fans desperate to see the improvement Smith could provide.

But Smith’s ability to generate looks for others has helped the Sixers other big man, Jahlil Okafor, as well.

One of the early concerns about Jahlil Okafor’s game was that he brought the offense to a halt. Whereas big men such as Blake Griffin had the talent and physical skills that allow him to thrive in easier, high-efficiency plays like the pick and roll, Okafor’s game was based around creating everything 1-on-1, either in pure post-up situations or off of isolating his man 17′ from the basket and creating off the dribble.

Before the December 24th acquisition of Ish Smith, his season was certainly playing out that way.

In fact, the amount that Okafor had been asked to create for himself, for anybody in the NBA let alone a rookie, was virtually unprecedented. Part of that was because of Okafor’s skill set. Some of his off the ball skills, such as a baseline jumper, navigating a pick and roll, and getting out in transition, are either at the beginning stages of development or just not in his skill package altogether.

But creating so much for himself was absolutely something that impacted his effectiveness, and while he needed to grow as an off-the-ball scorer, exactly how much of that was based out of the limitations in his game (lack of in-game jump shot, lack of elite athleticism to score in the pick and roll and in transition, etc) and how much was a result of the Sixers’ below-average personnel was uncertain.

One thing was certain, however: if Okafor were to grow into an efficient high-usage offensive player, he’d have to score more off the ball and get more easy scoring opportunities.

(On 2 point field goals)
Player% assistedFG%
Brook Lopez63.5%48.8%
Anthony Davis74.1%51.2%
Nikola Vucevic55.4%52.8%
Blake Griffin62.5%51.3%
LaMarcus Aldridge62.5%49.8%
Jahlil Okafor
- With Ish Smith63.6%60.0%
- Without Ish Smith34.8%46.3%
(The percentage of 2-point field goals made that have been assisted by big men 6'10" or taller that have used at least 25% of their team's possessions while on the court. Data from basketball-reference.com and for the 2015-16 NBA season. Minimum 1,000 minutes played)

Certainly with more competent NBA personnel around him Okafor could at the very least be more selective in creating his own offense, even if the ready-made scoring opportunities that come from playing with elite perimeter playmakers may not yet be there.

It’s only been 7 games, but the early returns on Okafor’s offense with Ish Smith have certainly been positive.

Since the trade to bring Smith back to Philadelphia was completed on December 24th, Jahlil Okafor has put up some eye-popping numbers for the all-of-a-sudden competitive 76ers, as the rookie big man has averaged 23.4 points per 36 minutes and shot 60% from the field in the 114 minutes he’s played with his new point guard.

That might seem unsustainable, and it most certainly is, but part of the reason for optimism is that he’s created a far more reasonable percentage of his own offense. Where he created 65.2% of his field goals without Smith on the court, only 36.4% have been unassisted when he’s been paired with Smith.

That number falls directly in line with his peers in the table above, and while 60% shooting from the field might be unsustainable, an improvement in his efficiency should be likely, even before the continued development of his skill level you would expect over the next 5 years as he matures into a complete offensive player.

Perhaps most importantly, the team has looked like a functional NBA offense with Smith on the court, even while Okafor remains a high-usage component of that offense. Even more impressive is that the Sixers have looked good with both Okafor and Nerlens Noel on the court together, averaging 108.2 points per 100 possessions, according to nbawowy.com, in the 84 minutes that Okafor, Noel, and Smith have shared the court.

That’s not just functional, but good, and a stark contrast to the 87.5 points per 100 possessions that the team averaged with Okafor and Noel on the court before Smith’s arrival.

It’s also telling that since the arrival of Smith, 84 of the 87 minutes Okafor and Noel have shared the court have come with Smith on the court as well. Brett Brown has seemingly avoided playing the two big men without Smith there to help facilitate the offense, an almost tacit admission from Brown that he is seeing the same thing.

84 minutes of good play from the big men doesn’t cancel out the concerns borne out of the 398 minutes they struggled to play together without Smith on the court, and some of the defensive concerns are still present, even if the eye test suggests they’ve been playing better together of late on that end of the court as well.

But the team functioning at a high level with the two of them on the court is undeniably a positive development, and something that if it holds true would allow Brown more leeway in constructing his lineups and handing out his playing time going forward.

Dislike: Richaun Holmes disappearing from the rotation

It was just last week where Richaun Holmes was coming off of a 17 point outing in a win over the Minnesota Timberwolves, something that we talked about in our Likes and Dislikes column last week.

For the second week in a row Holmes will make an appearance in this column, but this time it’s for his rapidly evaporating playing time.

Holmes has been a DNP-CD for the Sixers last two games, with Brown preferring to play the veteran Carl Landry over the promising young rookie.

Brown has to navigate a tough balancing act, trying to win enough games to lift the spirits of his team while still developing the young players that are ever-so-crucial to the team’s long-term success. With Okafor and Noel both natural centers, it’s tough to get Holmes consistent playing time in that frontcourt rotation.

But with Okafor and Noel playing better of late when they’ve been on the court together, that opens up some minutes for another traditional big man to join the rotation.

Landry has, to his credit, been playing well to start his Sixers career, shooting 57.1% on jump shots between 16′ and the three point line. It’s hard to argue with the 61.5% true shooting percentage he has so far this year. And, while 57% on midrange jump shots is unsustainable, Landry has been able to remain an efficient big man throughout his career despite his love affair with the long-two.

But with how much of a difference there is between Holmes and Landry on the defensive side of the court, how strong Holmes is at diving to the hoop off pick and rolls, and how well he potentially fits with Ish Smith, I think Holmes can offer Brown a better combination of winning now and also developing his young talent.

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