NBA.com's annual GM survey hit the interwebs this week, revealing that 44 percent of the league's 30 general managers believe that Sixers center Jahlil Okafor will claim this year's Rookie of the Year award. Okafor is this year's Jabari Parker — an impossibly smooth, 19-year-old offensive talent out of Duke. Parker himself actually secured a staggering 75 percent of the vote a year ago.
And just like his fellow Blue Devil, Okafor won't win Rookie of the Year, either.
Now, to be fair, Parker of course suffered a devastating, season-ending injury just 25 games into his professional career. This is in no way an argument reliant on the transitive property: no one is predicting or hoping to see Okafor end up on the shelf. Okafor instead has four other road blocks in his way from hoisting that Kia-sponsored trophy in May.
Equating the Nuggets' young point guard to Michael Carter-Williams has always been a lazy comparison. Mudiay possesses far greater athleticism, he showed a superior grasp of pick-and-roll decision-making in China than MCW did at Syracuse, and through Summer League and several preseason contests, it appears Mudiay boasts a cleaner shot selection and better shooting ability as well. He does share Carter-Williams' length at the point guard position, however, and that, combined with their nearly identical rookie-year situations, has Mudiay primed for a similar stat-stuffing opening campaign.
The Nuggets are rebuilding, having dealt a point guard with All-Star talent during the offseason, but still maintain a few impact veterans. Sound familiar? Mudiay has led all rookies in minutes per game this preseason and field goal attempts. He's second in usage rate, second in free throw attempts and third in assists — Philly's own T.J. McConnell ranks second! He's going to have the ball in his hands aplenty with the a large portion of Denver's possessions concluding with a Mudiay shot attempt or assist opportunity. It's a recipe that should prove extremely threatening to Okafor's ROY bid independently, even without the big man's potential struggles.
Of all rookies this preseason, Okafor ranks just 26th in minutes per game — that's behind both McConnell and even Jordan McRae. He's only played 18.7 minutes a night and Brett Brown has cited Okafor's conditioning as the reason. It's one of the corniest and most cliche statements in sports, but a players greatest ability truly is his availability. And Okafor simply won't be able to contend for the Rookie of the Year award if he's never available to play more than 25 minutes per game.
The Rookie of the Year has historically been determined by which first year player has the best counting stats. Remember how historically inefficient MCW was?
Struggles against bigger defenders
No matter how many minutes Okafor is ultimately able to play this season, the big man is going to get his touches. Remember that Mudiay ranks second in usage? Okafor is the only rookie ahead of him throughout the preseason. Okafor has used 33.1 percent of the Sixers possessions when he's been on the floor. For perspective, Tony Wroten led the Sixers in usage at 30.5 percent a year ago. As a point guard.
Okafor hasn't looked nearly as dynamic in the post during the preseason as he did at Duke and during Summer League, however. He's been gobbled up by burly opposing big men and been forced to toss up fall-away hook shots on far too many post-up attempts.
Okafor is a mammoth of a human being for just 19. But even at 6'11, 268 pounds, he's still going to need to add lower body strength to compete against competent NBA low post defenders. He's undoubtedly going to show flashes of brilliance, but it will take Okafor time to learn how to bang against bodies just as big, if not bigger, than him for the first time.
Poor post-up positioning
Many of Okafor's struggles in the post can simply be attributed to his poor positioning when initiating his post-ups. Look at how far from the hoop he begins isolating Marcin Gortat in the team's preseason opener.
After the catch, Okafor stalls for a moment or two, faces up and puts the ball between his legs once towards the baseline before trying to spin back towards the paint. It was a wild turnover.
Now look at where Okafor was starting his post attempts against Wisconsin in the national title game.
After this catch, Okafor took one power dribble and was finishing with ease over Kaminsky at the rim.
Beginning post-ups 12 — and sometimes 15 — feet from the basket will almost always force a big man to face-up, regardless of whether Gortat or Kamisky is defending, and that's not Okafor's strength. Okafor excels by sticking his ass into a defender, feeling which direction his defender's body weight is leaning and leveraging his opponent's momentum with quick footwork.
If Okafor's preseason trends continue, he'll be far from the immediate 20/10 guy some projected him to be in the NBA. He's averaged 10.0 points and 3.5 rebounds per game on just 39 percent shooting from the field so far.
All rookies are works in progress. Okafor will struggle at times, just like Nerlens Noel and so many others before him. And just like Noel, Okafor's inconsistent season might very well lose him the Rookie of the Year award to a guard with better counting stats.