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One (Sixers) Question To Rule Them All: Can Ish Smith Help Okafor Like He Has Noel?

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Can Ish have as positive an impact on Jahlil as Nerlens? We asked four LB writers on their thoughts.

Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

There's no downplaying the great impact new Sixers point guard Ish Smith has had on the team's big men, most notably Nerlens Noel. As Derek Bodner wrote about, the disparity in Noel's shooting numbers when Smith is on the floor as opposed to when he's not is pretty significant.

But in the two games since Smith's return to Philadelphia, he's yet to have the chance to play with 2015 top pick Jahlil Okafor, who has missed the past couple of games with knee soreness. Considering we only have Noel's improved play to go off of, in this week's One (Sixers) Question To Rule Them All, we asked our esteemed panel...

"Can Ish Smith help Jahlil Okafor like he has Nerlens Noel?"

Sean O'Connor: Certainly not right away. Smith and Noel have 25 games of experience playing together to build upon, so expecting the same immediate improvement Noel has displayed (with an assist for having the center position to himself) is unrealistic. Okafor doesn't play with the same speed Noel does which suits Smith's go-go game. Okafor won't be catching lobs above the rim or providing the vertical spacing that makes the Smith-Noel duo jibe.
I think the point is especially true if Brett Brown messes around too much with lineups having all three players together. The best parts of the Noel-Smith combination have come when the Sixers surround the pick-and-roll duo with shooters. Okafor is decidedly not a shooter right now. It would be wiser to separate the bigs, bring Okafor off the bench, and experiment with those during either low-leverage spots in blowouts or against weaker opposing lineups (such as late first/early second quarter bench-heavy units).

Matt Carey: I think he can help, but the difference won't be as noticeable as it is with Nerlens.

Nerlens fits Ish's game like a glove. He's up-tempo, he can play above the rim, he's fully able to take advantage of Ish's skill at getting to the rim, and Ish can place the ball exactly where Nerlens needs it. Okafor can do all of those things, but it's not his strength. It's kinda like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, but a bigger round hole where the peg still fits.

The biggest outside factor Okafor needs to maximize his biggest strength (back-to-basket post game) is a point guard who can throw an entry pass. Ish's passing is sound, so that will at least be an improvement over the carousel of point guards they've trotted out thus far.

Jake Fischer: I think the big question is whether we'll see Okafor in countless pick-and-rolls at the same rate we've seen Ish run top-of-the-key pick-and-rolls with Nerlens. Now, in that small sect of the offense, Ish's speed turning the corner will likely help cover up how godawful Okafor has been at actually making contact with the defender he's supposed to screen. In that regard, as long as Okafor dives hard to the rim like Nerlens has, in a pick-and-roll setting, Ish will absolutely help Okafor.

In terms of Okafor's post-ups, the circumstances are still the same. Okafor's struggles have come when he takes too long assessing the defense and when the wings sharing the court haven't threatened defenses enough to prevent opponents from doubling him. I don't think Ish's point guard play will really impact Okafor on the block as much as Nik Stauskas and Robert Covington finding a groove from downtown would.

Marc Whittington: I don't think it will be the same sort of "night and day" effect for Okafor that it has been for Nerlens, mostly because the strengths of their games are so vastly different. Nerlens is such a bouncy, athletic freak, that when his PG can actually get him a lob near the basket (and he can, like, actually catch the thing), he'll cram the ball down opponents' throats to the tune of the last two 85% shooting games. Jah is definitively not that kind of player, and won't benefit in the same way as Nerlens does.

That said, I do think his efficiency will take a slight bump upwards. Having a strong pick and roll partner is hugely important, and even if he's not getting 4 or 5 dunks a game, Okafor should have a couple more open looks than he has so far. More importantly, he should have a couple more assisted looks than he has so far this year. 61% of his field goals have been unassisted, which is pretty much unheard of for a rookie big man. Assisted looks are generally far easier to convert than unassisted, so Okafor's efficiency should take a nice little bump. But I certainly don't expect it to be as large as Nerlens', just as the their playing styles are so wildly different.

Obviously, the more pressing question of "help" for me is whether Ish makes Okafor's life easier on defense, as that's what I am most concerned with for Jah. Ish is tiny and a sieve, so I'm going out on a limb and predicting that he will not help there.