I have been tasked with entering a house on fire and suggesting we burn some wood to keep warm. Welcome to Jahlil Okafor’s 2016-17 season preview.
One quick point to make before we get into it. I understand why every article/tweet/mouth-take requires you to turn each fleeting Jahlil Okafor thought into a Celebrity Deathmatch with Nerlens Noel, but I am deeming that unfair to both parties and also vacuum philosophical exercises, so I’ll be going the rest of this column without mentioning the other guy. Get your raw meat somewhere else, jackals.
Jeffrey Wright is one of the best modern character actors. Often charged with grounding eccentrics in complex worlds, Wright uses his inherent peculiarity to his advantage, finding human moments in the weirdness to define his performance. He’s like a relic from a time that never existed. I’m usually bad at describing what it is about particular actors I like — I can be heard squealing “she’s SO GOOD” over and over any time I see Elisabeth Moss in anything — but with Wright, his qualities are self-evident. Guy just knows his way around a role.
Wright came aboard the HBO show Boardwalk Empire in season 4 as Valentin Narcisse: a charismatic, highly-educated African-American civil rights advocate who reveals himself to be a cruel, ruthless killer lacking in empathy. And Wright absolutely crushed the role -- just for the wrong show. Every time he was on screen chewing scenery (acting too hard, basically), it suddenly felt like Wild Wild West set in an episode of Deadwood. It didn’t go. I couldn’t watch him without thinking about his acting. Thinking about how he and Steve Buscemi were acting past each other. How interesting a show centered around Narcisse would be, rather than him as a crammed-in-there supporting villain this late in the game.
Jahlil has been the same player since DePaul offered him a scholarship in 8th grade. (btw: WATCH HIS 8TH GRADE MIXTAPE. My 8th grade mixtape would consist of headfake-heavy crossovers, me lunging my knee into the thigh of my man as he drives, and me cooking a ton of Pasta Roni while wearing a visor. It’s set to Lil’ Kim’s “The Jump Off” and it has 84 views.) On June 25, 2015, he was still that guy. After years of this blog preaching BPA, BPA, BPA, the Sixers picked the player who was the theoretical embodiment of Best Player Available over Fit. Unfortunately with hindsight, we know he wasn’t even the Best Player Available (your monthly reminder I had him ranked 8th on my board), and with or without hindsight, a terrible fit on the Sixers roster. It would’ve been better for the Sixers to take almost anyone else in the top 10, and it would've been better for Jahlil to have gone almost anywhere else.
But we are in this reality, where Jahlil Okafor is coming off the exact rookie year — at least on-court — that everyone expected of him. He was transcendent in the post, just like in college. He was horrendous on defense, just like in college. He has the makings of someone a team could run an offense through, just like in college. And he was very, very bad at defensive rebounding, just like in college. *The non-collegiate outliers I’ll give you are seedlings of an 18-foot jumper (good), and totally forgetting how to pass from the post (bad, sure bad teammates, but also bad).*
Those are the things we knew we knew. He spent years of his life being the best player he’s ever seen. He got to Duke and did the same stuff he’d been doing, ignored the rest, and won a national championship. He got drafted by the rebuildingest team in the league and once they had an NBA point guard, put up delightfully county offensive stats and ignored the same stuff he ignored in college and high school and so on.
Okay. That’s year one. The first year of getting paid professional business dollars to do his hobby. Everything he has done up to this point is a given, and this season I will feel more comfortable judging him by what weaknesses he has improved upon over the summer. His body? Grumble grumble, 15 pounds of muscle, grumble grumble... His rebounding? ew ew don’t touch it don’t touch it... His defense? HIS DEFENSE?
Any of those things would be great. For real, if he markedly developed in a single one of those areas, I would call his sophomore season a success. Because yes — SHOUT IT FROM THE ROOFTOPS -- he’s just 20 years old. Every rookie has a tough time with the transition to the NBA, and Jahlil going from winning a National Title to losing the first 18 games of his career at 19 years old is not nothing. I can feel myself making the Athletes Are Human Beings, Too defense, but they are, so I am. I’m under no illusion that Okafor will magically become Karl-Anthony Towns after seven years of That Mixtape-ball. But if he can slowly, steadily get better at the things he’s incomprehensibly awful at, then that’s a W. Maybe he can’t. But maybe he can. Pass me the lighter fluid.
I should tell you that if you’re looking for stats ‘n’ video breakdowns of Jahlil, here are four:
It’s all there. You don’t need more of that from me. No matter the roster construction, Okafor needs to get better at some very basic basketball things this season — we all can agree on that. I won’t be able to change anybody’s mind with facts or reason anyhow (Election 2016!), so let me continue down this other path.
Jahlil is not yet Jeffrey Wright. He’s theatre school Jeffrey Wright, with Resting Scene Chewing Face, mainlining usage rate into his bloodstream. I’m just now realizing maybe early McConaughey would work better for this analogy, but like Jahlil’s rookie year, we’re too far gone to fix it now. Jah could be excellent on some team that’s built right for him, or he could stay stuck in the wrong place and make more movies about finding fake gold or something with Kate Hudson. Fine, Jesus, I changed it to McConaughey. Go watch Jeffrey Wright in Angels In America.
We and Jahlil have no control over where he goes this season. He can only work to make himself a more complete professional basketball player, and we can try to be patient with the clogged rotation and see if he’s less of a liability than he was as a rookie. In those small terms, I’m optimistic about Okafor Year Two.
There. I’m nominally optimistic. That should’ve been the whole preview. Previews are stupid.