This article isn’t about Nerlens Noel and my frequently stated preference for him as a player for the 76ers going forward. It’s about Jahlil Okafor’s defensive performance against the Jazz last night. It’s about a player who put forth the worst defensive performance I’ve seen from a Sixer since Kevin Garnett’s thrashing of Spencer Hawes in the 2012 Eastern Conference Semifinals. It was unacceptable from a player of his assumed stature and incredibly frustrating to watch during his 22 minutes on the court.
While Okafor is still recovering from offseason surgery and that could be affecting his play and mobility at the moment, this is not new behavior from him at the moment. “He’s only 20 years old!” they cry to the heavens as they shake their firsts, but check out this tidbit from draft guru Mike Schmitz’s report on Okafor from January 2015 during Okafor’s freshman season at Duke:
While Okafor is the most prolific and skilled offensive big man in college basketball, his play on the defensive end of the floor doesn't inspire anywhere near the same praise.
So nearly two years later, the same conversation is still being had. It doesn’t matter how nifty his footwork is in the post. When he’s the last line of defense and a complete liability protecting the rim or in any pick-and-roll situation, it negates any of his offense positives, leaving his all-around game in the red. Here’s something I think people don’t understand regarding the issue: You don’t need your center to be a scoring force. If he can contribute, that’s gravy. You do, however, absolutely need your center to be an interior presence defensively and not food for opposing ball-handlers to chop and throw in the blender in the pick-and-roll. This is the equivalent of being a 3-4 edge rusher in the NFL who is gifted at dropping back in coverage, but way below-average at actually rushing the passer. It’s nice that he can do it, but it’s not what his job entails.
Here’s a look at two defensive plays from Okafor last night:
The first play, defending the rim against a penetrating Rudy Gobert, while bad, isn’t quite disastrous. He doesn’t move his feet at all against the bigger, longer, stronger player, putting him at an immediate disadvantage. When he finally rotates with the quickness of a rusty, old turnstile, it’s already too late, as Gobert is in the process of destroying the rim.
The second play...
Oh, man, the second play...
I don’t know if he’s just slow or unaware or doesn’t care or some combination of all of the above, but that’s just pitiful and one of the most infuriating defensive sequences I’ve ever seen. Beyond just letting Joe Ingles stroll on in and go up for the basket, there’s absolutely no urgency on Okafor’s part to get a defensive rebound, which, as a guy who supposedly rolls out of bed with 20 and 10, he’s pretty horrendous at doing, and then sticks his hand out towards Ingles on the put-back attempt with the same effort you do when you're pretending you’re trying to hold the elevator open for someone while the doors are closing when deep down you know you want the doors to shut in their face.
I’m sick to my stomach watching that.
Let’s take a look some of Okafor’s “defense” in a pick-and-roll situation against Utah.
In the first play above, Joe “Seven-Time All-Star” Johnson is working as the pick-and-roll ball-handler while Trey Lyles works as the screener. Robert Covington, who, while playing fantastically the first five games of the season on defense, had a poor game of his own last night, is guarding Johnson. Covington fights through Lyles’ screen and attempts to swarm Johnson. As Lyles, a 38.3 percent shooter from deep last season, fades back beyond the arc, Okafor looks like a gargoyle who just turned to stone as the sun came up. By the the time he realizes that he’s been duped, Lyles is already stepping into a wide-open shot. His half-hearted attempt to closeout on Lyles, like most of his half-hearted attempts, is of no consequence.
I’m not sure at what point his unawareness and defensive deficiencies fall on coaching. I haven’t been the biggest proponent of Brett Brown this season. How do they let him walk through games with these things occurring? For a guy who’s calling card is development, Brown’s done nothing to improve the most glaring weakness from the team’s 2015 first rounder. What does Brown say to Okafor when reviewing plays like the one above during film and video sessions? It just baffles me. It went on last season surely, as Okafor surrendered 1.03 points per possession as the pick-and-roll roll man, per NBA Stats, leaving him in the 28.7th percentile.
With the pick-and-roll being such an integral part of today’s game, I’d like a supposedly offensively gifted center to be able to set a simple pick. This is something all of the Sixers big men have struggled with during the Brown era, but Okafor’s complete apathy for making contact or even smoothly slipping the screen and rolling here just screams complete and utter indifference:
There’s something else regarding Okafor’s play that needs to be stated: for as good as his footwork and spins look in Vines and highlights, his “elite” skill of posting up offensively was relatively average in 2016. Okafor had the 11th most post-up possessions in the NBA last season with 315, scoring 0.85 points per possession on those plays, per NBA Stats. That leaves him in just the 54.7th percentile of post-up scoring. For comparison, players with higher usage than him, overwhelming place in higher percentiles, from Brook Lopez (79.4th) to LaMarcus Aldridge (84.3rd) to Nikola Vucevic (75.8th). Okafor’s one dominant skill, while frequently looking pretty, didn't result in efficient offense for the Sixers. He doesn’t work in the pick-and-roll on either side of the ball and the best part of his game is mediocre. There needs to be significant improvement in all facets of his game at this point to get to a competent NBA level.
Okafor, while possessing a talented, if antiquated, low-post skill set, is just unfit to be a starting center in the NBA of 2016 and won’t be able to cut it as an instant offense big off the bench unless his defense improves to even a below-average level.