I don’t want to pile on. I really don’t. I want Jahlil Okafor to succeed. I do. I would love to be wrong.
But every game, it’s the same story. Okafor comes in, the other team goes on a big run. Tonight was no different, and it turned into an absolute backbreaker for the Sixers without Joel Embiid to come back and save the day.
After spending most of the first quarter on the bench, Okafor played really well in the second quarter. He made smart, decisive moves on offense instead of just trying to bully his way to the basket against a stronger defender in Rudy Gobert. He worked around him, he used his array of short jumpers and bank shots, and he was very effective, scoring 13 points in the 2nd quarter and leading the Sixers to a halftime lead.
It’s what’s so frustrating about Okafor. He has the ability to be at least a competent role player. He’ll have these five-minute stretches that resets everybody’s memory and reminds you that he is a skilled player.
In the third quarter, he battled a minor hamstring injury, and Nerlens Noel came in. The Sixers defense put up a strong effort, and offensively, Nerlens was effective as a cutter around the basket, hitting several open dunks on feeds from driving teammates. While he’s not much of a threat on offense, he plays a role, and his defense is night and day over Okafor’s.
Then the fourth quarter started. Okafor re-entered the game, and the Jazz went on a 19-2 run, totally erasing any chance at a Sixers victory. It’s not all Okafor’s fault, but much of the offense the Jazz were able to create was a result of drives to the basket, Sixers defenders collapsing to help, and the driver making the pass to the open shooter. It’s basic basketball.
That’s not to say Okafor is the only problem. Robert Covington played an awful game tonight, shooting a putrid 0-11, including 0-7 from downtown, and playing well below his usual standards defensively. The Sixers aren’t built to be a strong defensive team without a defensive anchor in the middle. Their guards are minus-to-average defenders, and Dario Saric and Ersan Ilyasova are hardly anybody’s idea of plus defenders.
But this isn’t a coincidence anymore. The Sixers are a different team when Okafor is on the court, and in almost every instance, not in a good way. From our old friend Rich Hofmann:
Jah is -17 tonight. He has the worst net rating on the Sixers (-13.6). The team also plays best when he sits (-3.6). Last year was the same.— Rich Hofmann (@rich_hofmann) December 30, 2016
Can Okafor get better? Sure. But the question of how much better is one that has to be asked, because 18 months into his NBA career, it’s difficult to see any improvement that’s taken place thus far.
The Sixers didn’t lose this game solely because of Jahlil Okafor. They have other problems besides Jahlil Okafor. But much like many of the games the Sixers have played this season, Okafor was a net negative at a position where the Sixers have too much competition to keep rolling out a net negative player in hopes he turns into a competent backup center.