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Let's Talk About Okafor's Rebounding

While Jahlil Okafor has certainly been a divisive player this season, most of the criticism has focused on his defensive shortcomings. It has largely been accepted that his rebounding, while not elite, has been good enough. We should challenge that assumption.

Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

I couldn't watch the Sixers' game against the Warriors live. As has often been the case the last few months, I was spending my Saturday evening in the car, driving back to Philly from New England. Because of different quirks in my schedule, it's pretty common for me to miss games live and watch them the next day, which means that my first impression of the game is often a quick glance over the final box score.

So, as has often been the case, I checked the stats and immediately looked at Nerlens' and Jah's lines to see how they had played. And, as has often been the case, a particular line of Okafor's stood out to me-- somehow, our starting-caliber center had managed to corral only a single rebound.

This was only one game, and Jah may have still been feeling some lingering affects from an illness that had sidelined him for the previous two games. But it was far from the first time that I had been disappointed with his rebound totals. So I decided to dig a little into his numbers as a rookie.

They are mostly bad, but with some positive indicators.

Just from a sheer volume standpoint, Okafor only has 10 games this season in which he has reached double digit rebound totals. He has played 42. Since the start of 2016, Okafor has only gotten 10 boards once in 12 games. Admittedly, a fixation on double digit rebounds, an arbitrary measure with no quantifiable extra benefit, is silly. But it's a benchmark that should be eminently attainable for a center who plays over 30 minutes a game. It would only require Okafor to grab a rebound every three minutes of game time, or two and a half rebounds per quarter. In the vast majority of his games, he has failed to do this.

But the bigger issue comes when you compare him to his peers. Okafor plays a lot of minutes for a rookie, which allows him to accrue a decent number of raw counting stats. But citing his 7 rebounds a game as a strength can be misleading. A better manner of comparing Okafor to his peers is by looking at the percentage of available rebounds that each player garners while in the game. Here is how he compares to some of the most promising big men drafted since 2012.

Rank Player Rookie Age D Reb% O Reb% Total Reb%
1 Clint Capela 20 21.8 12.3 22.1
2 Andre Drummond 19 27.2 15.4 21.2
3 Karl-Anthony Towns 20 27.6 10.7 19.2
4 Julius Randle 21 30.5 8.4 19.2
5 Jusuf Nurkic 20 26.1 11.8 18.7
6 Anthony Davis 19 23.5 10.5 16.8
7 Nikola Jokic 20 21 12 16.4
8 Steven Adams 20 17.1 14.1 15.6
9 Willie Cauley-Stein 22 19.1 11.6 15.4
10 Alex Len 20 18.6 12.1 15.3
11 Kristaps Porzingis 21 22 8.2 15.2
12 Nerlens Noel 20 21 8.3 14.3
13 Cody Zeller 21 18.8 9.4 14.1
14 Myles Turner 19 20.2 6.2 13.1
15 Jahlil Okafor 20 18.1 8 12.9

These are the rebound percentages put up during each player's respective rookie campaigns. And Okafor has been the worst. Through half a season, he has the worst overall rebound rate, the second worst offensive rebound rate, and the second worst defensive rebound rate. Worse, it's hard to find many lottery picks who were worse than Okafor at all.

Since 1990, there have been 29 centers taken in the Top 5 of the NBA draft. All but two had or have higher rebounding rates as rookies than Okafor currently does. Only Marcus Camby and Shawn Bradley were worse in Year 1.

Comparing his season to the rookie years of All-NBA big men, he looks just as bad.

Rank Player Rookie Age D Reb% O Reb% Total Reb%
1 Kevin Love 20 27.3 15.1 21
2 Blake Griffin 21 26.9 10.2 18.9
3 DeAndre Jordan 20 25.5 10.5 17.8
4 Tim Duncan 21 23.8 10.5 17.6
5 Dwight Howard 19 22.2 12.2 17.3
6 Al Jefferson 20 21 13.5 17.3
7 DeMarcus Cousins 20 24.4 10.4 17.2
8 Joakim Noah 22 18.4 12.4 15.3
9 Marc Gasol 24 20 9.6 14.7
10 Jahlil Okafor 20 18.1 8 12.9

This is not to say that Okafor cannot improve, or that this is a fatal defect in his development as a basketball player. There are many examples of players who struggled to rebound relative to their peers as rookies, but became passable rebounders as they matured. Kevin Garnett and Marcus Camby both rebounded at a rate of 13% or worse as rookies, and they each had career years peaking above 20%. So while beginning your career as a poor rebounder is certainly not good, it's not exactly a death toll, either.

There are a couple more encouraging points, too.

Okafor was not a poor rebounder in college (although it was also not a strength), so it may have more to do with adjusting to the pace, physicality, and size of the NBA than with Okafor's overall rebounding ability.

Some of Okafor's profligacy could also be due to the awkward shoehorning of two centers into the Sixers' lineups. Playing without Noel, Okafor's rebounding rate bumps to 14.7%, still a lower number than most of his peers, but not as lamentable as his overall rate. It may turn out that all Okafor needs to rebound at acceptable levels is to be the featured man in the middle.

Moreover, the team has actually rebounded slightly better with Okafor on the court than with Noel, according to NBAwowy.

Lineup D Reb% Team Rank Total Reb% Team Rank
Okafor On, Noel Off 75.2 2 48.4 1
Okafor & Noel On 75.6 1 47.9 2
Okafor off, Noel On 73.4 3 47.3 3

It may just be noise, and a couple of percentage points hardly mean that one player is definitively more impactful than the other. But the point is that the team performs comparably regardless of the big man setup, so while Okafor isn't necessarily grabbing rebounds himself, he also isn't harming the team with his performance. As long as the Sixers rebound well with Okafor in the game, why should it matter who collects the boards?

So Okafor's relative ignominy may be immaterial in the grand scheme. Still, it's certainly something to monitor going forward.

Rebounding poorly would put a cap on Okafor's potential as an overall player. A center who struggles to defend and rebound is a liability in the NBA. Okafor may need to improve on both aspects of the game to be average at them and become the franchise centerpiece the Sixers are hoping he will.

Note: All numbers accurate as of 2/2/16.

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