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Jahlil Okafor Defensive Video Analysis

NBA analyst Nick Sciria has recently made some waves by creating long Twitter threads providing in-depth video analysis of players' games. He recently shared a deep dive on Jahlil Okafor's rookie season.

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday, we shared many of Nick Sciria's tweets analyzing Okafor’s rookie season on the offensive side of the ball. It demonstrated that he has some truly unique, unparalleled skills, such as his touch around the basket and his face-up game, but that he also has quite a few areas in which he needs to (and can) improve.

Today, we’ll cover the second half of Nick’s tweets, which cover the defensive side of the ball. And like yesterday, if you like what you're reading, give Nick a follow at @Nick_Sciria.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Nick Sciria shared a fascinating, in-depth thread of information on Jahlil Okafor's rookie season last night that caught our attention. With Nick's permission, Marc added commentary and notes to his breakdown and will be sharing those thoughts below. We are thrilled to be able to share Nick's thoughts with our audience.

Nick began by supporting a point that has often been cited around these parts-- center is the single most important position on the floor when it comes to defense, and that it is of greater importance to have a strong defender at the 5 than at any other position for a team. He quoted the Ringer's Jonathan Tjarks from a post this past February on his old blog.

There’s nowhere you can hide a 5 who can’t defend. The whole point of playing a 5 in the modern NBA is because of the value they bring as a rim protector anda second line of defense. It’s a defensive position before it’s an offensive position.

Nick also cited a Nylon Calculus article which researched which position was the most impactful in the league by using DRPM. Like Tjarks, it concluded that a center has on outsize effect on defense in comparison to other positions. Here were two different writers, one an eye-test based, "forest for the trees" writer, the other a statistically minded one coming to the same verdict on the importance of defense for a center. This has been and continues to be the main issue with Okafor— his defense isn’t something that detracts from his offensive main course like it might for James Harden. Defense is the entree. The rest is gravy.

Nick then dove into Okafor’s help defense deficiencies. For a center, the last line of defense, help defense is even more paramount than on-ball defense. His main responsibility when on the court is to help on defense.

Nick then points out one of the biggest issues with Okafor's defense-- he simply hasn't mastered the defensive fundamental of seeing ball at all times. In the halfcourt, this is a function of having failed to grasp fundamental concepts. In transition, it's sometimes a function of his less than stellar conditioning, where he gets beaten down the court and cannot turn to see ball before it has been passed to his man.

Nick then demonstrates that Okafor is simply too slow to process the rotations that he needs to make in many instances, both mentally and physically.

Nick also decries Okafor's effort on defense. It shows up in help situations, but he is quick to point out that it is also often present even when he is directly involved in ball action, whether as the defender of the screener in a PnR or on-ball.

"Okafor's lack of awareness becomes even more apparent when he is forced to guard guys who can shoot or drive," Nick writes. When he had to guard Al Horford against the Hawks, it was clear that he made zero adjustments based on personnel, allowing Horford to hit wide open shots without any action required to set them up.

Nick then transitions to talk about Okafor's on-ball defense, which was, on the whole, better than his help defense. Still he suffered from lapses in effort, and often allowed inexcusable blow-bys.

Then he moves, again, to a different facet of defense: the pick and roll. Predictably, Okafor flounders in this defensive set as well.

From a watching and eye test perspective, it's important to point out that his mistakes aren't necessarily the first things you notice in each of these clips. Even when you do notice mistakes in the run of play, it is usually only one in a series of several that jumps out. Which is normal! There are ten players on the court, all moving in different and interacting ways. If every viewer noticed every single mistake from every single player on every single possession, we would be the most evolved species that has ever lived. Instead, our brains edit, and we rely on availability bias. Because we only notice an occasional mistake rather than each of them, we can say that Okafor's defense can improve; on the other end of the spectrum, we notice most of the good on offense. These two perspectives warp our perceptions of him and inhibit our analysis.

Nick then went on to talk about the likelihood that Okafor's defense would improve. As with most things with a 20-year-old rookie, it is very likely to. The real question is how much will it improve? Nick cited a Nylon Calculus article that I have also mentioned in regards to Okafor, which showed the amount that big men tend to improve in the few years following their rookie year on D.

"[The author] concluded that big men like Okafor tend to remain in the negatives in terms of defensive impact," Nick wrote. "[He] also noted that Okafor's best-case scenario is about average defensive production. The first development that needs to happen with Okafor would be an increase in effort if he is to become passable on defense."

"However, I'm a little wary about that happening," Nick continued. "Brett Brown gets his guys to play their tails off. Jah is a clear outlier in that regard."

Nick then moved to Okafor's rebounding to finish his scouting report. Okafor has deep-seated issues rebounding to, and they "revolve around poor and poor technique" according to Nick.

He cited my piece from February that concluded that Okafor's rebounding vis-a-vis his rookie peers was concerningly low. While his raw, per game rebounding totals look strong, the better statistic that determines what percentage of available rebounds he corrals sold him far short of future All-Star and All NBA players.

"Okafor ranked 48th out of 60 qualified centers in defensive rebound rate last season," Nick continued. "In terms of grabbing contested defensive rebounds, Okafor ranked 34th out of 46 qualified big men in contested rebound success percentage. It's possible that Okafor has been so big and powerful his whole life that he never had to learn techniques or give constant effort on boards."

To answer whether Okafor can improve his rebounding going forward, Nick cited a study of his own that found that big men who struggled to rebound as rookies "had a career DRB% of about 2.6% better than their rookie season. [He] also found that these big men had a DRB% in their best three years that was about 4.2% higher than their rookie season."

"So yes, there is hope that Okafor becomes an average rebounder. Above that? It's unlikely," he concluded.

Nick concluded, "For Okafor to overcome his lackluster defense, he will need to be an extremely efficient, high-usage offensive player." He also

In Nick's opinion, and mine, Okafor's current weaknesses don't preclude him from becoming the franchise player the Sixers hope he'll be. They simply limit the ways in which a championship team can be built around him. For now, the two aspects of his game that need the most shoring up are his passing as a defense. If he can become the great passer his college career suggested he might have been and at least average on defense, his outlier offensive skills will be allowed to pay their full dividends.

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