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Jahlil Okafor vs. The Echo Chamber

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A closer look at Jahlil Okafor’s performance as a rookie and how he can prove his doubters wrong in 2016-17.

2015 NBA Rookie Photo Shoot Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images

This is something I’ve been meaning to get off my chest for a while now, so bear with me… Jahlil Okafor isn’t the problem, we are.

Over the course of the past year, we’ve allowed the presence of Okafor to poison our outlets for constructive discussion – from Twitter, to r/sixers, to the comment section at the bottom of this page (I would imagine). The Prokafors and the Nokafors, much like partisans in the political world, have stuck their flags atop the hills upon which they wish to live and die. But the reality is that Okafor will likely never be worth the third-overall pick the Sixers used to select him 15 months ago, but also he’ll almost certainly exceed the limited expectations set by his loudest critics. He exists somewhere in the valley between those two hills.

For a team that won just 10 games last season, that so underperformed even its meager expectations that Sam Hinkie was driven out of town by year’s end, Okafor is a convenient scapegoat. And while he’s certainly a flawed player and while prospects like Kristaps Porzingis and Myles Turner have certainly flashed more potential than has Okafor, our criticism of him has grown too loud and too pointed in my opinion.

One can take fact that so many well-informed Sixers fans are down on Okafor and point to it as evidence supporting their displeasure with him. And I actually agree with that sentiment. That there is consensus amongst many of the writers on this site and many smart, statistically oriented national writers should not be ignored. But context is important.

Look around the league, and you’ll see plenty of flawed, young players on teams whose fanbases remain reasonably optimistic, or at least hopeful, that they’ll one day put everything together on the court. I’m talking about Justise Winslow, Julius Randle, Dante Exum, Alex Len, and the list goes on. Hell, you only have to rewind the clock five years, and you’ll see examples on this very site of writers defending Evan Turner and dismissing his rookie-year struggles. Now, at the end of the day, Turner ended up being an okay player. Certainly not worthy of the #2 pick, even in a weak draft, but still fine.

Reflecting upon Okafor’s rookie season

Last season, Okafor averaged 17.5 points and 7.0 rebounds in exactly 30 minutes per game, shooting 50.8% from the floor and 68.6% from the line. On their face, these are very good numbers for a rookie center, especially one who played nearly twice as many minutes with Isaiah Canaan serving as lead ball handler than with Ish Smith at point guard.

Defensively, though, Okafor was undeniably bad, showing a lack of effort and awareness that was shocking to see play out over the course of the season. According to friend of the site Derek Bodner’s super nifty breakdown of Jahlil Okafor vs. Nerlens Noel from a few weeks back, the Sixers allowed a full 12 points more per 100 possessions with Okafor on the floor as the team’s only big man than when Noel was in that same role. Of course, one would expect there to be a discrepancy like this when comparing two players whose strengths come on opposite ends of the floor. But still, that number is jarring.

But while Jahlil Okafor legitimately raised a number of red flags last season, there were still areas of his game that should give Sixers fans hope, especially as the Sixers move into a period of time in which the 20-year-old will no longer be asked to bear the type of scoring load he carried in his rookie season. Setting aside defense for a moment, let’s take a look at where Okafor found success offensively last year and how he may maximize those opportunities in his sophomore season.

How Okafor can adjust his offensive game and still find success

When detractors talk about Jahlil Okafor’s offense, they often point to his propensity to lean upon post play, something that many teams have moved away from because of its relative inefficiency compared to more movement-oriented approaches. But while 32.0% of Okafor’s used possessions came on post-ups, which garnered on averaged just 0.85 points, and another 19.0% came on isolations, from which he scored 0.87 points per possession, he showed a good deal of proficiency in some of the lesser-utilized areas of his game.

As a roll man, Okafor had a shade more opportunities per game than did Nerlens Noel, and he faired better in that area as well. Although it only accounted for 13.1% of his offensive possessions last season, Okafor finished just above the league average in terms of points per possession as a roll man, scoring 1.02 points per possession in those situations. Noel, on the other hand, scored 0.94 points per possession as a roll man, thanks in large part to a turnover rate (15.9%) nearly double that of Okafor (8.5%).

Playing alongside playmaking forwards Ben Simmons and Dario Saric this season, not to mention a more capable backcourt rotation that includes veterans Sergio Rodriguez and Jerryd Bayless, Okafor should look to create more of his offense from pick-and-roll opportunities.

Those new additions should also help push the pace offensively. And it’ll be important that Okafor makes use of transition opportunities more than he did as a rookie, when just 6.6% of his offense came on the break. When he did get the ball in his hands in transition, though, he converted at a 71.4% clip, earning a points per possession average of 1.34, good enough to put him the 89th percentile of the entire league.

Because of his footwork, body control, scoring touch, and natural strength, Okafor has the ability to really benefit from the playmaking ability of this year’s Sixers team. It’s not hard to imagine Sergio Rodriguez pushing the ball on the break and finding a trailing Okafor open at the elbow with a clear lane to the hoop. Or a Ben Simmons drive forcing weakside help that leaves Okafor open around the rim for an easy finish. Or even a pick-and-roll with Dario Saric ending in a mismatch under the basket for Okafor to either finish the play or draw a double team and kick the ball back out.

Last year, just 41.3% of Okafor’s made baskets were assisted. Compare that to Karl Towns (67.8%), Kristaps Porzingis (67.3%), and Myles Turner (79.9%), and it becomes a bit clearer how much the addition of Simmons, Saric, and Rodriguez will benefit him. Of course, a big reason that number was so low was that Okafor chose to isolate and try to go at defenders one-on-one far too often. Last year, 22.7% of Okafor’s shot attempts came after more than three dribbles, resulting in a field goal percentage of 43.1%. On his remaining attempts, he shot 52.8% from the floor.

Below is a cut-up that shows some of the ways I believe Jahlil Okafor can thrive offensively this coming season:

Okay, that’s fine. But why was the offense so terrible with him last year?

The truth of the matter is that Jahlil Okafor’s scoring wasn’t the problem last season. Even when he was utilizing typically inefficient possessions – post-ups and elbow isolations, he still converted at a respectable clip. That speaks to the innate offensive skills he brings to the table, but it leads one to wonder why then the Sixers were so terrible offensively with him on the floor in 2015-16.

The answer is that he was an obnoxious ball hog last season. As a rookie, he led all NBA centers in average dribbles per touch (1.17) and time of possession per touch (2.46 seconds). DeMarcus Cousins (1.03 and 2.11, respectively) was the only other center in his stratosphere in either of those two categories. His 1.2 assists per game ranked 10th on the Sixers last year, and among centers who logged at least 30 minutes per game only Brook Lopez and Andre Drummond passed the ball less frequently than Okafor did (31.7 times per game).

But there’s reason to think that could improve in Okafor’s sophomore year. Firstly, there’s the obvious qualifier that he was a member of the 2015-16 Philadelphia 76ers last season. Often times, when he would fail to hit an open guard on the perimeter with a kick out pass, he was making the statistically correct decision – a post-up shot that averages Okafor 0.85 points each time he takes it is simply superior to a wide open Jerami Grant three-pointer that earns an average of 0.71 points each time. And secondly, Okafor was actually a fairly willing passer at Duke and showed flashes of that ability as a rookie.

The hope is that with a more competitive roster that actually positively reinforces good ball movement by knocking down open shots, Okafor will be a more team-oriented offensive player. And frankly, with the addition of Simmons, Saric, and Joel Embiid to the big man rotation, he won’t have a leash long enough to screw around with the iso-ball bullshit he got away with last year.

Here’s a reminder of some of the things Jahlil Okafor has shown he can do as a playmaker out of the post during his high school and college careers and at times last year with the Sixers:

Some closing thoughts

I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t love the way Jahlil Okafor plays and that in an ideal world – one in which Joel Embiid is healthy – both he and Nerlens Noel won’t really matter and probably won’t be here longterm. But for now, he’s a significant part of this team, and because of his team-friendly contract and deflated trade value I think the prudent thing to do would be to see how things go from now until the trade deadline and then make a decision based upon his play and Embiid’s health.

I do think that the negativity surrounding Okafor has become amplified and exaggerated in the echo chamber that is Sixers Twitter. While he showed significant flaws in his 53 games as a pro last year, he also showed promise on the offensive end that I feel is being discounted for a variety of reasons.

If Okafor can merely take his rebounding and off-ball defense from the atrocious level at which they hovered last year and turn those into more manageable weaknesses, I think there is a real opportunity for him to thrive as a legitimate piece on a good Sixers team down the line. He probably won’t be Marc Gasol, but maybe he can be Brook Lopez, and that would be pretty great. After all, he’s only 19 years old.

***Play type stats courtesy of stats.nba.com***