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Sixers vs. Magic preview: Is Brett Brown right to be optimistic on Jahlil Okafor’s mid-range game?

Jahlil Okafor’s mid-range game hasn’t been there this season, but Brett Brown is optimistic.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Leaving the rest of us behind in snowy Philadelphia, the Sixers are set to take on the Orlando Magic on the latter half of a back-to-back this evening. Oddly enough, the Magic have given the Sixers some trouble this season, and they’ll have to try to get their first win against Orlando this year without the team’s best player.

Orlando has always been a team people like to compare the Sixers to; they are both nominally rebuilding, but critics of The Process focused a lot of energy comparing the relative valor of their management styles. Four years in, it turns out the Magic go through similar ups and downs and deal with a frontcourt logjam of their own, only without most (any?) of the hope and superstar-level promise the Sixers have.

The Magic continue to misplay their guy with the most star capital — and I’m damning with faint praise here — by slotting Aaron Gordon at small forward. Gordon has been shoehorned there all too often to accommodate the team’s offseason additions; according to lineup data, he has spent 93 percent of his time this season on the wing, despite his continued sub-30 percentage from three and his tailor-made fit as a modern four-man.

Gordon will be absent when the game tips off tonight, but his season underscores the problem with the Magic. They are a team with no discernible plan, or perhaps more accurately, a team trying to smash eight separate plans together like a wad of Playdoh. Orlando has the same asset allocation problem the Sixers do, only with more pressing financial concerns and a lack of long-term upside.

This is a different, more cohesive Sixers team than the one who sputtered down the stretch in a 105-103 loss in November, and certainly a different team than the one still trying to make another set of Twin Towers work back in December. That still might not be enough to ensure a win on the road tonight, but regardless of the outcome at the least the Sixers can lay claim to a discernible path forward.

Sixers center Jahlil Okafor had one of the better games of his young career against the San Antonio Spurs last night, posting 20 points and eight boards while showing a tenacity and commitment level that simply hasn’t been there at times. Whether he was motivated by trade rumors or just looking to take advantage of Embiid’s continued absence, he came out ready to play.

But perhaps the biggest story last night was his success at the free-throw line. Okafor has taken a decent-sized step backwards at the charity stripe — he’s shooting over six points lower there this season — so his 10-11 performance on freebies was heartening. For now, Okafor’s surefire way to influence a game is on the offensive end of the court, and he can’t maximize his success if he can’t capitalize when teams foul him.

Asked about the one-game turnaround, Brett Brown told reporters he wasn’t that concerned with previous struggles, and suggested he’s confident in the future of Okafor’s mid-range game:

Look at his form. His form's not broken, and I actually think he is almost a more capable elbow player than we think he is out of the post.

He's known because he's a really good post player and so on. I see him having the ability to make 18-foot jump shots. And I think that the free throw you saw tonight is a free throw that's not broken. His form is just fine. And tonight, you saw Jahlil Okafor in a pretty good way — making free throws, two blocks, ran the floor defensively. He was hard to guard.

At least in terms of how Okafor has played this season, he is trending away from work at the elbows. His attempts have been primarily focused in the painted area, with shots from 10 feet all the way out to the three-point line dwindling compared to last season. This is not necessarily a bad thing. His shooting percentage in close has been excellent this season — he’s up to almost 72 percent from three feet and in — and his focus should certainly be on attacking the basket.

As of late, it does seem like Okafor is starting to feel more comfortable shooting away from the basket. Early in the season, there was a noticeable hesitance even when he was wide open from about 15 feet and out. In recent weeks, he’s back to taking the sort of mid-range shots that were a semi-regular sight during his rookie season:

Yes, he missed here, but his being in “attack mode” from that spot on the floor is something the Sixers (and/or trade suitors) need to see. While his gifts are obvious, Okafor needs to evolve as an offensive player to be part of a successful team offense at the NBA level. If he’s a reliable and willing threat to knock down mid-range shots, defenders will have to follow him if he clears out of the lane on a teammate’s drive.

The problem right now is two-fold — he hasn’t been a volume player past 10 feet and he’s not all that efficient when he does fire. He’s actually marginally improved his shooting percentage from 10-16 feet (36.2 vs 35.3 last year) and 16 out to three (27.8 vs. 27.4), but neither is good enough for an offense-heavy player. Nerlens Noel’s shooting from 16 feet and out will regress at some point — he’s shooting 50 percent there this season, which puts even LaMarcus Aldridge to shame — but he’s also already taken more shots from there in almost 400 less minutes than Okafor has played this season.

One thing Okafor’s critics and fans can agree on is the impact urgency has on his play. His best stretches of team play come when his pace of play hits its peak and his decision-making is swift, regardless of whether he’s passing or shooting. The numbers are not in his favor right now, but assertiveness often leads to his success, even in areas where he hasn’t been all that efficient:

If there’s anything I’d like to see out of Okafor in Orlando tonight, it’s a continued focus on making quick reads. Whether or not you believe in his future from the mid-range, establishing a baseline from that area is the best way forward for him as a player and for whatever team he ends up spending his future with, Sixers or otherwise.

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