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Is Emeka Okafor More Than a Camp Body?

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The Sixers signed the veteran center to a training camp deal. Can he still contribute?

Philadelphia 76ers Media Day Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Let’s get this out of the way first: the path to Emeka Okafor making this 76ers team is very, very difficult. While I don’t think it’s impossible — his production last season with the Pelicans suggests that he can still be useful in the league — I do think it’s a long shot. The former UConn center turns 36 this month and played just four minutes in the playoffs last year for the Pelicans. It’s hard to believe he’ll contribute meaningfully to a team with hopes as high as Philadelphia.

But for now, Okafor is here. Maybe I’m underestimating him. Let’s look at what he did for the Pelicans last season and see if maybe — just maybe — he could carve out a role in training camp and wind up on this year’s Sixers.

Emeka Okafor’s 2018 Resurgence

Here is my list of last season’s five most surprising NBA events:

  1. J.R. Smith throws soup
  2. J.R. Smith forgets the score
  3. That whole Rockets/Clippers tunnel thing
  4. Terry Rozier was more than just a meme about the Celtics never trading Terry Rozier
  5. Emeka Okafor played in — and started! — NBA games

When DeMarcus Cousins went down last season, the Pelicans were forced to do something about their center issues, but I don’t think anyone expected the answer would be Okafor, who hadn’t played NBA minutes since 2013. At the time, he was putting up 6.8 points and 8.1 rebounds per night in the G-League with the Delaware 87ers. Those are respectable numbers for a player his age, especially when his 60.7% mark from the field is factored in, but those didn’t seem to be “get another chance in the NBA” numbers.

And then, out of nowhere, it was February 3rd and the Pelicans were signing him to a 10-day contract. Then, it was February 5th and he was back on the floor; on February 12th, he was in the team’s starting lineup.

Okafor had a positive impact on the New Orleans defense last season, posting a D-PIPM of 1.19 in 357 minutes. His shot-blocking abilities didn’t seem to have diminished, as he posted his second-highest blocks per 36 minutes mark of his career. Defensively, Okafor looked pretty good:

Let’s look at some of Okafor’s blocks from his February meeting with the Heat. In this first clip, Okafor does a great job hustling back defensively, stays with the ball through the pass to James Johnson, and meets Johnson at the rim. To see a player at Okafor’s age — and coming off his long layover from NBA action — running the floor that well really impresses me. His years of basketball knowledge help here too, as the path he’s running takes him in a straight line to the basket. He knows what Miami is doing here. He anticipates exactly where he needs to be. Beautiful, beautiful play.

Let’s talk about hustle.

Hassan Whiteside grabs an offensive rebound right under the basket. He’s guarded by a 35-year-old man who was playing in just his fifth game since returning to the NBA. You have to think Whiteside is confident he’s going to score, but when he goes to put the shot up, Okafor is right there for the rejection.

But wait! Whiteside gets the ball back, so he can just try again! But there’s a problem — Okafor is still there to block that shot attempt as well.

If blocks and hustle were all that went into making a quality NBA big in 2018, Emeka Okafor would have a place on any team in the NBA, but we have to be realistic about what else goes into creating a quality big in the modern game.

Okafor in Philadelphia — Is it a fit?

But while it’s impressive that Okafor managed to be a rim-protecting big last season for the Pelicans, his offensive game presented some issues. Here’s his shot chart from last year per NBA Savant:

NBA Savant

Herein lies one of the biggest obstacles that Okafor would have to overcome to have a place in Philadelphia — he can’t shoot. For some perspective, here’s Amir Johnson’s shot chart from last season:

NBA Savant

Johnson scored at a rate above the league average at the basket and from shots in the paint outside the restricted area, whereas Okafor was pretty far below average in both spots. Johnson was also more effective as a passer out of the paint. Offensively, there’s no reason for Okafor to take minutes as the backup five away from Johnson.

And defensively? Sure, Okafor did block one more shot per 36 minutes than Johnson last year, but defense isn’t only about blocks. Johnson’s D-PIPM of 1.50 is better than Okafor’s — despite Okafor’s shot blocking abilities, Johnson was more impactful on that end of the court last season.

Last year, Okafor did play around 60% of his minutes at the four, but that came in a unique situation with New Orleans, a team that was built to play two bigs on the floor at once. Lineups with Davis and Okafor both on the floor fared pretty well on both ends, but lineups with Okafor on without Davis were, well...

per Jacob Goldstein

While Okafor’s numbers last year suggest that he can be effective when teamed with a dominant big man — and the Sixers do have one of those! — the team took a nosedive offensively with Okafor not paired with Davis.

I don’t think Philadelphia is built to play lineups with Okafor at the four, because they sacrifice the versatility and shooting of using Robert Covington and Dario Saric at the position. Even though it’s a fairly small sample, last season suggests that running Okafor at the five isn’t a recipe for success either.

There’s a place in the league for a defensive-minded big man like Emeka Okafor. He can eat regular season minutes for a team and brings a veteran presence to the court. However, I don’t believe that Philadelphia is that place and don’t expect Okafor to make the final roster. Beyond Embiid and Johnson, players like Mike Muscala and even Dario Saric can slide down to the five when needed and will provide more value than Okafor. Having a shot blocker is great, but not at the expense of all the other things that a winning basketball team needs to have.