Many are wondering exactly what position the Sixers are going to prioritize in the first round of the NBA Draft. A backup center is an obvious need after the performance of the bench bigs in the playoffs, but some extra bench production from the wings would also be a big help. It could come down to the best player available on Philadelphia’s board, which could make the Sixers more likely to try and draft upside picks. A player like KZ Okpala is the type of player on whom the Sixers could take a gamble. Many evaluators have differing opinions on him, but he does flash some serious potential.
Standing at 6-foot-9 and 210 pounds, KZ Okpala doesn’t look the part of a player who consistently drives inside looking for contact. To the eye, you would think his wiry frame works best on the perimeter, yet Okpala continues to buck the trend of skinny guys making a living on the outside. One of the reasons why he finds success inside is because of his long wingspan of 7-feet, 1.75-inches (best among small forwards at the NBA Draft Combine). What he lacks in physicality, he makes up for in length to get shots up over larger defenders.
By forcing his way inside, Okpala has shown the knack for getting to the charity stripe, and yet, that is still a big area of concern for the forward. His attempts at the line per game improved from 4.7 in his freshman year to 6.0 in his sophomore year, yet his percentage never took that step forward, sitting at 67.1 percent this past year. For a player who relies heavily on driving inside, those numbers are going to need to improve quickly if he is to get any substantial playing time at the next level.
In the clip above, Okpala scores on the drive, and yet, it shows exactly the concerns over his play. He receives the hand-off and immediately drives in to three defenders without having any idea of where he was planning to go or when to take the shot. Okpala is able to get some separation to get the shot up but the shot should have never been taken in the first place.
As a small forward, KZ Okpala is going to have to rely on his jump shot much more while he works on adding extra weight to his frame. He showed the necessary improvement in college to feel confident that it will continue, but by no means is his shot a finished product. As a freshman, he only shot 22 percent from deep on 1.3 attempts per game. Both of those numbers increased in year two as he shot the 3-pointer 3.0 times per game at a 37 percent clip. The percentage is still slightly concerning, but the numbers are steadily improving. If Okpala can continue to grow his shot, it can become a real threat in the future.
Okpala did a lot of the heavy lifting on offense for Stanford this past season, in large part because of his athleticism. Averaging a team-leading 16.8 points per game as a sophomore, Okpala showed that at his peak he can be a threat on all three levels offensively.
He will go through some rookie lows, but if he brings this type of athleticism to the NBA, he should be able to carve out some type of role eventually. Just imagine KZ Okpala and Zhaire Smith catching lobs on offense and try not to get excited.
For the same reasons there is big upside on offense with Okpala, the same can be said on defense. He will have to continue to work on his body to make an impact at the next level, but his length and jumping ability allow him to compete immediately. Similar to his offensive play, Okpala isn’t afraid to fight inside for rebounds and blocks on defense, which is why his rebounding numbers improved from 3.7 as a freshman to 5.7 as a sophomore.
Once Okpala learns the nuances of playing at the next level, as well as what it takes to grow his body to fight against bigger players, he should be a solid defender. On both ends of the court, his athleticism should help him get the chance to at least earn minutes. In the instances where that athleticism is negated by other teams, Okpala is going to be a work-in-progress.
KZ Okpala should be drafted as a small forward that can be molded into an athletic slasher on offense and someone who can guard multiple positions on defense. There is going to be a lot of work to do on his game, but with the risk there is also going to be a lot of reward should things pan out. If a team can surround Okpala with solid shooters, he will be able to play his style of basketball and work on driving the lane and using his athleticism to make plays inside the arc.
Okpala was gaining steam as a potential first round pick early on in the season, but the more he played, the more questions came up surrounding his game. In most mock drafts now, he seems to have settled in as a fringe first round prospect that is more likely to be drafted near the top of the second round. The Sixers are going to need more options on the wing who are on cheaper deals, so Okpala could be an option, but I don't see that happening in the first round. Okpala has a lot of upside, but Philadelphia should be able to find something closer to a finished product with the 24th pick. Depending on what the team does with their first round pick, he could be an option with either of the early second round picks they own.