This is a post defending Jahlil Okafor. Does a projected top-two pick, NCAA champion, and #1 High School recruit such as Okafor really need defending? Probably not. The majority of basketball fans are probably pretty high on him. However, I don’t usually interact with “the majority,” but instead waste my time on TweetDeck, gazing at the insights of the various members of “basketball twitter”.
“Basketball twitter” is made up of many of the smartest, and my favorite, basketball fans and writers out there, but in the case of Jahlil Okafor a consensus seems to have developed that he is overrated because he does not fit in the modern NBA. Most don’t consider him vs. Towns to be a real debate, and a decent amount have even dropped him into the 4-6 range on their personal boards.
The argument against Okafor centers around the idea that he “can’t shoot and can’t play D” so he will go the way of Nikola Vucevic, Greg Monroe, Al Jefferson, or Enes Kanter and be a scorer with mediocre efficiency, due to relying on post-ups, who doesn’t space the floor and hurts his team on the other end, making him not very valuable. This is a disservice to both Okafor’s absolutely elite offensive talent, and surprisingly wide range of potential defensive outcomes. In part one, I’ll examine his underrated defense, with part two on his offense coming soon.
Myths surrounding Okafor start with his defense; there is a real chance he will be an awful NBA defender, but he is not an awful defensive prospect. Okafor has questions about his athleticism, effort, and instincts on the defensive end, a murderer’s row of defensive pitfalls. Of those questions, the initial concerns surrounding his D center around his athleticism.
He’s slow footed and a poor leaper, inhibiting him from staying in front of opponents in pick and roll or protecting the rim. These athletic concerns are legitimate, but for a big man in many ways the most important defensive skill is just being big. Marc Gasol is a great defender, old and unathletic Tim Duncan is still a great defender, and extremely ground bound Jusuf Nurkic was a good rim protector this year; being big and in the way is enough to stop opponents. Okafor has a 7’5 wingspan and a 9’3 standing reach, both are above average numbers, even for NBA centers. Okafor hasn’t shown the ability to always effectively do so yet, but with his size, just going straight up with verticality would be a powerful deterrent at the rim.
Lacking leaping ability obviously isn’t a good thing, and Okafor will never be a dangerous weak side shot blocker. Crucially, he still can be a good rim protector, if he is able to be in the right place at the right time. Many would argue that Okafor’s lateral quickness is a huge weakness and what will prevent him from being there to contest shots at the rim, I would disagree. When engaged and in shape, as he was down the stretch at this game in the Nike Hoop Summit last year, Okafor has shockingly quick feet. That is Emmanuel Mudiay he is comfortably staying in front of below.
Okafor does get caught flat footed sometimes and isn’t the quickest, but when he’s actually in good shape I would argue he has above-average foot speed for an NBA center, far from a weakness. Whether he can get into shape is a real question, and a big factor for his NBA success.
From my extensive watching of him at Duke this year it is fairly obvious he got into worse shape as the season went on, which he says was due to nagging injuries. Here is a picture of him from the first game of the year compared to one late in the season, from both pictures and live gameplay he clearly gained weight. (Early season on left, late on the right.)
In the NBA, on full-time conditioning programs, and considering the progress he has supposedly made in the pre-draft process, it is likely that Okafor will maintain a much higher level of fitness. Assuming he’s in shape, Okafor will have the quickness to at least contain pick and roll in a drop scheme, and make rotations to protect the rim, but his effort or instincts could prevent him from utilizing that quickness.
Untangling effort and instincts is one of the more difficult parts of evaluating defense, and Okafor is a prime example. Many times this year Okafor never rotated over to protect the rim, didn’t come up to meet the ball handler on the pick and roll, or didn’t attempt to recover back to his man rolling to the hoop. At times, Okafor was truly pathetic. Figuring out whether that was due to poor effort or poor awareness says a lot about his NBA future. Fortunately, Okafor wasn’t a revolving door all the time.
In the NCAA tournament, Okafor was consistently very good on the defensive end, making rotations, protecting the rim, and guarding pick and roll. There’s a reason Duke suddenly had an elite defense in the tournament, and a big part of it is due to Okafor stepping up his play. Statistically, Okafor’s 1.2 steals and 2.4 blocks per-40 were also up above his season averages of 1.0 and 1.8 respectively (in lower scoring/paced games than usual at that), but his play itself was more impressive than his stats. In the tournament, Okafor wasn’t just not bad on the defensive end, he was actually quite good, despite being in as poor shape as he had been all year. He wasn’t amazing or anything, but he was a definite defensive positive, a huge step up from the rest of the season.
Many people gave Okafor a hard time for the way he defended Kaminsky in the championship game, but the hate was largely unfounded. Okafor did get in foul trouble on a couple plays where Kaminsky made great moves, but in general Okafor did a pretty dang good job on him considering Kaminsky is three years older and a potentially very good offensive player in the NBA. In fact, down the stretch of the game with Okafor fully engaged, Kaminsky tried to take Okafor off the bounce and ended up getting blocked. On this play, Okafor showed the full arsenal, moving his feet well with Kaminsky and then using his length to make a play on the ball.
From his tournament play, and the fact that Duke Assistant Coach Jon Scheyer has said Okafor was conservative on D to avoid foul trouble, it is fair to guess Okafor’s issues were more about effort than instincts. Being such a smart offensive player, who sees the floor and reads defenders so well, it makes sense Okafor could be a good help defender, but I do still have concerns about his instincts.
Okafor never was a particularly good shot blocker not just because of athletic limitations or not being there, but also because he just doesn’t have great timing blocking shots. Additionally, the amount of time Okafor played smart defense was a relatively small sample, so his performance the rest of the year should not just be forgotten. It also shouldn’t be ignored that Okafor’s defensive statistics are pretty awful for a prospect, and though avoiding fouls may have held them down, his statistical profile suggest a disastrous defender. Playing well at the end of the year gives more hope to Okafor’s defensive future, but the ugly other side of things is still there.
The amount of questions surrounding Okafor’s defensive play give him a huge variance in potential outcomes, even for an NBA prospect. If Okafor isn’t able to stay in consistently good shape, doesn’t play hard, and retains many of his poor instincts and habits he often displayed in college, he will be a truly awful defender. Even if just one of those flaws persists, it will significantly hurt Okafor on the defensive end. However, if Okafor stays in shape, plays consistently hard, and further develops the instincts he did flash in college he could be a Marc Gasol like defensive anchor.
Projecting everything to go right is never smart for an NBA prospect, but neither is predicting everything will go wrong. I’d bet Okafor settles somewhere in the middle or slightly below average, but the budding instincts he showed at the end of the year give me real hope he could turn into a good NBA defender with further improvement. There’s a huge margin for error here, giving Okafor a huge downside that Russell and Towns simply don’t have, but also an upside that many draft analysts fail to account for. Stay tuned for part two on how Okafor’s offense can fit in the modern NBA.
UPDATE: Part 2 is now live