Yesterday, I wrote about how though concerns about Jahlil Okafor’s defense are valid, there is a fair amount of reason for optimism as well. After his defense, the second contention of Okafor’s detractors is that he can’t shoot so he won’t space the floor, and post-ups are an inefficient form of offense so he won’t actually be helping his team on the offensive end very much. Profiling Okafor that way both underscores his unique talent in the post, and his ability to contribute offensively in other ways.
The first part of those criticisms, I agree with. He cannot shoot. His form isn’t awful, but it does have a bit of a hitch. The free throw shooting is a concern because it hurts his overall efficiency, but hack-a-for won’t be his downfall either. He shot 51.6% and is likely to improve somewhat, making hacking an ineffective strategy. He will probably never develop a consistent 18 footer, but I could see him having a 12-15 foot shot in his arsenal. Not being a shooting threat is definitely an issue, but he’s so gifted in other areas that shooting won’t be his undoing.
Many of Okafor’s harshest critics recognize that he is a fantastic post talent, but they maintain that post play is just not an efficient way to score. These critics are right, hook shots and post fadeaways are largely low percentage 2-point looks that hurt an offense’s overall efficiency. The thing about Jahlil Okafor, and the reason he shot an insane 66.4% from the field this year, is that his post game very rarely actually involves hook shots and turnarounds. What makes Okafor so special is not his ability to execute traditional post shots, but instead his ability to generate what are essentially layups in place of those low-efficiency shots.
Take the play below for example. While 99% of big man would take a simple right-hand hook if they were going over their left shoulder like that, Okafor takes what is more or less a layup. This may seem like an isolated example, but turning hooks into layups is what Okafor did all year. If he wasn’t turning a hook into a layup he was simply working for one, using his strength and quickness to navigate himself right next to the basket for a high percentage look.
Okafor is able to do this because he has simply unprecedented levels of coordination for a man his size, and his massive hands allow him to manipulate the ball unlike anyone else. It’s not that he has great touch or great moves, he just uses his massive hands and his superior coordination and quickness to read defenders and seek out shots right next to the rim. In some ways, Okafor’s style actually hurts him, because it makes his shot easier to block. Okafor almost never shoots a traditional fully extended hook, but instead has his elbow at an angle so that he can create an easier shot for himself.
If Okafor is able to carry over this style of play to the NBA, he could shatter modern day conceptions of efficiency in the post. Simply put, whenever Okafor faced single team coverage and was given time to work, he was almost always able to create what amounted to a 55%+ look right around the rim. In the NBA, two main questions arise, can he continue to generate layups from post ups against bigger and more athletic defenders, and how will he handle double teams.
Watching Okafor play against other NBA level centers, or big men who at least had the size and athletic ability to be NBA level post defenders, his efficiency took a clear hit. Okafor more often settled for actual hook shots and face up jumpers, and less consistently was able to create layup opportunities. However, when Okafor didn’t deal with opposing team doubles he still was sometimes able to end up creating a layup for himself, such as here against 6’10 280 lb Kennedy Meeks.
What makes me optimistic about Okafor’s post game translation is that despite his massive 270 lb frame, he usually didn’t rely on bullying college defenders. Instead, Okafor used his quickness and coordination more than just his strength to create looks for himself. Okafor is obviously not going to be as effective against NBA defenders as he was against college ones, but as he gains experience dealing with NBA caliber athletes it makes sense that he will only improve his ability to generate those same layups against them.
In some ways, this could be Okafor’s swing skill, ultimately determining whether he is just a very good post scorer like Greg Monroe, or a truly elite and efficient one that the NBA basically doesn’t have. Betting on any college player to be better than everyone else in the league at something is foolish, and there is a very real chance Okafor settles for more hooks and jumpers, and isn’t able to maintain his efficiency.
There also is a chance Okafor figures out NBA defenders to a degree no one else can; no NCAA player of any age since 1996 has ever matched what Okafor did this year in both 2-point attempts per game and FG%, and he did it as a freshman. It will certainly take some time to adjust to NBA defenders, but the chances that Okafor becomes the best post scorer in the NBA, and is able to do so efficiently, are truly in play. Whether or not Okafor turns post scoring on its head, how he handles double teams will be huge in the NBA.
The two areas of Okafor’s game that are overrated are his touch and his passing. His touch isn’t actually that great, Okafor doesn’t score that many high difficulty shots, he makes high difficulty moves to create pretty easy looks. His passing is a more complex story. At times, Okafor was a fantastic passer. He would use those massive hands of his to rifle passes to shooters around the arc, or cutters near the basket. Okafor made those passes a lot early in the season, and built his reputation as a great passer, but as the year went on his deficiencies were exposed.
Okafor was a superb passer when he was dealing with really low-level competition such as Presbyterian, or if he was given a soft double and the space to not feel rushed. When bigger and more athletic teams actually sent hard doubles at Okafor he struggled a lot more, and his resulting 1.3/2.5 AST/TO ratio does not reflect a particularly good passer. Facing these doubles Okafor would use his hands to hold the ball away from his immediate defenders, but often looked rushed and did a poor job reading the court, missing open teammates, trying to hit covered ones, and throwing inaccurate passes.
Decision-making under pressure is a real concern for Okafor, and turnovers will probably be a big issue for him early in his career when he faces doubles or reaches help in the lane. Over time, Okafor will need to learn to make quicker decisions with the ball, and act more like he did earlier in the season. It stands to reason that Okafor should improve and eventually get comfortable enough to be an effective post passer, but there is a very real chance double teams flummox him in the NBA.
Even if they do give him a hard time, just drawing a double is inevitably a net positive outcome for the offense. In spite of not being able to take advantage all the time, there will be many occasions when Okafor either splits the double and scores or finds an open shooter or cutter. Doubles are another reason Okafor’s post game could ultimately wind up as an efficient scoring option in the NBA. Passing out of a trap in the post almost guarantees a look from three or a look at the rim for the offense, obviously efficient basketball.
Suppose the worst and Okafor becomes merely a good, but not particularly efficient, post scorer (honestly his floor in that area) who struggles with double teams. If Okafor is on a smart team that doesn’t force feed him post-ups despite their inefficiency, he can still be a hugely positive offensive player for a center, due to his ability to play in the pick and roll. Okafor doesn’t fit either traditional mold of pick and roll scoring, popping for shots or diving for lobs, but catching on the move and making plays fits right into his skillset.
Okafor has incredibly soft hands, a wide catch radius, a great handle for a big man, and the coordination to navigate defenders in traffic and finish at an elite rate. At Duke, Okafor was involved in a shockingly low number of true pick and rolls, usually slipping the pick to set up a post up. Okafor actually caught the ball rolling to the hoop off a screen probably less than 10 times this season, I don’t have access to Synergy, but I did watch every single Duke game. In those few instances, Okafor was inevitably effective, using his footwork and ability to move the ball around in the air to create layup opportunities. This play isn’t out of the pick and roll, but it reflects his ability to make plays on the move.
Okafor evades the defenders with his coordination, and has the strength to take contact and still extend his right arm to the rim for an easy finish. His ability to set screens is largely unknown because he usually tried to slip them in order to set up post-ups, but his massive frame should make him a good screen setter. It’s not a given because he almost never did it at Duke, but there is no reason to think Okafor’s combination of agility, hands, and truly elite finishing ability won’t make him a fantastic pick and roll player. Additionally, passing while rolling down the lane is more comfortable than dealing with a double, so more of the good side of Okafor’s playmaking should come out in pick and roll play.
Altogether, Okafor has the makings of a great offensive center. Not being a shooter is inevitably going to hurt his team’s spacing, but because I’m higher than his defense on most playing him with a stretch four is a much more feasible option. If so, having him roll down the lane or post up surrounded by shooters is basically an instant path to offensive success, especially if he’s paired with a good pick and roll guard. I have a ton of confidence in Okafor being a great pick and roll player, but less in his post play becoming an efficient option. Still, there is enough visual and statistical evidence to suggest he really could transform today’s standards of post play by generating layups in a way that other great post players like Al Jefferson simply cannot.
Like on defense, Okafor has an unusually wide range of outcomes as his post scoring could be anywhere from good (which means inefficient in today’s NBA) to completely out of the norm (efficient). Again, it is never smart to expect the high end of outcomes with any player. This applies to both Okafor’s defense and his post game. The upside is there though, and neither outcome would be shocking, but maybe surprising. That immense upside of being a generational post scorer, elite pick and roll player, and defensive anchor absolutely should put Okafor in the same tier as Russell, and even Towns.
It should be noted, I’m a massive hypocrite because I still have Okafor behind the two of them. They all have similar median projections and ceilings, but Okafor’s downside is the greatest. My issue is just with the talk that Towns vs. Okafor isn’t a debate, or that Okafor is heavily overrated. Okafor is a fantastic prospect and would absolutely deserve to go #1 some years, it just so happens that Russell and Towns are also deserving of that honor. I have Okafor 3rd, but the gap between him and Towns (who I have first) is much smaller than the growing Okafor hate would suggest.