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June 28, 2015

With addition of Okafor, Sixers choose big when everyone else is going small

In the last three lotteries, Sam Hinkie has drafted a center

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Despite us aggregating them , Sam Hinkie hit the nail on the head on Friday when talking about instant draft grades:

Sometimes people ask me about the draft grades from last night, I tell them that maybe this is hard to believe, but I don’t read it. It’s just not real yet. It’s not real for anyone. Obviously, all of the teams in their respective cities today are proud of who they picked and that’s normal. But the results are not that report card. The results are the results after time.

Those are precisely my feelings on the subject, and also why you won’t be receiving any piping hot draft grades here. What I can comfortably say is that the Sixers did exactly what I would’ve at 3 and that the second-round haul felt pretty underwhelming at first glance, especially in light of the inability to trade up into the latter portion of the first round. Then again, it’s not realistic to bring five second rounders to training camp.

On Saturday afternoon at PCOM, the Sixers introduced the three players that at least seem to possess a shot of cracking next year’s roster: Jahlil Okafor (3), Richaun Holmes (37), and J.P. Tokoto (58). Over the next three days, we’ll attempt to introduce them to you in some detail. The officially unofficial title is the, “Meet The Draft Picks” series. First up is the guy that you already know the best.

If there is anyone who can provide a scouting report on a Blue Devil, it’s a Tar Heel.

“Big Jah, he’s a game-changer,” J.P. Tokoto said. “I mean, if you’re not doubling, he’s beating whoever is guarding him one on one. He’s a handful. Our game plan was to send the opposite big man from the opposite block to double him and everybody rotated over. While at times it did work, Jahlil is a big boy. He’s very skilled and he made plays around the basket.”

From opposite sides of the Tobacco Road rivalry to teammates in Philly, Tokoto already knows what Okafor is all about. There is a reason Sam Hinkie and the Sixers front office felt they had little choice but to select him once the Los Angeles Lakers picked D’Angelo Russell: You hardly ever have the opportunity to draft a player with his low-post skills.

Frankly, some of Okafor’s efficiency numbers were patently absurd. Consider the following:
•    Per Ken Pomeroy, Okafor’s 66.4 effective field goal percentage (FG% with three-pointers weighted accurately) ranked fifth in the entire country among qualified players. That is without any context factored in, as well. Everybody ranked above or near Okafor was either an upperclassmen, somebody playing low or mid-major hoops, or a player with much less offensive responsibility. In most cases, two or three of those descriptions applied.

•    One of the knocks on Okafor’s game is a lack of range. While that is true from a pure scouting standpoint, he made 80 of 160 shots listed as “two-point jumpers” per Hoop-Math. Only 39 percent of those shots were assisted as well, which indicates how many of these looks outside of the immediate basket area came on post-ups. His touch on hook shots and the little 10-footer he shoots off the glass was excellent at Duke. 

•    Some people favor traditional numbers, and in the case of Okafor’s offense, they paint a pretty glowing picture as well: He scored 17.3 points per game and still shot 66 percent from the field. Sixty-six! Just imagine if he could make free throws at an acceptable rate.

There are plenty of other numbers that help illustrate Okafor’s brilliant freshman season, but without getting into all of them, he was an A+ offensively. Of course, two teams passed on Okafor for a reason. At their best, Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell appear far more suited for the modern NBA game. If you could magically insert this same draft class into 1998, my very little money would be on Okafor hearing his name called first. The times are a changin’.

The stricter hand check rules have allowed guards like Russell to roam free with minimal contact, and teams have determined that a spread pick-and-roll is a more efficient play than a post-up, Okafor’s bread and butter. By the same token, versatile big men that can protect the rim and credibly guard pick-and-rolls like Towns are more important than ever now because the first line of defense is forced to take a much less physical approach. Guarding in space might be Okafor’s biggest weakness.

It feels wrong that a player who has experienced nothing but success in both high school (state title, U-19 gold medal, and McD’s AA Game MVP) and college is bombarded with so many questions about his place on the basketball floor, yet here we are. The NBA is a copycat league and everyone has the small-ball Warriors on their minds.

“I’ve been dealing with that question for a while,” Okafor said. “Even when I went to Duke, everybody was asking, ‘Why are you going to Duke? They don’t have big men. They don’t thrown the ball in the post.’  When I got to Duke, I was the leading scorer. Now it’s the same thing: ‘You don’t need a big man.’”

“But for as long as I can remember, big men have dominated the NBA,” Okafor added. “Tim Duncan won it last year and it was all about the big men with Pau Gasol and Kevin Garnett. People get a little excited because what Steph Curry and those guys did was great and it worked. Their formula is fantastic, but for as long as I can remember, big men have been dominant and the result has been NBA championships.”

Terrific answer, now we get the pleasure of seeing if he can back it up. For his part, Hinkie is thinking along the same lines. The general manager made the call to draft Okafor because of his talent, which he believes has the potential to break major trends and possibly throw a monkey wrench into the small-ball revolution. From his comments, Hinkie subscribes to the school of thought that post play is a lost art.

“You might hear some people say, ‘You don’t throw it into the post the way we did in an earlier era,’” Hinkie said. “You don’t see players like Jah in today’s era, not very often. You don’t’ see them. They don’t come along in a way where you’re looking to feed them over and over, where they’ve been commanding double teams since they were 12 or 13 years old and been learning to deal with those.”

“That’s a style that was once common and is now less common,” he added. “And now the question is if someone comes back and enters our league that does that again, what happens?”

Attempting to play bully ball in the pace-and-space era is fitting for a franchise that is challenging almost every notion we have about team building. It will be a few months before Sixers start the attempt to do so in earnest. For now, Okafor was hanging out the last few days with his buddy from Duke, former Friends’ Central star Amile Jefferson (who we asked about Jahlil in April).

On Friday, Hinkie talked about how many of Okafor’s contemporaries raved about him in pre-draft interviews, guys that have grown up playing with and against him. Heck, one of them is now his teammate.

“I know one [play], we were playing at Duke and we sent our big over, he dribbled out and once our big man retreated, he just drove the guy that was guarding him and finished on other side of the rim,” Tokoto said. “I watched that play a couple of times and wondered how someone that big can move so well.”

Follow Rich on Twitter: @rich_hofmann