July 16, 2015
The one thing that you have to keep in mind when watching summer league basketball is that it’s quite literally not basketball. Take Tuesday’s anticipated (well, as much as summer league can be) matchup between the Sixers and New York Knicks for instance.
Toward the end of the game, fourth overall pick Kristaps Porzingis did an excellent job defending Jahlil Okafor on a few possessions, even blocking his shot three times. On those plays, the Latvian looked all of 7-foot-3 and the Chicagoan appeared to be earthbound. That said, The Zinger accumulated a whopping seven personal fouls in less than 22 minutes of play, many of which were drawn by Okafor’s strength advantage. As previously mentioned, not real basketball.
Okafor took 18 shots to score his 18 points, but I wouldn’t necessarily read too much into summer league statistics, either. It’s not as if all of the NBA’s stars set the world on fire in Las Vegas, Orlando, or wherever else bad hoops is played in July:
About that “looking like a superstar” in summer league. pic.twitter.com/XXFgqOGXJR— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) July 14, 2015
All of this isn’t to say you need to totally discard what you have watched over the past ten days or so. During his five games split between Utah and Vegas, Okafor showed some of the footwork and touch that made him the third overall pick in the draft. We also saw some of the athletic deficiencies that made him the third overall pick as opposed to the first or second. Oh yeah, he was DeAndre Jordan-level bad from the free-throw line, too. We’ll see if those observations hold once the regular season starts.
One noticeable trend from summer league is that besides a brief stretch early in the Knicks game when Okafor ate single coverage alive, the 19-year-old big man consistently faced a lot of double-teams. This was an effective strategy, because Scottie Wilbekin’s brief turn as the best three-point marksman in the world withstanding, the Sixers didn’t have a whole lot of shooting on either team.
Still, I came away pretty impressed with Okafor’s ability to negotiate double teams and find his teammates with pinpoint passes out of the post. It remains to be seen if he can become a dominant post scorer against NBA length, but if he ever becomes unguardable one-on-one, he has shown an ability to make defenses pay for sending an extra defender. Here are a few examples, which I’m conveniently going to compare to a pocket quarterback going through his possessions.
This one is easy, the equivalent of Tom Brady throwing the slant pattern to Julian Edelman on third down. If the help defender closest to Okafor strays too far off his man at the top of the key and nobody else rotates over, the big man is willing to kick it out for an open three-ball or perhaps a drive.
When Okafor gets a mismatch like he does here against D’Angelo Russell, good things tend to happen. Take a look at how much the defense bends when he spins baseline. The result is an open triple for the aforementioned world’s greatest shooter, Wilbekin.
On this play, Okafor gets physical, bodies up Jack Cooley on the low left block, and receives the entry pass. As is common practice, Jean-Pierre Tokoto is going to cut through the lane to the weak-side corner and Richaun Holmes will funnel down to the opposite block.
While all of this is happening, Jordan McRae slides over from the sideline and presents Okafor with a passing lane on the right wing. McRae’s defender has a long way to go to close out because he’s under the basket, presumably concerned with Okafor turning to the middle trying to score. He attempts to recover, but it’s too late. Big Jah fires a bullet pass on the money and McRae knocks down the triple in rhythm.
This is a high-level find from Okafor, and if I had to guess, his natural passing ability is at least partially due to his gigantic hands. When a basketball feels like a baseball, it’s much easier to throw accurately at high speeds.
As the title hints at, Okafor actually scores here instead of picking up an assist. He didn’t really have a choice, though. In an ideal world, Tokoto stays on the right wing once his man doubles down here and buries the three instead of cutting right toward the defense. For a brief moment, Okafor sees single coverage again.
When Tokoto’s original man goes back to double, look at how he’s standing directly between Furkan Aldemir and McRae. The spacing is terrible, and three players situated so close to each other are clogging Okafor’s passing lane. At this point, with two smaller players guarding him, Okafor dances through the double and scores anyway.
The final play is a good note to end on because it shows how unorganized summer league can be. Even though he’ll be facing better players once the regular season rolls around, Okafor will have the benefit of teammates and a coaching staff that eventually have a feel for his game. Also, at least a couple of them (Robert Covington, Nik Stauskas, and Hollis Thompson) can drill wide-open threes.
The ability to move the ball quickly after drawing an extra defender is key in today’s NBA. Steph Curry just won the MVP by doing so in the pick-and-roll. It remains to be seen how good Okafor will be in the low post, but he at least doesn’t seem like a player whose effectiveness won't end once he’s forced to pass.
Follow Rich on Twitter: @rich_hofmann