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June 03, 2015

What I like, what I don’t like: Jahlil Okafor

The Duke big man could still be on the board when the Sixers are on the clock

Tuesday, I outlined why selecting first in the upcoming NBA Draft would’ve been a game-changer for the Sixers: Karl-Anthony Towns. Picking third isn’t such a bad gig, though. The top-half of the lottery is filled with intriguing prospects, and Sam Hinkie will get his choice of all but two of them.

Duke center Jahlil Okafor is a very talented player who may or may not be on the board when the Sixers pick probably depending on the whims of Mitch Kupchak and the Los Angeles Lakers. To me, your evaluation of him boils down to one main question: How valuable is elite post offense, even if there are question marks in most other areas of the game?

What I like

•    Grapefruit, grapefruit, grapefruit. I’m not crazy about the food, but it’s the one random word always associated with Okafor, as in “he holds the basketball like a grapefruit with his huge hands.” Watch him catch the ball in the post and he looks more like a baseball pitcher than a 6-foot-11 center. Simply put, he’s not under the same limitations as everyone else when performing the basic acts of holding and maneuvering a basketball. Look at this bad boy:

•    Sometimes I wonder if I get too caught up in concepts like pace-and-space and drive-and-kick and end up forgetting that the goal of a post-up is to get the closest shot to the basket as possible. Sure, teams have gone away from post-ups as they’ve crunched the numbers and determined a pick-and-roll is a more efficient play, but maybe that’s because there aren’t many people on the planet who are truly great at scoring from the low block. When Al Jefferson is the standard-bearer post-Shaq, maybe we should be asking a little more about whom than simply focusing on how.

•    Okafor is elite in every aspect of post play, a watered-down version of Kevin McHale as far as style of play goes in the modern-day game (.933 PPP on 328 possessions per DX, a strong number). Sixers announcer Marc Zumoff is fond of describing a post player with a vast array of moves by saying, “He has a lot of stuff.” Okafor has more stuff than a rich kid on Christmas day, whether it’s spins, drop steps, jump hooks, counters, etc. He’s already more advanced on the block than most NBA players can ever dream to become. Okafor is so good in the post that it’s just a matter of reacting to how the defense is guarding him, not thinking for even a split-second of what the next move should be. I’ve been covering a lot of baseball recently, so allow me to make an analogy: If the Reds’ Billy Hamilton and Phillies minor-leaguer Roman Quinn are both an 80 on the 20-80 scouting scale in speed, Okafor is generally considered as the first guy in the last decade to be an 80 in the post.

•    If you can put three-point shooting around him like Duke did (but even more effectively, because the NBA game’s spacing is better), Okafor should be able to pick opposing defenses apart when they send an extra defender his way. Double him, and he should make the right pass.

•    He’s also an awesome finisher in pick-and-rolls and while running the floor in transition. It’s not just the post-ups where Okafor can hurt you offensively.

•    Serving as the unquestioned offensive hub for a dominant college team and national champion as a 19-year-old freshman is nothing to sneeze at. On balance, Okafor acquitted himself very well this season.

What I don’t like

•    Pretty much everything about his defense, which is a big red flag. Unlike Towns, Joel Embiid, or Nerlens Noel, Okafor offers almost no rim protection. If you got to the basket against Duke and he was the last line of defense, you liked your chances to score. He wasn’t very good against pick-and-rolls, and I think the main hope for him on defense is mastering a Tom Thibodeau style of defense where the bigs are required to drop back and keep the ball-handler on one side of the floor.

•    The fact that he wasn’t even an average defensive rebounder in college also worries me. Okafor’s problem here seemed to be mostly about effort because he often seemed as enthusiastic about finding a body and boxing out as I do during my weekly pick-up game. He strikes me as a guy that needs to do all of the little things on defense to become passable, but he didn’t do nearly enough of them at Duke.

•    The lack of range is worrisome by itself, but 51 percent free-throw shooting is going to put a major dent in the effectiveness of his post game if it doesn’t improve quite a bit.

•    A lot of the focus in Philadelphia will center around if Okafor can fit with Joel Embiid, which is fair. I’d like to go one step further. In his DraftExpress profile, I thought Jonathan Givony made a great point when he wrote this:

Okafor would be best suited playing next to a power forward who can defensive rebound, protect the rim, and space the floor from the 3-point line, which is as rare a player as you can find (Serge Ibaka, and…?).

Finding a nice fit for him on any NBA team could potentially be really tricky, because he doesn’t possess many of the skills we often associate with the modern big man.

What about the Sixers?

If both Minnesota and the Lakers pass on Okafor, Hinkie will have a real decision to make here. If you can coach some of the effort problems out of Okafor, work on his body in the sports science program, and refine his shooting stroke in the same way Brett Brown did with Noel, you could have another awesome and unique player in the program. Regardless of whether he fits with Embiid or not, Okafor definitely presents a unique opportunity at the third pick.

And if you can’t do all of that stuff, well…

Follow Rich on Twitter: @rich_hofmann