Among the many trade rumors that have floated around the internet this summer, one that has survived since draft night was the idea that the Celtics want to bring Jahlil Okafor to Boston.
Okafor posted 17 points and seven rebounds per game in his rookie season while showing exception offensive prowess for a player his age. For example:
This isn’t a highlight, this is a standard Okafor move.
That much size, mobility, and finesse on a 20-year-old is almost unheard of. I don’t think Okafor is benefiting too much from a “good player on a bad team” scenario – I think his offense is as good as it looks. The problem is his defense.
Defensive ratings can be a misleading stat on a team like the 76ers. A bad team will give up a lot of points no matter who is on the floor, but Okafor’s defense is truly an atrocity, even for a rookie. Okafor’s defensive rating was 108 overall last year, which is the average of a 107.3 rating before the All-Star break, and a gargantuan 120.5 post All-Star break.
For reference, Damian Lillard, who is among the worst defenders at his position logged a 107.3 defensive rating for the year. Hassan Whiteside led the league in defensive rating at 94.5. Okafor doesn’t deserve to be compared side by side to the best after just one year in the league in Philadelphia, but that post All-Star spike is alarmingly high.
Okafor also ranks dead last among centers in defensive real plus/minus (DRPM), which dispatches the argument that he should get a break because he’s a rookie, or that his team is holding him back.
In comparison, Kelly Olynyk, who doesn't get respected as a defender, is 24th in the league in DRPM out of 71 ranked centers.
Here’s another scary number: -3.72.
It’s Okafor’s Offensive RPM, and it’s the third lowest in the league among centers. This puts him just behind Omer Asik and slightly ahead of only Timofey Mosgov and Roy Hibbert. I don’t think players should be judged entirely by what their advanced stats tell us, but let’s look at the top rated centers in RPM:
It’s not a perfect list, but I think Cousins, Jordan, Drummond, and Horford absolutely belong there while that rest are indisputably high-upside players, even if they aren’t necessarily considered to be top 10.
Here’s the bottom of the table:
Again, it isn’t perfect, as we can probably agree that Willie Cauley-Stein and Okafor will improve over their careers, but nobody else here is surprising.
With this in mind, how confident are we that Okafor will improve? The Celtics having been moving fast, but aren’t expected to contend for a title in the immediate (*next season) future. If the Celtics traded for Okafor this summer, he would still have two years remaining on his rookie contract. Would he be good enough by then to justify giving up a significant piece like one of the Brooklyn picks for him? Here’s what FiveThirtyEight’s CARMELO says:
Still not looking too hot in 2019. The website also shows that Okafor’s rookie season was similar to Eddy Curry in 2004 (not good), Michael Beasley in 2010 (oh god), and Demarcus Cousins in 2012 (started poorly, finished strong) among its generated list of 10 most similar players.
So if the Celtics gave up a lottery pick for Okafor, they would still be playing the lottery in hoping that Okafor is the next Demarcus Cousins instead of the next Eddy Curry. I can almost see the appeal in taking that risk, but I don’t think it makes sense to trade out of the next lottery to still play the lottery.
I’ve always been an eye-test guy. If I see someone play well consistently, then I will recognize them as a good player, but as I continue to write and delve deeper into the numbers, I can’t help but give in. If you can’t predict the future, why not go by the next best thing? My best guess on Okafor based on everything I’ve seen is that he isn’t worth a lottery pick.
“But, he’s only been in the league for one year!”
So what should I go by? His college numbers? There's no justification to trade a significant piece for Okafor at this point in time. Even if you convince me to ignore the stats, he already has too much baggage after getting in a street fight in the city we’ve been theorizing trades to bring him to.
So, in summary, no. The Celtics do not need anything Jahlil is currently bringing to the table, whether it’s something positive or negative.