Jahlil Okafor is entering the 3rd year of his career, and it could be a make or break season in determining his NBA future.
Taking Jahlil Okafor with the third pick in the 2015 NBA draft has been repeatedly labeled by many as one of former General Manager Sam Hinkie's mistakes during his time in Philadelphia. Looking back on that pick coupled with the fact that Kristaps Porzingis was selected a pick later by the Knicks makes the decision look a little worse. It's been reported a number of times, that the Sixers couldn't get a private workout, a physical or a face to face meeting with Porzingis, according to an old yahoo report from Adrian Wojnarowski. Noting that hindsight is always 20-20, instead of going ahead and picking Porzingis anyway and calling his bluff, we are now looking at a make-or-break season for Okafor.
He has good post moves, that much we knew when he was coming out of Duke, but these two years have shown his defensive deficiencies, both in lack of effort and being a double-automatic door at a store when guarding the pick and roll, as well as the inability to shoot anywhere beyond 10 feet. His passing that we saw at Duke hasn't translated either. His type of center is already quickly being phased out in today's modern NBA, but when you factor in his other glaring flaws shown over the last few years, the phasing out could be happening at a faster rate for him.
Remember those old and annoying Nerlens Noel vs Jahlil Okafor debates? Before the start of the 2016-17 season, it seemed like Okafor was going to be the first big out of the center logjam to go, at least before Noel, who was ultimately traded to the Dallas Mavericks later on that season. The team tried so hard to unload Okafor to another team that they actually sent him home for a few games weeks before the February 23rd trade deadline to try and maybe (or maybe not) boost his already diminished value, he would return to the team after it turned out the center market was oversaturated and no one wanted to trade for him. Who really knows if the Sixers front office had deals that fell apart, but the larger point is that it's telling that Okafor, who along with his agent has kept open dialogue with General Manager Bryan Colangelo about potential trade destinations, is seemingly on his last legs already in Philly, and almost has no trade value at this point.
Why Okafor has been a tough fit during his first two years with the team is multi-layered but before we get into those reasons, I will say that it looks like he has really made an effort this summer to put himself in a position to salvage a role in the NBA whether it's with the Sixers --which is highly unlikely-- or another team in the future. He has lost 20 pounds and has told media that he has been on a vegan heavy diet, so at least he is making sure that he is in shape and playing for a job. In fairness, he did spend last summer rehabbing a knee injury, and it somehow still lingered into last season, but maybe the lost weight will at the very least, make him more light on his feet, and more mobile. However, he will have to show a hell of a lot more if he wants to remain a relevant NBA player beyond this summer.
First, he has a long way to go on the defensive end of the court--and I'm trying to be as nice as possible with this assessment. On and off numbers are tricky when it comes to teams with the lack of talent the Sixers had in 2015-16 and the injury-plagued team in the 2016-2017 season but his solo defensive rating was 110 in back to back seasons. His weaknesses are Rim Protection, Pick and Roll defense, defensive awareness and rebounding the basketball to finish the defensive possession. In 2015-16 when Jahlil Okafor defended the roll man in the pick and roll he allowed 1.03 points per 100 possessions. That is...not good, he placed in the 28th percentile.
Okafor's rim protection stats are just as bad, allowing opponents to shoot 57% at the rim this past season, per nba.com, and there are some possessions where you just scratch your head. This particular play --a microcosm of everything wrong with his defense-- actually just wants to make you punch your head.
It keeps on going. Okafor rebounds like a guard, his Defensive rebounding percentage as a rookie was 17.8%. Lower rates than Rookie campaigns from Greg Monroe, Spencer Hawes, Tiago Splitter, Mason Plumlee, Anderson Varejao, and even Kelly Olynyk. The DRB% actually decreased in 2016-17 to an uninspiring 15.5%, for reference, Robert Covington, Ersan Ilyasova (before he got traded), Richaun Holmes, and Dario Saric had higher percentages. The team as a whole is also had a higher offensive rebounding rate (23%) when Okafor is OFF the court vs when he is on the court.
In today's NBA, centers with Okafor's game need to at least be passable on defense and need to be able to rebound. Guys like Enes Kanter and Greg Monroe still have roles, albeit from off the bench, but they can at least crash the broads, and in Kanter's case can hit the offensive glass at a high level, but if Okafor can't even improve in these areas, then his post game, which is actually not as efficient as a lot of people think, becomes less and less viable.
Yes, his post game is actually pretty average. Never-mind the fancy footwork and the spin moves that look great on YouTube and the website formerly known as Vine, his post game has not been as efficient as other bigs.
His rookie year Okafor averaged .851 points per 100 possessions on post-ups, per Synergy, putting him in the 55th percentile. Naturally, because Okafor spent a number of games coming off the bench in 2016-17 the number of post-up possessions dropped from 315 his rookie year to 200. However, he still only improved his points per 100 to .855, and placed in the 44th percentile.
As you'd expect, the Sixers offense becomes slowed down, clogged and relatively more inefficient than what a lottery team usually produces. It's the complete opposite of the Pace, Space, and Running philosophy head coach Brett Brown has talked about so much. Even in the dreadful 10 win season in 2015-16, the team averaged 7.6 more points per 100 on offense when Okafor was off the court, and basically that same number again in 2016-17. When you add his impact (or lack thereof) on offense and defense together, Okafor's net rating in '15-16 and '16-17 was -16.6 and -14.5 respectively, the numbers are so glaring that even the "bad team" argument can't hold water.
Looking at everything over the last 2 years, of course taking the troublesome knee injury into account, all signs point to this season likely being Okafor's last in Philly. There is a team option on Okafor's rookie contract for the 2018-19 season at $6.3 million dollars, and with the team wanting to save as much money as possible with likely contract extensions for Joel Embiid and Robert Covington down the line, declining the team option wouldn't be surprising in the slightest, the team wants to keep and maintain Max cap space heading into the free agency summer of 2018. Who knows, maybe Okafor could be a somewhat productive player this year with the new body and playing weight, but with Richaun Holmes proving to be a better fit as a rotation big and the signing free agent big man Amir Johnson this past Summer, will Okafor even have an opportunity to prove that? Time will tell, but that time is most likely coming to a close in Philadelphia.