NOkafor: Why I Have Little Interest in Jahlil

Published: February 8, 2017

Earlier this week, there were rumors that the Pelicans had interest in Jahlil Okafor.  There were multiple proposed packages, involving assets ranging from this year’s draft pick to unloading Alexis Ajinca’s contract.  I suspect the alleged package involving Ajinca + some protected version of the 2018 Pelicans pick is the correct one.

For now, though, I’m going to outline why I don’t care for the Okafor trade if it involves sending out any valuable pick or player.  I watch a good bit of the 76ers because I took a seat on the Joel Embiid hype train this preseason and have him on my fantasy team.  For those of you don’t watch the 76ers, you should be aware of the context: the 76ers have 3 early lottery bigs, Joel Embiid, Nerlens Noel, and Jahlil Okafor.  Each 2 big man pairing has some sort of weakness, and Embiid is the obvious building block.  Now that Noel is healthy and able to play, it has become abundantly clear that Noel is the 2nd best big of the 3 and that Okafor is a horrible fit next to Embiid.

What we’d be getting right now

Okafor’s offense production mainly derives from his finishing near the basket + strength + some solid handles for a big his size.  He’s big enough to bully the little guys and mobile/skilled enough to drive past strong, less mobile bigs.  He draws a good amount of free throws, but overall, he gives you solid point production with slightly below average shooting efficiency.  Nothing to write home about, but he’s very young, and maybe he can parlay these skills into something like 18-20 ppg on 57% TS later in his career.  That’s what you hope for, along with the development of his midrange game, but his free throw shooting doesn’t exactly scream midrange threat long-term.

Right now, he turns the ball over frequently, isn’t a good passer, and is a lazy, incompetent defender.  The defensive issues are not uncommon for a young NBA big, but the problem is that his tools don’t translate to either defensive position.  He’s not a rim protector, at all, so playing him at the 5 means opponents are getting solid looks at the rim.  He also isn’t a good rebounder, so you’re losing some production there at well.  But he’s not mobile enough to defend the perimeter, so playing him at 4 and asking him to step out to the perimeter and defend is asking for disaster.

Clearly, the alleged interest in Okafor, Brook Lopez, and every other center known to man signals that the franchise is keen on playing AD at the 4 for the foreseeable future.  This isn’t surprising, as Davis’s body is simply not capable of handling the physical toll of playing the 5 every night.  The team is better with him at the 5, but if he plays there consistently, he’s more likely to be in the training room.

How Okafor Would Fit, Short-Term

Probably not well at all — for as much as Okafor has some offensive talent, he does nothing to improve spacing or draw extra defenders consistently.  He would add a marginal scoring boost to a team that is sorely lacking in shot creation and also create some second opportunities via offensive rebounds; outside of that, he would tank the Pelicans strongest asset, its defense.  He is also not an ideal fit for Gentry’s offense, or at least what Gentry wants his offense to look like.  Gentry wants capable decision-makers and ball-movers, neither of which is something Okafor provides. Whether Gentry is here to stay long-term is an altogether different argument and outside the scope of this article.

How Okafor Would Fit, Long-Term

Despite all of the arguments against him, there is always the “he’s young, he’ll improve” argument.  RPM and the eye test does little to confirm this argument — anything beyond the basic box score strongly indicates that Okafor is a large net negative to his team.  But even the Pels have examples of guys who were awful here (Rivers, Aminu) yet turned into serviceable players elsewhere.  Okafor has more raw offensive talent than either of those guys did at this age, and despite how bad he has been, it is premature to write him off completely.

At this juncture, however, Okafor doesn’t project to be a starter on a good team — he simply doesn’t have the tools/IQ/energy/natural position to contribute on defense and his offense isn’t good enough to offset his defense.  If anything, he would probably be best served in a sixth man role, and that’s assuming he smooths out some of the issues plaguing him.

The theory that Anthony Davis’s strengths cover Jahlil’s weaknesses is one that misses the point, because Okafor’s strengths don’t complement Davis’s, and that’s the point of any acquisition for the Pels.  Okafor needs the ball in his hands to be effective and he’s not a good enough scorer to warrant taking the ball away from Davis or Jrue.

If the Pels are going to pair AD with someone who can play the 5, I think they are much better served finding someone who can give them more on defense — think Jusuf Nurkic, for instance.  Nurkic or a big like him would cost more to acquire, but would be a much better fit playing alongside AD. If the Pels manage to keep Jrue this summer, which would likely be accomplished through a fat contract, and they want to build around AD at 4, whomever they acquire at center should fit into the defensive identity they’ve established this year; after that, the Pels should do whatever they can to get someone who can give them more shot creation at the other guard spot or wing.



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