Emeka Okafor’s Offense: Why the Box Score Doesn’t Tell the Whole Story

Published: February 3, 2012

Mason looks beyond the simple box score stats to examine the strides that Emeka Okafor has taken towards improving his offensive ability in a season when his scoring is needed more than ever.

Emeka Okafor has really improved his offensive game through the addition of an effective close-range jumpshot.

The general consensus of most of us here at Hornets247 regarding Emeka Okafor has been a feeling of pleasant surprise in regards to his scoring ability this season. Once the Chris Paul trade went down, I personally worried considerably about what it would do to Mek’s offensive production. He’s never had that great of a post game, and a lot of his great looks were due to Paul putting him in position to be successful. With Paul gone, I wondered at times how Okafor would find ways to contribute offensively apart from put-backs on offensive rebounds.

Well, it appears that he was one step ahead of us all along, and already figured out the solution in the form of a vastly improved short-range jumper. If you look at his season averages in the common stat categories, however, nothing really jumps off of the page for Emeka when compared to the rest of his career. Why is that? In this column, I take a look at what Okafor is doing better, why it hasn’t directly resulted in improved numbers overall, and then determine what has to happen for him to ultimately achieve those better numbers.

Emeka’s Improvement

To determine whether or not the shooting percentages back up the eye test on Okafor, I paid a visit to Hoopdata.com to get some more detailed statistics. There, I was able to look at his field goal percentage from varying distances from the hoop. The results? The numbers MORE than back up what most of us have been thinking. Before this season, Emeka never shot above 45% when shooting 3-9 feet from the rim; in fact, last season, he made a career-worst 34.9% of his attempts from this distance. Through this season’s first 23 games, Okafor is shooting an amazing 55.2% from 3-9 feet, not only demolishing his previous career high, but also good for 4th in the NBA among centers averaging at least 20 minutes per game. That is not just a moderate improvement; it’s honestly pretty incredible.

His improvement isn’t just limited to those short-range jumpers and hook shots, either. Without Paul feeding Oak perfectly in the paint, it was reasonable to expect that his numbers right at the rim (inside of 3 feet) would take a hit as well. Instead, he’s making 76.1% of his attempts from that distance, despite never shooting above 70% inside of 3 feet in any previous season.

Better Shooting = Career High Numbers… Right?

Given the data above, it seems natural to assume that Okafor would be posting career highs in both field goal percentage and PER; however, this is not the case. The reason is because of two main factors – free throw percentage and shot volume at the rim. Let’s tackle the easy one first – free throws (this piece only affects PER, not FG%). Over the course of his career, Okafor has made between 55% and 60% of his attempts at the line every season. This year, however, he is inexplicably shooting just 45.2% from the line while attempting a career low 2.7 free throw attempts per game. If he can simply get back to his career average free throw percentage, his PER should see a slight boost.

The reason his PER would only see a minimal boost from improving his FT% is due to the fact that he is getting there under 3 times per game. The cause for that dip is directly correlated to the second previously mentioned problem – his shot volume at the rim. In Charlotte, Okafor was averaging about 5.5 attempts per game from inside of 3 feet. In New Orleans before this season, he was taking about 4.5 per game from that distance. This season, that number has fallen all the way to 2 per game. My first instinct, given the departure of CP3, was that a substantial downgrade at PG could be the reason for his lack of easy looks inside. However, Raymond Felton didn’t help Okafor’s game in Charlotte any more than Jack has in New Orleans this season, so I think we can safely rule that that theory out. Next, I wondered if he is getting less put-backs from offensive rebounds, but his offensive rebound rate is pretty much right in line with his career averages, so that’s not it. So…

Why isn’t he getting the same looks?

After running through those two possibilities along with a few others, I arrived at the suddenly obvious answer. Okafor’s volume of shots at the rim are down as a result of the way in which opposing teams defend the Hornets. For the first time in Emeka Okafor’s career, the main threat for the team on which he plays can be found in the front court. In Charlotte, the Bobcats’ primary weapons were on the wings with Stephen Jackson and Gerald Wallace. In New Orleans, the primary threat was the pick-and-pop ability of Chris Paul and David West. Both scenarios gave Okafor plenty of room to operate in the paint, earning him some decent looks inside.

Unfortunately (for Mek, the Hornets, and the fans), things are quite different this season. The Hornets don’t have any real outside scoring threat, and opposing teams are taking advantage by packing the paint to stop New Orleans’ best chance at scoring. Want more proof? Okafor has historically been assisted on about 70% of his shots at the rim; this season, that number is hovering just above 50%. Not only is he taking those shots less, he has to create them himself because the rim is typically so well defended. To put it simply, opponents are making it harder on Emeka to score than ever before because they just don’t have anyone else worth directing their attention towards around the perimeter.

Is there an attainable solution?

Outside of a few elite big men in this league, the vast majority would have similar trouble as Okafor scoring inside with such little help to draw defenders out of the paint. Given that fact, the simplest solution to getting him more room to operate down low is – surprise, surprise – the return of Eric Gordon. The Hornets need a player who will really make teams sweat from the outside in order to divert attention away from the basket, and he is the kind of player who will accomplish just that. Once Gordon returns and forms a threatening back-court duo of scorers with Jarrett Jack, Okafor will likely be able to find space down low more frequently, and the amount of shots he attempts (and converts) at the rim should increase. Until then, expect to see Emeka take what he can inside, continue to impress with his recently added effective short-range jumper, and make a little improvement at the free throw line as well. Don’t let his overall numbers fool you – Okafor doing more with less for his team offensively than he ever has before.