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In Praise of Jahlil Okafor

With the choice seemingly down to Karl-Anthony Towns or Jahlil Okafor, I decided to make my best argument in favor of the Duke big man.

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Disclaimer: This is an exercise in Devil's Advocacy.  The general trend among knowledgeable basketball folks, at least those I read, is that Karl-Anthony Towns should be the first pick in the NBA draft--and to be honest, from both a talent and fit perspective, I agree. There is, however, a small group of people whose opinions I hold in great esteem that prefer Jahlil Okafor, and it's worth looking into it to see what's there.

So let's start here, where I often start when evaluating potential draftees, with Layne Vashro:

























As most of you know, Layne's statistical models rely on an analysis of box score stats and use them to find an expected career peak as measured by Win Shares, as represented in the EWP (Expected Win Peak) and Humble models (a combined expectation based on the numbers with some weight added to the scouting perspective based on where players are slotted in mock drafts).

Here we see that Towns is the preferred player, with an EWP 2 wins higher than Okafor. But it's worth looking at the rest of the table as well, where Layne uses other methods to assign the likelihood of different outcomes for each player. Here we see that Okafor has a much larger chance, at least according to this method, of becoming a star player and a correspondingly smaller chance of busting or playing out a disappointing career as a bench player.

Layne would tell you that numbers aren't destiny in either direction, and the numbers above can be interpreted in various ways. One of them is that Towns' absolute ceiling is a little higher (the EWP and HUM expectations) but that Okafor is the more likely player to get close to his ceiling, as reflected in the much higher "star" percentage attached to him.

In some ways, that's counter to the prevailing narrative that Towns is the "safer" pick because of his perceived diversity of skills, while Okafor represents more of the "home run" pick, because if his outlier skill translates, and he naturally improves in other areas, he becomes one of the top players in the league.

But that's just a preamble.

Jahlil Okafor was the best player on the team that won the National Championship in college basketball as a freshman this season. He dominated in the scoring column (22 points per PA/40 on an incredible .66 TS% and .64 EFG%) like no college big man going back to Shaquille O'Neal.

The things you notice right away are talents that should serve Okafor well in the NBA: He has incredible footwork in the post, his hands are huge and he catches everything, and he has wonderful touch around the basket. Here's a move that shows off that footwork, agility and touch:

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Here's a longer breakdown of his post-up game:

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Some things we learn from this:

When Okafor touched the ball in a post up situation this season, regardless of where he caught the ball, Duke scored 1.3 points on average. That is a fantastic number, and much of it comes on Okafor's scoring. However, some of it is also the result of ball movement out of the inevitable double teams that Okafor drew in the post.

And this is a key issue. In the NBA, plays that end (in a shot attempt, foul, or turnover) in a post-up are not generally very efficient. One of the arguments against Okafor is that the league is moving away from post play from big men because rules changes and differences in the types of athletes that are coming into the league make it an unsuccessful proposition.

I don't buy that. I think you can run a successful offense with a focal point being a great post scorer. The intent of NBA offense is to create odd-number situations: 3-on-2s and 4-on-3s, which force the defense to scramble creating openings for quality shots. This is most commonly accomplished these days with pick and roll action, (something I see no reason Okafor can't succeed at, though he had very few opportunities at Duke), but can also be accomplished out of post double teams IF the player catching the ball in the post is an intelligent and willing passer.

One of the things I like about the video above is that it shows Okafor's failures as well as his successes. I think that's helpful, because of course everyone looks good when you only see their good plays. We can see above that Okafor is not hesitant to pass the ball out of double teams or when he sees an open teammate on the perimeter or making a cut to the basket. They don't all work, but several result in excellent looks for his teammates. His incredible hands give him great ball control and allow him to make quick, one-handed passes to any spot on the court.

This shows in the numbers, as Duke scored 1.2 points per possession when Okafor made a pass out of the post, and he passed out on nearly 30% of his post up opportunities. Teams will have to be careful how they guard him when he catches the ball--more good things than just him getting a good shot can happen when the offense runs through the big man.

For a man his size, Okafor shows remarkable ball handling abilities. His hands help him here--he rarely loses control of the rock. He showed the ability to drive from the three point line, something opposing centers in the NBA are unlikely to be able to contain easily.

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His lack of range shooting the ball is a concern, certainly. If he's going to be a truly dominant scorer--beyond the Al Jefferson level, for an example of a vaguely similar player, range will almost certainly have to be a part of it; it's hard to think of a truly top-notch scorer in modern times with the exception of Shaq who was able to do it without adding some range to their game. This isn't a knock--all the other recent dominant scoring centers were in the same boat, and they all found a way to extend their game.

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It will have to start at the free throw line, where Okafor struggled mightily this season (51%). This is something that will need fixing. There is precedent for bigs that got significantly better in this area, but it's something that will require work and a place where his huge hands might be part of the problem.

One area that I am considerably less worried about than I was prior to writing this piece is Okafor's defensive rebounding. Those numbers are not great given his size, strength, and hands, but ultimately I think he will be a quality rebounder in the NBA. His offensive rebounding numbers are terrific (among the best in the nation), and rebounding is an area where Duke players under Coach K have generally performed better in the pros than expected based on their college numbers. Okafor has the size and quickness to translate his demonstrated abilities on the offensive glass to the defensive side, and I think it's a good bet that he eventually does so. He may never be a league leading defensive rebounder, but I am convinced he can contribute to a solid rebounding club.

On the other hand, his defensive problems could follow him to the NBA. He did not do a great job of either protecting the rim or showing the agility to really disrupt the pick and roll, which is the staple of NBA offense. It appears he has the size and agility to do a better job at this, but failed to show it regularly at Duke, which is a real concern.

On the plus side, he was able to stay out of foul trouble, averaging fewer than three fouls per 40, which is remarkable for a freshman. Compare this to Towns, who averaged over five fouls per 40 and often had to go to the bench early with quick foul trouble. Learning to stay on the court is almost always a steep learning curve for young NBA bigs, but it might be a little easier for Okafor than some others.

Still, the problems on the defensive end the defensive glass are real, and whether they can be addressed effectively remains an open question. With good coaching, his ability and understanding about help-and-recover principles could be improved, I think, but he will likely never be a big shot blocker in the NBA.  He is by no means a perfect prospect, but then, who is?

His greatest attribute is how the floor tilts toward him on the offensive end. His ability to play around the basket draws immense attention and makes the game easier for his entire team in ways you rarely see at the college level, especially from non-perimeter players. I have little doubt that he's going to be an effective offensive player in the NBA, and he could become one of the best offensive big men in the league given time. That's not something you pass up easily when it comes time to call a name on draft night.