For all the poking and prodding aimed towards Jahlil Okafor and his team, any outsider would suspect that his rookie campaign has been an unmitigated disaster. As a dude who leads all rookies in scoring, much chagrin has been made over the Sixers’ decision to select him third overall in 2015.
Forget that he by no means fits in Philadelphia. He plays the same position as its incumbent top prospects, Nerlens Noel and Joel Embiid. Plus, many have already called into question his fit in the NBA altogether. Andrew Sharp dropped Okafor to the ninth pick in a recent 2015 re-draft over at Sports Illustrated. Jonathan Tjarks penned two pieces last week making the case against Jah’s place in Philadelphia. And, one step into the Marry-Go-Round of Depression that is Sixers Twitter seemingly leads to perpetual discussion on whether they should’ve drafted Kristaps Porzingis instead.
But by most metrics, Okafor’s rookie year has been nothing short of an unequivocal success. Not only is he leading all newcomers in points per game, he converts his shots at a historically efficient frequency, placing him in the company of a rookie-year Tim Duncan or Blake Griffin.
The case for Okafor is simple: he gets buckets, and looks damn good doing it. His scoring arsenal presents an array of dizzying, buttery-smooth post moves that most NBA veterans couldn’t fathom. Watching his recent performances like his recent 31-point outburst in Dallas reminds you why he was considered the “safe” pick of the 2015 class. He had an NBA-ready elite skill that was expected to smoothly translate to the pro level, and translated it has.
But the case against Okafor and his future in the league is, well, everything else. While his advocates would counter with the tired trump card of potential improvement—He’s only 20, didn’t you know!?—we should be realistic in our expectations for Jah due to his physical limitations. Unlike some of his draft class counterparts such as Porzingis or Myles Turner, Okafor isn’t athletic enough to consistently run the court. He doesn’t stretch the floor for his teammates out to the three-point line, and at this point it would be considered a minor miracle if he ever became a passable defender.
Okafor is not alone in this regard, following the mold of such other plodding post-dependent behemoths like Al Jefferson, Brook Lopez, and Enes Kanter. The low post game has been called to the stands in recent years. Scoring from the block still very much has its place in the NBA—it can be especially damaging against bench units—but teams should simply be looking for more out of centers, arguably the most important position in an NBA defense. With that celestial beast tearing the word to shreds by way of small-ball over in Golden State, some teams are trying to ditch playing big altogether to match up.
The argument however, shouldn’t be whether going small and fast is better than playing big and slow, but rather how a team can do both. Taking on a player like Okafor simply by virtue of having make up for his limitations means that his team will likely be hamstrung to only playing a lumbering style. He needs another big next to him who can rebound, protect the rim, and space the floor for him. And, good luck finding that guy for cheap. Players like Porzingis or Turner allow teams to play at any height and speed. They can each play the five without sacrificing their team’s rim defense, rebounding, or athleticism, or go at the four while still spacing the floor and presenting a height advantage.
Okafor may very well cap out as a better individual talent than Porzingis or Turner—who cares? The NBA doesn’t operate in a vacuum, and players like Okafor fall short in an environment where he needs to help conduct a defense, be effective with or without the ball, and run the floor with his team in transition. Derek Bodner of DraftExpress and Philadelphia Magazine summed it up nicely in a recent tweet: Okafor impacts the 17 or so points he scores per game, but there’s all those other points in a game that go unaccounted for.
Okafor is the antithesis in an age where everybody wants to ditch post play and find the next Draymond Green, a multi-faceted force with the tools to adapt to any play style. Okafor may have been considered the safe pick for the Sixers in that he delivers a sure-fire skill, but what is “safe” when he makes his team one-dimensional? Even if they never turn out to be elite at any one skill, players like Porzingis and Turner—plain as it may sound—simply do more things that help their teams play differently.
Okafor and the like, despite their restrictions in skill and speed, have continued to receive handsome compensation. All three of Greg Monroe, Brook Lopez, and Enes Kanter signed contracts upward of $16 million this past summer. However, some early buyer’s remorse may already be taking place. Monroe is already coming off the bench and reportedly had his name tossed around at the trade deadline. Kanter hasn’t yet cracked the starting rotation in Oklahoma City and may have been retained solely as a reason for Kevin Durant to stick around. And let’s face it, Brook Lopez is only making what he’s making because the Nets had no other options.
Some detractors may point to these players as the death of the post game, but we should differentiate. These players are rather the death of the archetype of physically limited, one-dimensional bigs—soon to be relics in a league where adaptation is key. Maybe one day Okafor will score efficiently in large enough bunches that his imperfections go ignored, or maybe he’ll be a lesson to the NBA that it should be drafting for versatility over individual prowess.