Of all the rumored deals floating around this NBA trade deadline1, the talk surrounding Jahlil Okafor and the Philadelphia 76ers may be the most intriguing. Okafor, the third pick in the 2015 draft, has been linked to potential trades to several teams, including the Bulls, Pelicans, Blazers and Nuggets2, with onlookers speculating about everything from how Philly teammate Joel Embiid’s meniscus tear affects trade possibilities to what Okafor’s Twitter profile location portends.
What happens to Okafor is an important moment for the Sixers, who are at an inflection point in their so-called Process, and for the development of any team that may decide to throw in with the young center. Teams will have to decide whether Okafor is, or can become, anything more than a one-dimensional player. How Okafor is received by the league may give us a glimpse at how players like him will fare in the NBA.
A man of one talent
This week, our ESPN Insider colleague Kevin Pelton did an analysis of Okafor’s potential based on his projections using Real Plus-Minus. Okafor came into the NBA as one of its finest low-post prospects in years. But a season and a half into his career, Okafor grades out poorly by RPM, as he does in the acronym-jumble of other advanced metrics that try to distill a player’s impact into one stat. What those composite stats are hinting at, and what’s obvious to many onlookers, is that underneath that scoring, there isn’t much to Okafor’s game.
Ordinarily, the big-bucket stats are more of a guideline than a rule. But in Okafor’s case, the concern goes a little deeper. While there are some talented big men who have found success despite those stats not thinking much of them, they have tended to excel at more than one thing. DeAndre Jordan is an elite rim protector and all-around defender, and he’s one of the league’s best targets for lobs and other feeds inside. Enes Kanter is a good inside scorer, but he’s also consistently one of the top defensive rebounders in the league.
And then there’s Okafor, who has struggled to find a secondary skill, which in today’s NBA makes life hard for a big man. Putting aside the rare passing savant like Marc Gasol, Boris Diaw or Chris Webber, a typical NBA big’s path to success tends to come from inside scoring, perimeter shooting, defense and rebounding. Okafor’s strength is down low, where he’s scoring about 88 points per 100 possessions on post-ups, according to NBA.com,3 which is about the middle of the pack for players using at least one post possession per game. That’s not eye-popping, but he has a natural presence around the rim and can occasionally put the ball on the floor and use some fluid post moves to find space for a shot. That said, no one’s going to mistake him for Anthony Davis when he tries to catch and drive.
It gets worse from there. His defensive RPM is second-to-last among 70 qualified centers, ahead of only Karl-Anthony Towns. When Okafor is on the court, Philadelphia gives up 113.8 points per 100 possessions; when he sits, that improves to 106.8, per NBAwowy.com. His defensive inadequacies are especially glaring given the play of Embiid, who’s been outstanding on defense far earlier than is typical for a frontcourt player. Okafor is still just 21 years old, so it’s possible he’ll improve, but he has a very long way to go for that to be the case.
While it may not be fair to judge Okafor’s defense just yet, his rebounding is another story. Going back to his days at Duke, Okafor has never rebounded especially well, particularly given his size. His total rebound rate (which is just the percent of available rebounds a player collects while he’s on the court) was 12.8 for the Sixers last year, and this year it’s fallen even lower to 11.6. Those are anemic numbers for a center, and ones that look even worse when you consider how he’s collecting them.
Okafor converts just 44.8 percent of his defensive rebound “chances”4 into rebounds. Among players who have played at least 15 minutes per game and 20 games this season, Okafor ranks 287th out of 294 players5, coming in ahead of just two point guards, three shooting guards and, by professional rebounding standards, a pair of NBA Fatheads someone left on the court.6
So, to recap: Okafor doesn’t do a good job of fighting for his boards, which is made worse by the fact that he isn’t in position for many in the first place.
Okafor creates 11 defensive rebound chances per 36 minutes he’s on the floor. The best rebounders in the league create about 15 chances per 36 minutes: Andre Drummond is good for 17.1, Dwight Howard for 15.6, Embiid 14.9, per NBA.com — and each of them converts those chances at a rate far, far above Okafor’s. The drop from 15 to 11 may not seem like a lot, but it’s the difference from those elite rebounders and stretch bigs, like Channing Frye (11.2) or wing players, such as Okafor’s teammate Robert Covington (10.6). Of all the knocks against Okafor, this is the one that seems the most damaging to his prospects as a franchise cornerstone.
What role does a player like Okafor have in today’s NBA?
So we seem to know what Okafor does well, and what he doesn’t. And with the trade market for him as thin as it’s been, it seems the league is skeptical that a player such as Okafor can succeed in today’s NBA. There may be a good reason for that: Successful NBA teams haven’t really employed anyone with a game that looks like Okafor’s in quite some time.
Below is a table listing every player 6 feet, 10 inches and taller who’s played at least 10 minutes per game in the playoffs in the past 10 seasons and had a total rebound rate less than 15:
Some pretty good players are on that list, proving you don’t need to be an elite rebounder to contribute to good teams. The catch is, these are also players with obvious talents outside of traditional big-man post-ups. We don’t have to go through every name, but broadly, a big man who’s playing in the postseason and doesn’t rebound had better be providing outside shooting or playmaking. Among the few playoff teams to employ a frontcourt player who wasn’t a shooter, rebounder, defender or playmaker were the 2009-10 Suns and their vintage of Amar’e Stoudamire, who at that point was still a singular offensive force, and the 2010-11 Thunder and Nick Collison, who was not exactly a centerpiece of that roster.
So is Okafor consigned to irrelevance? When a leading offer for a recent blue-chip lottery pick seems to center around Alexis Ajinca and a future draft pick, the league may have spoken on how it views a player of Okafor’s talents. But if some team swoops in at the deadline and decides Okafor can do something for them, the question likely won’t be if Okafor has hidden depths we haven’t yet seen, but whether a pure low-post scorer has a role on a contending team.
CORRECTION (Feb. 13, 12:00 p.m.): A previous version of the table in this article gave the incorrect rebound rate for Jahlil Okafor’s 2015-16 season. It was 12.8 percent, not 7.0.
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