Jahlil Okafor: Centerpiece or Flawed Star?

Mandatory Credit: Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

At this point in the college basketball season, everyone has had a glimpse of Jahlil Okafor. I thought enough of him to declare in mid-December that he had no peers to challenge him. Watching him tear teams to shreds from the post has continued to be a joy as he’s progressed into conference play.

And yet, I have worries when I watch him play that I can’t seem to shake.

There’s no doubting Okafor’s post brilliance, his arsenal of moves and counter-moves combined with immaculate footwork. He shows touch and finesse usually equated with smaller players, hitting bank shots and crafty layups with ease. And his passing is perhaps his most jarring skill; his hawk-like floor vision allows him to turn double teams against his opponent by consistently finding the open man and resetting his position.

Defensively is another ballgame. Whether you’re beholden to stats or “the eye test”, things aren’t pretty for Okafor on the other end.

The numbers reflect what becomes obvious when you watch Okafor. He’s dominant, near transcendent at putting points on the board, and a sieve of equal proportion at his own hoop. It’s jarring to see the feet producing dance moves in the post melt into an abomination defending the pick-and-roll.

This would be more acceptable if Okafor was a plus-value rim protector, but that isn’t always the case, whether due to awareness, effort level or base skills. Some important tools are there — his wingspan has measured in between 7-foot-5 and 7-foot-6 at various events — and he’s feasted on a variety of mid-majors and small-ish ACC teams this season. That opportunity won’t present itself in the NBA, and battles with grown men will demand full extraction of his toolbox.

Draft Express did an excellent video breakdown that highlights the things I’m talking about:

Okafor’s defensive question marks beg this question: What can we count on him to be at the next level?

Player comparisons at this stage are nearly impossible given the stat profiles highlighted by Vashro above. What does a player with Shaq’s offensive output and Pollard’s defensive stoutness top out as? Can he be the guy to anchor a franchise for 10-plus years?

The answer is yes and no. Okafor’s skillset and production suggest that he’ll be a difference maker on one end of the court. Knowing that, many teams will be happy to ignore specific concerns with the hope they can put pieces around him to supplement strengths and hide weaknesses.

That philosophy comes with the caveat that Okafor’s flaws are some of the hardest to overcome in the league’s current setup. The pick-and-roll boom has put a premium on ball-handlers who can attack and distribute out of P&R sets, and big men who can either protect the rim or stop those guards from turning the corner. Against lesser competition, Okafor has struggled at the latter and been inconsistently focused at the former.

It’s not necessarily easy to hide those faults, and most of the league’s best teams this season — the Hawks, Warriors and Grizzlies to name a few — have a big man who anchors their defense first and foremost. Heck, you could go through the West’s top nine teams and point to a rim-protecting/shot-blocking type. Dwight Howard, Tyson Chandler, and on and on until you reach Anthony Davis’ ninth-place Pelicans.

Having parted with Chandler, the Knicks morphed from casual punchline to tragicomedy. The Kings have struggled to build around DeMarcus Cousins despite eye-popping box score numbers, due in part to Cousins’ intermittent focus on that end. Nikola Vucevic has far exceeded expectations in Orlando, yet the Magic have floundered in a season expected to produce a big jump.

I believe it’s possible to build a team around a one-dimensional big — and the “bad” teams mentioned have problems far beyond their bigs — but it ups the degree of difficulty. The Hornets were one of the league’s nice stories last season after Big Al Jefferson’s arrival spurned them to a playoff berth. They accounted for Jefferson’s lacking foot speed by slowing the game down and prioritizing ball safety, registering the league’s lowest turnover percentage. The issue with slower, low-risk basketball is the margin for error, and a three-point drop in offensive rating has Charlotte 10 games under .500 despite improving in several other areas.

Okafor’s passing ability combined with post prowess gives him the leg up on other offensive-focused bigs coming out of college. There will always be value in the ability to create offense from the post, whether it’s finding the open shooter out of double teams or bullying single coverage. Consider things like the Stats LLC developed “gravity score” — which measures how players draw coverage off the ball — and ponder the inverse for a moment. Okafor may be a black hole in the rosiest interpretation of the word, sucking so much attention from his supporting cast that it turns into a shooting gallery. If anyone is going to win with the four-out offense Orlando rode to the Finals in 2009, an Okafor-led squad might be it.

Unfortunately, Orlando Dwight isn’t there to cover for things on the other end. We haven’t yet come close to seeing Okafor’s ceiling, but given the way the NBA has headed, it’s fair to wonder whether it will be enough.