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Jan 19 2016

A Chat (With Myself) On Jahlil Okafor’s Defense

The Jahlil Okafor draft pick has been nothing short of controversial since the moment Adam Silver announced it. Not only are Sixers fans stuck wondering whether Okafor could fit alongside incumbent center Nerlens Noel, but even more so if a ground-bound Jahlil would fit in a modern NBA defense. The pair got off to a disastrous start, but has meshed well as of late. The following is a brief conversation I had with myself — I swear it actually happened — about Okafor’s defense, his fit with Nerlens, and more:

So, how has Jahlil Okafor’s defense been so far?

Really? Just like that? No “hi?” Well, let’s get right to it then.

In short, it hasn’t been great. Last season, to the surprise of many, the Sixers posted a gosh-darn respectable 102.1 defensive rating with Nerlens Noel leading the pack. With Okafor, that number has taken a turn for the worse this season, dropping down to a 21st-ranked 104.9.

Yeah, that doesn’t sound good. But that’s not all on him, right?

Of course not. When you replace lanky wing defenders like Michael Carter-Williams and K.J. McDaniels with T.J. McConnell, Isaiah Canaan, and Nik Stauskas, a smoother path to the rim is to be expected. But in adding Okafor and thus moving Noel to power forward, the Sixers also moved one of the league’s best rim protectors in the Nerlen Wall (copyright: Alaa Abdelnaby) away from the goal.

So how do Jah’s numbers stack up against the rest of the Association?

Better than you’d expect, actually! He’s allowing opponents to convert just 47.5 percent of shots against him at the rim, which doesn’t exactly sound all that good until you realize that number either tops or is on par with alleged defensive studs such as Dwight Howard, Roy Hibbert, Clint Capela, and — weird — Nerlens Noel. That may be in part because Okafor has held his own down low. Nobody has defended a higher volume of attempts in the post than Jah this season, who has allowed 48.4 percent shooting on such looks — an honorable number for any rookie who could be easily taken advantage of by savvy veteran footwork and pump fakes.

Okafor may not have the vertical lift of a Hassan Whiteside or Andre Drummond, but he uses his combination of a stocky build and 7-5 wingspan to shut down the paint. Jahlil is already a prodigy when it comes to the ever-so-glamorous art of bodying post behemoths and keeping those hands up:

 

Per Vantage Sports (as of Jan. 19), Jah’s 57.83 Contest+ rate (the percentage of shots defended where he blocks to possession, blocks to opponents’ possession, alters or contests) ranks 15th in the league. In situations where Okafor is going mano a mano and doesn’t have to cover a lot of ground, he has impeccable timing when swatting shots away:

 

The problem is that in the pick-and-roll-heavy direction the league is going (it’s already there), the best kind of player for Okafor to defend would be himself — a withering breed of bigs who feast in the post. On the 35 pick-and-roll plays that have ended in a shot, turnover, or foul against Jah, he’s allowing a score on a fifth-worst 52.4 percent of them. When it comes to keeping up with some of the rangier bigs of today’s game, Okafor lacks both the lateral quickness and reflexes to keep up:

 

 

He doesn’t make much of an effort to get the ball back, either — that’s fine, baby steps — ranking in the bottom 25 in Vantage’s TO Forced per Chance, Deflections per 100 Chances, and Passes Denied per 100 Chances categories.

And this is considering that the Sixers have already simplified the defensive scheme in a way that adheres to Okafor’s lack of mobility, having him drop back on pick-and-rolls. This method is increasingly popular around the NBA with its motive to concede more long 2s, but when ball handlers decide to catch a screen far behind the arc, just as Kyrie Irving does in the below clip, Jah has little choice but to step up to the perimeter:

 

But the Sixers seemingly prefer this to the alternative: Per Vantage, Jah switches on just 9.68 percent of pick-and-rolls and hedges a minuscule .92 percent of the time — bottom-75 and -15 rankings, respectively. And when he finds himself in a switch, or if a perimeter defender catches a hard pick, a dawdling Okafor can get scorched in a hurry:

 

 

But he’s only 20! He’ll get better at that, right?

No kidding!? I could’ve sworn he was at least in his 30s!

Of course he can get better, but it’s important to keep in mind that, even going back as far as high school, defense has never exactly been Jahlil’s forte. He would be an easier fix if physical limitations were the only issue, but his conditioning, attention to detail, and effort have all come into question on the defensive end to drag down his otherwise already illustrious career.

Well it seems like he has a far way to go, but that doesn’t mean he can’t do it. Similarly lumbering big dudes like Tim Duncan, Zaza Pachulia, and Andrew Bogut have all operated as plus defenders despite their vertical deficiencies.

That’s fair, but we should slam the brakes before mentioning Okafor in the same sentence as Duncan — possibly the best defender of his generation who left college as an expected two-way star. And while Pachulia and Bogut are much more realistic projections, it’s also important to keep in mind that they’ve never carried close to the same offensive onus that Okafor will in his NBA career. I can’t imagine Pachulia worries too much about polishing his post moves, but rather hones his focus on fitting the role as an offensively low-usage, defensive authority that Dallas has laid out for him.

Now that obviously doesn’t mean that Okafor can’t put in the same work to improve his defense and become a two-way force, but we should wait to see it to believe it. Players like Bogut have certainly done it (although he willingly limited his offensive role to an extent in Golden State) as well as Marc Gasol — formerly thought of as a defensive liability, but now an effective two-way player for the Grizzlies. To echo a point recently made by Derek Bodner, defense has probably never been a major coaching objective at any point in Jahlil’s basketball career to this point. And Jah has already made great strides in the departments of effort and patience in the pick-and-roll since the turn of the calendar year:

 

This is a far cry from the guy who almost literally looked like he was running away from rim protection a little over a month ago, and the average shot against him sits neatly below league average at .95 points per attempt, according to Vantage. But Okafor is still suffering from some of his routine mental lapses and lagging reflexes, which is felt from the center position more than anywhere else on the floor:

 

(Hint: If Tristan Thompson is any farther away than five feet from the hoop, you can probably ignore him.)

 

And when Jah decides not to go full throttle, he doesn’t possess the explosiveness required to make up for blah effort:

 

Say Jah never figures it out on this end. What happens then?

That’s where things can get tricky, because it’s no secret that intimidating NBA defense starts with elite rim protection. The Jazz replacing the offensively-good-yet-offensively-bad-on-defense Enes Kanter with the Stifle Tower led to historic defensive numbers, and what was the league’s second-best defense last season in Milwaukee has been anything but since the Bucks replaced Pachulia with the sluggish Greg Monroe.

The Sixers could hide Jahlil’s defense in a couple ways, the first being to throw all its eggs into transition defense as other teams have done over the years. The objective is simple: The fewer guys you have chasing rebounds, the more guys up the floor to stop a fast break, leaving more time for the defense to set and for Okafor to make his way up the court. Such a strategy comes with its costs, of course, as it essentially abandons a high-efficiency shot in the form of second-chance buckets.

Another option the Sixers have is probably also the key to unlocking the strengths of the Okafor-Noel pairing: play Jah at power forward. Even if Okafor caps out as a good defender, we have a year’s worth of evidence that Noel is an elite rim protector — and not just for a rookie, he was the linchpin of that 12th-ranked defense last season. This scenario presents the obvious worry of Okafor being eviscerated by the Paul Georges of the league, but in certain matchups — say, for instance, Orlando’s plodding frontcourt duo of Channing Frye and Nikola Vucevic — Jah may thrive. Shooters that take Okafor away from the paint put him in a tight spot, forcing him to quickly help and recover to the lane:

 

Jahlil’s Effective Help Rate — the percentage of help attempts where no score, assist, or open shot occurs, per Vantage — of 38.71 is good for the sixth-worst ranking in the league. Planting him on stationary spot-up 4s could potentially save Okafor some much-needed juice for the other end while not sacrificing much defensively, but this stone kills another bird as well: moving Nerlens back to his natural position at center. Noel the power forward and Noel the center are two entirely different entities: Per Nylon Calculus, Nerlens’ net rating per 48 minutes drops a meaty 6.7 points when shoehorned into the four, with his DRE (Daily Regularized Adjusted Plus-Minus) plummeting from plus-3.0 down to minus-2.4.

Additionally, altering the pairing this way may help solve Okafor’s rebounding problem, as he has struggled in that area due to subpar athleticism and some uninspired boxing out:

 

I like the sound of that. So why don’t they try it?

Because Coach Brown isn’t feelin’ it, that’s why. But it seems he feels similarly about Noel, having just played Nerlens without Okafor for the final 22 minutes of Monday’s game at New York. If Brown really wants to maximize the strengths of both players, moving Jah to the 4 might just be the trick.

Alright, good talk. I feel a bit better about this whole thing now. Now go walk the dog and take out the trash.

It’s like five degrees outside. Make me.

  • Evan

    Really good breakdown. I honestly don’t know why Brett hasn’t put Okafor at the 4. What is the worst that could happen…we lose games? Thats the goal this season, so we can get Simmons or Ingram. Both seem to be stars. Ingram being the better fit, with Simmons the safer pick in my opinion. If we don’t get one or two, that would be devastating.

    • Xylon Dimoff

      Totally agree, could be killing two birds with one stone here: figure out how to make Jah and Noel work while racking up some lottery balls in the process. And yeah, this is a two-player draft until further notice. I don’t think I can stomach missing out on another sure-fire prospect.