After their god-awful 18-game losing streak to start the season, the Philadelphia 76ers actually look like a semi-competent professional basketball team, with big men talent in Nerlens Noel, Jahlil Okafor and even Joel Embiid- though at this point, he seems to have a better chance as a Hall of Famer tweeter than a basketball player. However, though Okafor has gained a lot of praise during his first season, it’s important to acknowledge his many flaws.
Coming out of college at about 6-feet-11-inches and 275 pounds, Okafor warranted a lot of Al Jefferson comparisons because of his massive hands, cat-like reflexes and exceptional post moves. Unfortunately, much like Jefferson during his own career, it looks like criticisms Okafor faced coming into the league - regarding his defensive inadequacy and ball dominance - are turning from theory to reality.
Obviously, a rookie struggling with more nuanced aspects of professional basketball isn’t noteworthy in itself. It’s almost a rite of passage for newer players to struggle on that end for a little bit before finally adjusting to the pace of an NBA game. Nonetheless, according to ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus, which combines both box score statistics, height and on/off court data, Okafor currently has a -1.68 Real Plus Minus.
This doesn’t sound like much, but consider that big men like Okafor are often given a boost in their ratings because of their size. The only two centers that grade worse than him are Enes Kanter and Andrea Bargnani- both of whom are basically human memes in how comically detrimental they are on defense. Even for a rookie, this is not promising company.
If you look at the Sixers as a defensive team, they certainly aren’t great, but their 107.1 points allowed per 100 possessions (defensive rating) ranks No. 19 in the NBA mostly due to team-carrying defense from the promising Noel. However, when Okafor is on the court without Noel, the Sixers have a devastating 111.9 DRTG. In other words, they become the worst defensive team in basketball when Okafor is his team’s primary defensive anchor.
Consider the inverse scenario, when Noel takes the court and Okafor hits the bench. In this situation, Philadelphia’s DRTG skyrockets to 103.7. The difference between Noel and Okafor on the court on that end is basically night and day- statistically a little more than the gap between the Golden State Warriors and the Los Angeles Lakers. That’s a drop from being a Top Five caliber defense to turning back into the worst defensive team in the league. In fact, when Okafor and Noel hit the court together, Okafor’s badness practically nullifies Noel’s impact, as shown by Philadelphia’s DRTG is 110.8 when both are on the floor.
Okafor’s presence in the paint on its own isn’t that bad- allowing opponent FG percent of 49.0 at the rim is actually excellent- but he looks totally lost on the pick and roll, where he often gets dismantled on switches and basic rotations, finishing at a 1.07 points allowed per possession. Despite his size, Okafor also often gets beat in the post by more experienced and crafty low-block players, as evident by his 1.01 points allowed per possession on these plays. This isn’t a case of him being beaten on a few plays either, as he has the fifth most possessions in the NBA for defending post-up plays.
What might be even more concerning than Okafor’s defense is how cripplingly ball dominant he needs to be in order to provide any kind of value. I wrote earlier in the season about the Sixers’ lack of offensive talent relative to the rest of the league, but in a league where teams like the Golden State Warriors are showcasing the true value of three point shooting and ball movement, it’s still bafflingly outdated to run an offense primarily through scoring in the post.
That’s not to say post players are worthless. Other teams like the Memphis Grizzlies, San Antonio Spurs and even the Detroit Pistons use the post as possible options for scoring, while actively using passers on the low block to open up opportunities for shooters. But instead of doing this, the Sixers seem to be keen on running an offense based around Okafor’s not individually terrible, but in no way amazing, post game. While his above average 0.86 points per possession on post-ups might make for some good box score statlines, it doesn’t necessarily lead to a good offense. In fact, it totally kills one.
Take Okafor’s -3.46 offensive RPM, the lowest out of any qualifying center with at least 30 minutes played per game. That doesn’t even go into detail about how dreadful the Sixers’ offense has been with Okafor on the court vs. off the court. When Okafor is playing, Philadelphia puts up 95.0 points per 100 possessions (offensive rating), which is even worse than their league-worst 96.7 ORTG as a team.
Now consider their bad, but not unforgivably ghastly 101.3 ORTG when he’s off the court. Okafor is literally tanking their already-bad offense to new levels of ineptitude- and it doesn’t help that he turns the ball over on post-up plays at a 16.0 percent turnover rate. Add in how Okafor only draws free throws on 11.8 percent of his post-ups, which make 32.7 percent of his plays on offense, and you have a guy that is okay at scoring, but underwhelming at getting to the line and destroying his team’s ball movement.
Despite his size, Okafor isn’t necessarily the most valuable rebounder either, often crashing the offensive glass for a good portion of his rebounds and occasionally not boxing out effectively enough, which also probably leads to him being frequently beat in transition. His 18.3 defensive rebounding percentage is also above only Brook Lopez and Al Horford for centers with at least 30 minutes played per game.
None of this is meant to suggest that the 20-year-old is totally doomed. The guy is in a tough situation as one of the players expected by his team’s fan base to turn around a 8-45 team into a playoff contender in the next few years. He still has a lot of promise as an offensive player- particularly if he improves his handles and playmaking ability- and can turn it around defensively in a few years.
Just remember that box scores don’t necessarily mean everything and that you should exercise cautious skepticism when hearing excessive praise about a player not even old enough to drink.
Anokh Palakurthi is associate life editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at email@example.com. He tweets @DC_Anokh.