New Orleans Pelicans

Jahlil Okafor is still Jahlil Okafor

Jahlil Okafor’s recent play has drawn headlines, but behind the gaudy numbers, he’s still Jahlil Okafor.

We desperately want to believe in top-5 draft picks. For years, we cling to the idea that something made them special once, and the specialness absolutely has to be there to this day, just waiting for the right context to draw it out. Jeff Green has fashioned an 11-year NBA career out of that misplaced faith. Andrew Wiggins is on a $148 million contract, and all he had to do was promise to work hard.

When Jahlil Okafor, No. 3 overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, rattles off a six-game run averaging 20 points and 10.5 rebounds per game, people want to believe. They table the cold and calculating reason that triumphs when players lacking pedigree do the same. They forget that we’ve seen Jahlil Okafor before.

Okafor, who averaged 17.5 points and 7 rebounds in his rookie year, has never struggled to pile up box-score stats. It was always upon closer inspection that the Okafor proposition proved unprofitable. While Okafor’s made strides in some key areas, he still computes as a negative.

Okafor continues to excel in the areas he always has:

He has a smooth post game, his pet move being that baseline spin. At his size, Okafor is shockingly nimble. And his size shouldn’t be understated. Okafor is truly enormous, checking in at 6-foot-11 with a 7-foot-5 wingspan. He’s big, too. Really big, weighing in at over 270 pounds, which allows him to do stuff like this:

It’s not normal for someone — not even a traditional center, like Okafor — to push PJ Tucker around. That’s sort of the whole appeal of PJ Tucker: he’s mobile enough to guard smaller players and more than hefty enough to stonewall the biggest of centers.

But scoring proficiency in the post has always been there for Okafor. This year, he’s trimmed his turnover percentage to a respectable and career-low 11.5 percent. Part of that drop can be attributed to Okafor forsaking passing altogether, as he’s rocking a career-low (and fifth percentile among bigs) 4.4 percent assist percentage. As a post player, Okafor remains skilled, but flawed.

Where Okafor has demonstrated some much-needed improvement is in the less glamorous — arguably more important — aspects of a big’s life:

Okafor sets screens now. He sets real, illegal screens. It’s a selfless sight to behold, and a massive boon to New Orleans’ downtrodden stable of ball-handlers and off-ball shooters. Okafor has also grown into a shockingly competent pick-and-roll defender:

Throughout recent games against the San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets, Okafor consistently showed and recovered well, and on the year, he ranks in the 61st percentile among all players defending the pick-and-roll (as the screener’s defender), per Synergy. He even generated some impressive defensive highlights, like dancing, step for step, with James Harden:

Or mirroring Harden’s every twitch then helping on multiple drives:

Despite those highlights, though, Okafor’s overall defensive package remains severely underwhelming. While he’s grown meaningfully as a pick-and-roll defender, popping big men feast on his slow reaction time:

During this six-game renaissance, both LaMarcus Aldridge and Nikola Jokic absolutely eviscerated Okafor on pops. He simply can’t (and at times, won’t) cover ground, which is not ideal in a world in which Brook Lopez launches 6.5 3s per game.

Worse yet, slow feet remain the least of Okafor’s defensive woes. He still doesn’t get it:

Sometimes, not getting it manifests itself in affording opposing drivers completely untouched forays to the rim. Other times, Okafor’s striking lack of spatial awareness leads him directly into back screens:

Like everyone else, I wanted to believe in Jahlil Okafor. He was a No. 3 overall pick. He rolls out of bed and grabs 20 and 10 — for real now. But he still doesn’t get it.

Sure, he’s developed some. He can passably defend a pick-and-roll now, which is more than you can say for far more seasoned kindred spirits like Greg Monroe and Enes Kanter. Yet, something is missing in Okafor. He just doesn’t process the game on the level of a special or starting-caliber or positive-impact big man in the NBA in 2019. He doesn’t know when to help, a big man’s most important defensive responsibility. His decision-making process is a loop, beginning and ending with “face up and palm the ball for 4,000 hours then spin baseline” regardless of the defense.

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The result is a player whose lack of role is damning. Okafor’s defensive improvement at his third stop in the last two years is appreciated but insufficient. No viable NBA defense could survive major minutes with his awareness and mobility deficiency. And to even come close to justifying Okafor’s defensive limitations, he’d have to be a stud on offense, a true engine. Yet, Okafor’s no offensive hub in the post. He can score for himself at a respectable rate, but he’s not generating offense for others; he’s a black hole, pulling systems out of alignment and forcing them to an abrupt halt. He’s an equation that just doesn’t add up.

Okafor might stick around in the NBA; it’s what top picks do, no matter their on-court merit. But a light, a beacon of hope for a Pelicans team that couldn’t be more lost? Nope. He’s Jahlil Okafor. Still. And don’t bet on that changing.

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