Too big to fail: how the NBA evolved past Jahlil Okafor

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Jahlil Okafor was a sure thing.

Drafted in 2015, Okafor was the next great offensive big. He was coming off a dominant college campaign at Duke, averaging 17.3 points on 66 percent shooting, capping off his season by winning the NCAA title.

Magic Johnson even tweeted about him.

All the signs were there for Okafor to go first overall, but he wasn’t the only NBA center that headlined the 2015 draft. Kentucky’s Karl-Anthony Towns averaged 10.3 points, 6.7 boards and 2.3 blocks a game on one of the best college rosters ever.

The Minnesota Timberwolves, with the No. 1 overall pick of the 2015 NBA draft, decidedly opted for Towns over Okafor — valuing potential over college stats. Okafor slipped down farther when the Los Angeles Lakers made a surprise pick, taking combo guard D’Angelo Russell at No. 2. That left the Philadelphia 76ers with the obvious choice of Okafor at No. 3.

As we all know, Minnesota got far and away the best player of the bunch. In his third season, Towns is an All-Star center averaging 19.9 points and 12.2 boards, all while shooting 41 percent from three. The future is bright for Towns, who’s gone from an offensive stud to a potential two-way terror.

Russell’s future health and durability has been brought into question this 2018 season, but he’s no doubt shown potential on the limited time he’s been able to get on the court.

The story isn’t quite the same for Okafor.

After a strong rookie season on the league’s worst team, Okafor hasn’t done anything remotely impressive to build on his resume. With the emergence of Joel Embiid, Okafor became a victim of The Process rather than part of it. Once he fell out of the rotation, Okafor was finally traded to the rebuilding Brooklyn Nets, where he is now trying to work his way into becoming the player he was once touted to be.

But why is Towns so much better than Okafor? Why was a player who was projected to be one of the sure things of the draft, a bust?

Okafor can get buckets no doubt. Put him underneath the basket with the ball in his hands, and chances are you’re going to get some quick points. The issue is, Okafor gives up way more points than any NBA player is capable of scoring.

Guards have taken over the league, and as a result, teams play fast. In the 1997-98 season, the Boston Celtics averaged the most possessions per game by NBA.com’s Pace stat. Today, the Celtics would average less possessions than the league-slowest Memphis Grizzlies. Centers who can’t keep up with smaller players get brutalized in today’s league.

While Okafor is an offensive stud, he fails at almost every aspect of defense, whether be it pick and roll or perimeter defense, rebounding or rim protection.

Twenty years ago or so, Okafor would be a solid NBA player, playing in systems where teams ran offenses through him. Basically, Okafor could score enough points that his lack defensive foundation wouldn’t be noticeable.

But today, Okafor doesn’t fit into modern NBA offenses or defenses. Most people would compare him the Enes Kanter, another former lottery pick.

Kanter is an offensive wizard, but throughout his career he’s been one of the worst defenders in the NBA. Despite that, Kanter revived his career with a sixth-man role on the Oklahoma City Thunder and is currently the starting center for the middling New York Knicks.

The difference is, Kanter has been one of the league’s best offensive rebounders for most of his career, averaging a little under three a game. Okafor is one of the worst rebounders at his position.

Brook Lopez is probably the best person to compare Jah too — and the future isn’t too bright.

This season with the Lakers, Lopez is struggling to keep up. The Lakers play at the fastest pace in the league, and Brook just isn’t equipped to play in that system.

Factor in his disappointing 3-point shot (33.8 percent for the season) and lackluster rebounding and Okafor is looking a lot like Lopez.

That being said, Lopez’s performance this season is an anomaly, not the norm. Prior to this season, Brook was a stud. Brook was (and still is) an extremely talented post player, but he expanded his game in the 2016 season. A former All-Star, Lopez averaged 20 points in his last season with the Brooklyn Nets, behind an offensive arsenal that spanned all the way to the 3-point line.

So, what’s next for Okafor? It sounds obvious, but if Okafor can figure a way out to shoot, he’ll be able to open up his entire game — and he already has the perfect blue print in Lopez.

After eight seasons in the NBA, Lopez went from shooting no threes to averaging 5.5 attempts per game in 2016. So there is precedent for his game to evolve outside the paint. The New Orleans Pelicans’ front court proves the same thing. DeMarcus Cousins found out he could shoot threes in his sixth season in the league, and Davis is discovering his shot too.

The NBA has quickly evolved past Okafor’s skill set. The upcoming NBA draft features big men like Deandre Ayton and Jaren Jackson Jr — big men who can shoot. If Jahlil can figure it out, he’ll have a long NBA career, but the question is: Can he still catch back up?

Harshil Desai writes for Bear Bytes, The Daily Californian’s sports blog. Contact him at [email protected].

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