Jahlil Okafor is Flourishing Despite 76ers’ Cohesion Issues

Oct 30, 2015; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia 76ers center Nerlens Noel (left) and center Jahlil Okafor (right) watch from the bench during the final minutes of a game against the Utah Jazz at Wells Fargo Center. The Utah Jazz won 99-71. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 30, 2015; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia 76ers center Nerlens Noel (left) and center Jahlil Okafor (right) watch from the bench during the final minutes of a game against the Utah Jazz at Wells Fargo Center. The Utah Jazz won 99-71. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports /

Jahlil Okafor has been effective so far in 2016 for the Philadelphia 76ers, but his ability to cohesively play with Nerlens Noel is an apparent theme.

The Philadelphia 76ers have once again inserted rookie center Jahlil Okafor into the starting lineup, as head coach Brett Brown’s plan to mesh the Duke product and Nerlens Noel is a play for the future rather than garnering immediate results.

Okafor came off the bench in Philadelphia’s two relatively recent wins against Sacramento and Minnesota, playing 20 and 21 minutes respectively, but has been reinstated back into the starting center gig. However, for Brown, it’s a business decision he might not have made if he didn’t receive a contract extension this season.

With a sense of certainty, Brown is allowed to formulate rotations and starting lineups at will, even if they don’t surmount to consistent victories. While the power forward-center combination hasn’t seen extensive altering, Brown has played around with his starting guards on almost a game-to-game basis.

With a bounty of riches in the frontcourt, Brown’s prime struggles arguably reside in maximizing both Okafor and Noel’s value to the team. While Ish Smith and Jerami Grant appear to be viable starting options to complement the duo, the floor spacing remains a glaring facet of offensive clutter.

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What’s downright frightening for Philadelphia is they’ve yet to find their optimal three-point ace. Robert Covington, a year removed from being labeled as a keeper on the team, is shooting a paltry 31.5 percent from deep in the 2015-16 season. Hollis Thompson, the Sixers longest tenured player at 24 years old, is shooting a respectable 38.2 percent from three but doesn’t have the versatility on offense to be a serious threat to defenders.

He’s also registered just two starts on the season and does most of his damage (8.6 PPG) against backups. However, both Thompson and Covington weren’t expected to be the primordial marksman aiding Noel and Okafor’s development. Nik Stauskas, brought over in the Sacramento deal, looked to be the initial ‘Kyle Korver type’, who would knock down catch-and-shoot threes and have enough consistency to deter the opposition from clogging the paint on defense.

Shotchart_1452610264202 /

Evident by the above chart, Stauskas has been wildly inefficient from behind the arc, with consistency and confidence playing an intricate role in his struggles on the season. The lack of adept shooters is creating issues for the offensively limited Nerlens Noel and the interior ensconced Okafor.

In addition, Noel’s lack of a developing offensive game has leveled his ceiling. Where the 6-foot-10 defensive savant is most comfortable offensively is around the basket, finishing alley-oops and driving to the basket after screen rubs or isolations.

It’s easy to forget that Brett Brown had to completely overhaul Noel’s shooting stroke, as the big man progressed his way back from the ACL injury that sidelined him for the latter months of his freshman year at Kentucky.

CSNPhilly.com’s John Finger explains the offensive limitations tied to Noel’s game that dates back even to high school.

"“In high school and in college at Kentucky, Noel rarely had to venture outside of the paint. Though he rebuild his shooting form during the season [2013-14] he sat out to recover from an ACL injury and then worked on it again during the summer [2015] in Rhode Island, transforming practice to game action hasn’t been natural.”"

It’s difficult to blame Noel entirely for the inability to acquire a semblance of a consistent jump shot. Coming out of college, and encompassing the high draft pick label, he was raw offensively for a center. Currently, he’s being asked to operate from the high post and, at times, line up jump shots from 10-to-17 feet away from the basket. The 21-year-old is still producing on both ends for Philadelphia, but his ideal position is being occupied by Okafor, who Brett Brown is in no hurry to move to the four.

"“I don’t think Jahlil can guard, chase guys [like the] Rudy Gays, Kevin Loves, I don’t think he can do it and Nerlens can better do it,” Brown said prior to Sunday’s game against the Cavs, per CSNPhilly.com’s 76ers Insider Jessica Camerato. “Defensively, I think [it’s] one thing for me to sit here and beat my chest about we’re going to persevere and we’re going to grow these two young guys. There’s another thing to be too reckless and say, ‘Jahlil, go guard these high flyers,’ and that’s never been him.”"

Okafor isn’t your prototypical rim protector, engulfing shots at the rim similar to the beauty of a Noel. Despite displaying effort and heightened awareness in the association that dwarfs his freshman year at Duke in comparison, Okafor still weakens the team defensively with his presence on the floor. Opponents have a 5.6 higher ORtg (Offensive Rating) when Okafor is playing, but his long-term upside on the team is in his offensive wizardry.

Okafor’s defensive limitations might prevent him from playing the four, but his consistent mismatch ability against less nimble centers has been a commodity he’ll carry throughout his career. In the month of January, the 6-foot-10 rookie has become slightly more efficient for the Sixers, averaging 17.7 points and 5.2 rebounds per game on 61.5 percent shooting from the floor. He’s finishing his looks around the rim and his polish has become more evident outside of the low post and in the paint.

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A possible source of Okafor’s recent surge is from Ish Smith, whose immediate impact has provided Philadelphia with a jolt from the point guard position. One stat synonymous with Okafor’s ability to benefit the team is Okafor’s plus-minus rating, as his definitive negative rating is an overblown problem due to playing on a 4-36 team. With a competent point guard like Smith, Okafor has a more respectable minus-0.4, a drastically more impactful number with other players negatively affecting the Sixers’ league-worst negative-12.1.

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Smith has made both Okafor and Noel more efficient players in the 2015-16 season, but the 26-year-old journeyman alone can’t expand Noel’s offensive game. If Noel can’t consistently make jump shot attempts fall and is having a less effective year on the defensive end at power forward (1.8 SPG, 1.9 BPG in 2014-15, 1.5 SPG, 1.4 BPG in 2015-16), Philadelphia can afford to let him play behind Okafor at center.

However, if you’re Philadelphia, trading for Noel — during the 2013 NBA draft — to be a long-term energizer big off the bench arguably couldn’t have been the plan. General manager Sam Hinkie has shown once in the past that he will parlay a once-thought core player for future assets. Noel is still having a productive season, averaging a stat line-screaming versatility-with 10.6 points, 8.2 rebounds, 1.5 steals and 1.4 blocks per game. An issue protruding on Philadelphia’s upside as a team is Noel’s value diminishing if teams see he won’t able to play the four in his career for a contender.

Another factor that could come into play is Joel Embiid. The Sixers’ 7-foot-2 insurance policy has missed the 2015-16 season recovering from bone graph surgery, but as a natural center, his fit with Nerlens, who has more athleticism and versatility than Okafor, could be greater than with the rookie out of Duke.

One NBA executive, per The Philly Inquirer’s Keith Pompey, believes that a change could be made if Embiid is able to finally become healthy.

"“If Embiid can play, then in my opinion, they will have to trade Okafor, because Embiid and Okafor cannot play together,” he added. “If Embiid can’t play, then they have to decide whether to keep both Noel and Okafor. But the combination hasn’t worked out. Or they can trade one of the two and see if they can get strength at another position because, basically right now, they have three centers.”"

That’s what Hinkie and Jerry Colangelo could have to figure out before the 2016 trade deadline. If Embiid does return next season and 6-foot-10 point-forward Dario Saric arrives in America, playing for Philadelphia, there is an abundance of bigs whose minutes could be at a premium due to the possibly egregious depth.

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Okafor has been Philadelphia’s primary source of offensive productivity in 2015-16, averaging 17.4 PPG and 7.5 RPG while shooting 47.8 percent from the floor, but Hinkie drafted Okafor with the purpose of finding Philadelphia an NBA-ready player who could instantly dominate. Fit was overruled, but it could be a factor in the decisions Philadelphia makes before the trade deadline.