Of course, in his first preseason game Jahlil Okafor would get injured. You can’t even blame his bust of a career on karma. Okafor hasn’t done enough of anything for karma to have its hooks in him. He just has been awful. Awful in Philadelphia. Awful in Brooklyn. Now in New Orleans more Jahlil Okafor whatever.
The thing about Okafor is he is not misunderstood as much as he is given a pass, probably because he is a Dukie. Other high draft picks are picked apart and ridiculed and dropped in oil and their name is dirt. But no one puts Okafor in the same sentence as picks who have been just average, who scouts and teams bungled. Okafor gets to skate. But he has the same mediocre bio as some of the also-rans, or perhaps it’s worse because he is a seven footer.
This season with the Pelicans, Okafor has a chance to try to reclaim the random pieces that make up his career. Anthony Davis will hide his flaws and he won’t have to do what he cannot. Julius Randle is tougher than Okafor will ever be. Alvin Gentry is a players coach so Okafor won’t hear his name in the media as a scapegoat. The Pelicans ceiling is a 6 seed.
The pressure on Okafor is self induced. It is Okafor expecting a lot from Okafor and not being able to deliver.
The truth. He is a below average defender for his size. Part of it is footwork but most of it is he doesn’t have a gritty and tough motor. He’s not particularly explosive. After his first year, his defensive numbers tanked. He blocked 1.2 shots as a rookie. He’s been going downhill ever since.
The last year he played 50 games, 2016-17, he was the worst defensive center in the NBA (Defensive Real Plus-Minus). Since then, he’s played 28 games but the Okafor blueprint is still the blueprint. He’s not a passing center like Nikola Jokic. He’s not a scoring center like Karl-Anthony Towns. He is not a shot blocking center like Rudy Gobert. He won’t double-double you to death like Hassan Whiteside though he pouts like Whiteside. So who is he?
When he came into the NBA, the scouting report was money.
Not being particularly explosive, he offers very little in the way of rim-protection which is a concern in today’s NBA game where practically every team’s defensive plan revolves around having a big man in the paint who can serve as an anchor, clean up mistakes and not allow easy baskets. He is not a good defensive rebounder, posting one of the worst rates among big men in our Top-100. He looks lethargic, often standing and watching rather than putting a body on an opponent and being a bit slow to react to loose balls coming off the glass. (Jonathan Givony, Mike Schmitz Draft Express)
What we know about Jah is he is going to make more than 50% of his shots but past ten feet he is invisible so no he doesn’t fit the modern big man who is athletic enough to post up for a three and then run to the paint to finish at the rim. His pick and roll defense is absurd. It’s hard to make a case that Okafor, the number 3 pick in the 2015 draft, is a NBA starter. He is more of a specialist. Eight minutes here. Four minutes there.
Okafor was drafted by Sam Hinkie of Philadelphia but in the thick of The Process, despite high hopes, Okafor entered the league immature. Philly was a tough situation after winning at Duke. Embiid pretty much ended Okafor. It was an ugly divorce with Okafor taking parting shots once he was out the door.
In Brooklyn, he was out of shape. He played a stretch of 21 games, from January to right before the All-Star break. Three times he played over 20 minutes. Against the Wolves he shot 64%, had 6 rebounds and 21 points, his season high. At the end of January, his 24 minutes played was an offensive disaster. 28% field goals and 5 points. But he pulled down 13 boards. In a February game against Houston, he was pure money: 77%, 15 points but only 6 rebounds. All three games of Jah on the court for almost half the game, the Nets lost and Okafor didn’t change anyone’s mind.
His contract with the Pelicans is a little shy of two million, crumbs really for a top-3 pick, except this is Okafor’s third team in four seasons and he is entering NOLA with the league having defined the Okafor game, not Okafor defining it for himself, which is his greatest challenge this year despite being sidelined with an ankle injury. He has to demonstrate he is more than the sum of his parts, that he has a competitive motor and will, that he has finally grown up, and that he can do more and not less.
Year four for Jahlil Okafor, NBA center, is the biggest gut check of his career. Because he has been a stranger for three years running, he has to both forget the past and remember the past, a peculiar task. And then he has to re-introduce himself to his critics, his fans and the NBA at large as someone new.