Lakers Will Regret Passing on Jahlil Okafor

The draft lottery was kind to the Los Angeles Lakers. Despite finishing with the fourth worst record, they received the second pick of the 2015 NBA Draft. Even though Karl-Anthony Towns and Jahlil Okafor were expected to be the top two selections, the Lakers ended up choosing point guard D’Angelo Russell after Minnesota took Towns. While they drafted a potential impact player, plenty of evidence suggests that Okafor was the better choice.

Okafor is well known for winning the NCAA championship playing center for Duke, a team that lost just four games before capturing the title. He was remarkably consistent, scoring in double figures in all but three contests. Overall, he averaged 17.3 points, 8.5 rebounds, 1.4 assists, and 1.3 blocks. Even though he’ll face tougher competition in the NBA, it’s difficult to pile up the points in college as a big man. Okafor scored at will despite the 5-second closely guarded rule (which the NCAA has since repealed) and blowouts when Mike Krzyzewski could deploy his bench with confidence.

Philadelphia tabbed Okafor with the third overall pick and the Sixers had plenty of reasons to celebrate his arrival. His variety of post moves were on full display in Summer League, where he averaged around 16 points and showed a willingness to use the glass in a way that’s reminiscent of Tim Duncan. In Las Vegas, he backed down his man and spun to create a shot early and often. Even the towering Kristaps Porzingis of the Knicks fell prey to his shiftiness: Okafor went all the way around him for the layup.

Later in the summer, he wowed a Utah crowd by dribbling through two Spurs defenders before finishing at the rim. When he wasn’t putting the ball in the hoop, Okafor was able to draw fouls with his aggressive approach. He even displayed passing skill, penetrating the interior before dishing to a teammate for the wide open three. During a preseason contest in Brooklyn, he showed similar touch by running a fast break before lobbing to Nerlens Noel for an alley-oop.

I’m not arguing that Russell lacks offensive ability or court vision: averaging 19.3 points and 5 assists at Ohio State was impressive. Still, he got off to a slow start in Summer League, shooting 2-17 on three pointers and under 40% from the field. Okafor is the first-year player most ready to contribute, as 45% of general managers surveyed chose him to win Rookie of the Year. He’ll need to work on conditioning as he adjusts to an 82-game season, but he’s already proving he belongs. Even in limited preseason minutes, Okafor has demonstrated the ability to score in amassing 40 points over four games. It is believed that Russell was drafted because of his high upside but Okafor has the potential to develop further too. Okafor is so physically gifted that he can make lots of easy buckets but he also boasts plenty of technique that can be honed further with NBA experience.

The league may be moving away from the traditional center role somewhat but there are still several advantages to drafting a skilled big man like Okafor. In his case, offensive rebounding is a major strength. At Duke, 14.8% of his boards came on the offensive glass, a rate that would put him in rare company at the NBA level. Also, few rookies in recent years have come into the league with such an advanced skill set around the rim. Only a handful of pros are in Okafor’s class when it comes to inside scoring, and that’s before he even begins his career. It doesn’t hurt that his huge hands allow him to catch errant entry passes before they can become turnovers. He’s even graceful enough to run the floor and maneuver his body around defenders to get ideal shot angles.

No rookie is a finished product but Okafor is as close as it gets in this draft class. Even Towns is more of a raw talent. Okafor’s cool 66.4% from the field at Duke dwarfs even the solid 56.6% that Towns put up at Kentucky.

While I don’t expect Russell to be a bust, I would have found it hard to pass on Okafor’s gifts if I were Mitch Kupchak. Most 6’11″ players are not nearly as smooth and at 19 he will surely develop further. It’s possible that both Okafor and Russell will become stars but I would bet on Okafor as being the one more likely to do so.

photo via llananba