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Jahlil Okafor Player Preview: A lethal force near the basket, but defense still holding him back

Jahlil Okafor Christopher Daniels, Detroit Bad Boys

Jahlil Okafor is far from a perfect player, but he’s the perfect kind of player for the rebuilding Detroit Pistons. Unlike the higher-priced, more-maligned signing of Mason Plumlee, the signing of Okafor as a backup big man made perfect sense. Five years in the league but still 24 years old? Check. Disappointing lottery pick that has never been able to put it all together? Check. Position of need? Check. Veteran minimum salary? Check.

So why am I not more excited? Well, some of that is still the residual disappointment of losing Christian Wood in free agency. If you asked me whether I’d rather be paying Okafor and Plumlee a combined $10 million or Wood $13 million, I’ll take Christian every day of the week. Something tells me, though, the Pistons weren’t excited about Wood playing center and preferred beefier options in the middle.

Okafor comes to Detroit with a little something to prove and enough tricks in his arsenal as a low-post big man to be effective on offense whenever he hits the floor. Last season he had a career-high 64.2 true shooting percentage and got to the line a better clip than ever before. The problem with Okafor is what he doesn’t provide in the way of defense and on the boards.

Offensive Role

It makes one wonder just how much Okafor can contribute to winning and what his role should be on a team of reserves that promises to be young and should be running at any possible chance they get.

Okfaor came into camp slimmed down and allegedly adding a jumper to his arsenal (who hasn’t?), but it’s hard to see Jahlil playing a huge role on the rebuilding Pistons. He could be a good pressure release valve for some young players as a “break in case of emergency” low-post option when things get bogged down, but other than that. Shrug.

To score his points, Okafor uses his superior footwork and strength and newly nimble body to face up and get to where he wants — usually directly under the rim.

Here is another look at his combination of footwork and strength going from the top of the key against our dearly departed Christian Wood:

Defensive Role

Okafor is not a great defender, and he will not likely be asked to serve that role much in Detroit. He is here to backup starter Mason Plumlee, who will be much more likely to close games in tight matchups. Okafor, much like Derrick Rose, is scoring punch off the bench. With a young team and hypothetically a commitment to getting them time on the floor to develop, a go-to option down low can work.

But, man, Okafor gives up a lot on the other end of the court. His positioning isn’t great. The footwork he uses so deftly on the offensive end does not travel with him to his defensive assignment. Here, Okafor is caught flat-footed against Harry Giles and because of his inability to keep a body in front of him gifts him an easy path into the paint.

Okafor has been a minus player on the court his entire career. Granted, he spent his first few years on bad Sixers teams, but even in his past two serving as a backup in New Orleans it hasn’t been pretty. Both squads have been able to play their opponents even with him off the floor, but with him on the court, he is a -5.6 and -10.6 per 100 possessions, respectively.

Troy Weaver says winning starts with controlling the boards, and if Okafor can grab some rebounds at a decent clip then he can become a neutral-value player, but he’s never really shown terrific rebounding abilities.

Area for Development

Look, if Okafor can continue to slim down and become even marginally capable of defending at the perimeter, that would go a long way to make up for some significant short comings. If he can expand his range beyond the paint even better. But his dabbling with 3-pointers can’t come at the cost of his efficiency inside (we all remember the 3-point Dre experiment). Instead, it’s best for Okafor to continue being a lethal player at the rim and scoring in bunches during short stints off the bench.

He doesn’t need to be a fancy or dynamic player, just someone that Killian Hayes or Saddiq Bey or Svi Mykhailiuk can dump it to in the post when the team is in desperate need of some offense.

Okafor is still young enough to get better on both ends of the floor. As he enters his sixth year, he is maturing and can make up for some of his natural deficiencies with cunning and clever play. He should also be able to more easily read defenses and communicate.

He is a player that routinely shoots better than 67% from within three feet and last year boosted that all the way to 77%. That is the kind of offense that translates, and if he can combine that level of efficient scoring with even a modest boost to his free-throw percentage (career 67.5%) and a better showing on the defensive end, he’ll be a positive player and can use his stint in Detroit toward a bigger payday as a free agent in a couple years.


This is Okafor’s last last chance to develop into more than a marginal NBA player. He has certain tools in his box that many players don’t posses. But for all those points he scores, he needs to learn how not to give them right back on the defensive end. Dwane Casey is the kind of coach who knows how to preach defense and work with young players. If Okafor can become anything, we’ll probably find out during his stay in Detroit.