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Exit Interview: Jahlil Okafor is a big man who can score efficiently in bunches, but not do much else

A reclamation project still in need of reclamation

Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

When Troy Weaver signed Jahlil Okafor, Detroit Pistons fans were too dazzled by the contract handed to Jerami Grant ten days earlier to process the news. Then the Pistons signed Mason Plumlee and Josh Jackson, and Okafor was memory-holed further. But the Jahlil signing could have turned into a shrewd one. The former third overall pick was coming off of a fistful of nice performances with the New Orleans Pelicans where he showed he could put an old-school big-man game to new use by relying on superior footwork.

The Good

He carried with it some passing skills (12 AST%, Basketball Reference) that are very important for Dwane Casey’s offense, and some possibilities on the offensive glass (10.9 ORB% in 2019-20). And for all of this intriguing potential, he cost just the vet minimum.

This passing season in Detroit, he showed off that superior footwork.


He was a very efficient scorer – his 61.8 FG% placed him in 94th percentile. He also showed up on the offensive glass.

Though it wasn’t so often as the year before (7.3 ORB% this year, still good enough to place him in 83rd percentile). His passing game couldn’t get fully on track too, as he finished the year with 6.1 AST%. He tried to swap out passing for a long ball. However, those tries at the moment are in their infancy as he was 2-of-9 in total for the season.

For now, Jahlil is a load inside and not much else. He’s very productive around the rim, where he noted a 66.2% efficiency, which is above league average. He also has good touch from other than restricted area spots in the paint (his great 66.7 FG% from there was 24 percentage points above NBA average), and from midrange (57.1 FG%, 15.6 percentage points above NBA average), though the volume isn’t big here.

Together with his adjusted old-school skills, this above-average efficiency allowed him to be an elite iso force – with 1.07 PPP scored in those types of plays, he was in the 84th percentile in the league in isolations.

The Bad

Defensively, Okafor isn’t too much a vertical rim protector. His 0.5 blocks per 36 minutes was at the bottom among league’s centers. Defense in space isn’t his strong suit either. His 0.6 steals per 36 minutes and his 1 deflection per 36 minutes situates again at the bottom of NBA’s fives. This unfortunate picture is completed by noting his underwhelming figures on the defensive glass – 11.9 DRB%, 46th percentile.

Nevertheless, he showed some more encouraging signs in P&R D. He was in 67th percentile defending the roller in those sets. And he was able to deliver good drop coverage of P&Rs from time to time.


Apparently, this reclamation project didn’t go as well as wished. However, there are some mitigating circumstances. The big fella was given some burn at the beginning of the season. But then Isaiah Stewart emerged so quickly that he couldn’t be kept on the bench any longer, taking Jahlil’s backup big man minutes as quickly as he took Detroit fans’ hearts and minds. In addition, Okafor was dealing with a knee injury. Thus, only at the end of the season was the former Dukie able to hit his stride… if you can call seven last games of the season a stride.

In those seven games, he averaged 8.1 PPG, on 63.2% shooting from the field in just 17 minutes of action. If he could reproduce those figures during the whole season, and up them proportionally to more playing time, he could be seen as an instant scoring big of the bench in the mold of a (poor man’s) Montrezl Harrell, though maybe relying on some other tricks as Jahlil is less productive in P&Rs (0.95 PPP, 25th percentile) in which Harrell excels.

Will he stay or will he go?

The question is: will Detroit need this type of scoring punch for its bench mob? It seems that his skills are most productive when paired with a guard that can do a little bit of everything but doesn’t tend to monopolize anything. Thus, he had plus-offensive ratings with were with Rodney McGruder (136.4 in just 11 minutes) and Cory Joseph (108.2 in 41 minutes). It may be too much to ask in a case of a team that might be heavy invested in developing a whole platoon of young guards, who didn’t do well when paired with the Dukie last year, on its bench.

There’s also the problem of a fistful of big prospects – Sandro Mamukelashvili, E.J. Onu, Detroiter Isaiah Jackson, JT Thor, Charles Bassey, Day’Ron Sharpe, Greg Brown, to name a few – that Motor City can draft with its three second-round picks. Some of them might turn out to emerge fast in the pros, which again would deprive Okafor of the opportunity to develop his big scorer of the bench potential.

Even though Jahlil Okafor probably won’t be able to reclaim the full value of the third pick – today’s game has changed too much for the five spot – with his new use of old skills, he can find some niche for himself, especially when he’ll be able to mash it with extending his shooting beyond the arc. All it might take is stay healthy and get more playing time. Whether it could happen with the Pistons will depend on some factors that are out of his hands. I’d say its 50/50 he’ll stay.

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